How the Paris Climate Deal Happened and Why It Matters

World leaders set a high bar for climate action, striking a deal in Paris that well exceeds their action plans. But transparency, verification and peer pressure could close the gap

4 min read
How the Paris Climate Deal Happened and Why It Matters
Photo: Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

One month after the terror attacks that traumatized Paris, the city has produced a climate agreement that is being hailed as a massive expression of hope. On Monday the U.K. Guardian dubbed the Paris Agreement, “the world’s greatest diplomatic success.” Distant observers may be tempted to discount such effusive language as hyperbole, yet there are reasons to be optimistic that last weekend’s climate deal finally sets the world on course towards decisive mutual action against global climate change. 

The birthing process clearly sets Paris apart from earlier efforts at global climate action, such as the Kyoto Protocol crafted in 1997. Only last-minute intervention by then U.S. Vice President Al Gore clinched a deal at Kyoto, and its impact faded as first the United States and then other major producers of greenhouse gases declined to ratify the treaty or dropped out. 

High-level diplomacy to secure a Paris deal, in contrast, began building in earnest last year with a bilateral climate agreement between U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s Xi Jinping—representing the largest climate polluters and, respectively, the developed and developing worlds. Global buy-in grew over the following 12 months as one nation after another anted in with their own emissions reduction plans. “Heading into Paris, more than 180 countries producing more than 90 percent of global emissions had submitted [pledges], a much broader response than many had anticipated,” according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES).

Broad political backing was then decisively reaffirmed on day one of the two-week talks, which 150 world leaders attended in the largest single-day gathering ever of heads of state. Their presence empowered negotiators to move beyond entrenched positions according to the Guardian’s deal-making narrative. Angela Merkel secured a personal pledge from Vladimir Putin that major oil and gas exporter Russia would not block a deal. Obama huddled with Xi Jinping and Indian president Narendra Modi, as well as with leaders of some of the least developed and thus most vulnerable of the 196 nations present. 

Developing high-level trust helped overcome the toughest disagreements, according to The Guardian, after a “coalition of high ambition” formed in the final days between less-developed countries and some big developed countries, including Canada. The latter, often seen as a deal-blocker at earlier climate talks, came to Paris with new marching order after October elections in which Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau defeated the Conservative Party led by the Albertan oil and gas supporter Stephen Harper.

Ultimately every nation counted because any one could have squelched the consensus-based negotiations. As Guardian correspondent Fiona Harvey writes, “most modern diplomacy carries on in small, self-selected groups dominated by richer countries—the G7, the G20, the OECD, Opec.” The annual UN climate talks are, "one of the last remaining forums in the world where every country, however small, is represented on the same basis and has equal say with the biggest economies.”

A second major distinction for the Paris Agreement—and one that secured support from small island nations—is that this climate deal is pegged to scientifically-defined climate targets. Whereas the Kyoto Protocol’s emissions reduction goals reflected political viability, the central stated purpose of the Paris Agreement is to “hold global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 C.” 

Both targets derive from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Holding warming to 2 C is the scientific body’s consensus threshold for avoiding “catastrophic” impacts, which it says will require complete elimination of carbon emissions in the second half of the 21st Century. Faster action is required to meet the more stringent 1.5 C limit, which is the maximum warming allowable if small island nations are to be saved from sea level rise. 

Prior to the Paris meeting few players were talking seriously about the 1.5 C limit, and rapidly-industrializing and coal-dependent China and India held out against its inclusion until the meeting’s final days. They ultimately accepted it in exchange for other provisions, such as a guarantee that developed countries will provide $100 billion per year to help developing countries comply with the deal and adapt to climate change. As Prime Minister Modi puts it: “Climate justice won.” 

World leaders agreed to these science-based criteria for success knowing full well that they were not yet capable of hitting the targets. The pre-Paris action plans their nations submitted were estimated to put the world on a path for a temperature rise of 2.7 C or greater

However, the deal includes antidotes to this apparent “reality gap,” creating mechanisms for assessing national action plans, verifying progress towards achieving them, and regularly increasing their ambition. These pathways for future emissions reductions are the number one source of post-Paris optimism for Jennifer Morgan, global director for the climate program at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization. 

Instead of defining legally-binding reductions for a set period as the Kyoto Protocol had—and thus setting the Paris Agreement on a path to similarly circumscribed impact—the Paris Agreement requires nations to set their own plans for emissions reductions. But it also demands that they update and tighten their plans regularly, and calls for transparent mechanisms for reporting and verifying progress.

By 2020 and every five years thereafter, wrote Morgan in a blog post early this week, countries will submit more ambitious action plans. There will also be a five-year global review of collective progress. The numbers will be both transparent, and verifiable. “Universal and harmonized accounting, reporting and verification requirements will hold all countries accountable,” according to Morgan. 

Elliot Diringer, C2ES’ executive vice president, agrees: “This cycle of commitment—tell us what you’ll do, show us you’re doing it, tell us what you’ll do next—will strengthen confidence that all countries are doing their fair share. And that will make it easier for each to do more.” 

One final reason to believe that the Paris Agreement is worth more than its papier: the reaction of global stock markets, where coal firms sank and renewable stocks surged on Monday in response to the deal.“The transition to clean energy will take place on a long and bumpy road, but investors appear to be taking the transition seriously,” noted yesterday.

Reuters cited several analysts whose views captured the market assessment, including a note from London-based financial services firm Barclays that summed up the deal thusly: "We think the Paris agreement represents a strong outcome and will therefore help boost the long-term fundamentals of the capital-goods and low-carbon power-generation sectors while weakening the long-term fundamentals of fossil-fuel industries."

Even Greenpeace—the environmental movement’s most respectable outsiders—took a moment to be (semi) hopeful in a statement by Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International: “It sometimes seems that the countries of the UN can unite on nothing, but nearly 200 countries have come together and agreed a deal. Today, the human race has joined in a common cause… The deal alone won’t dig us out of the hole that we’re in, but it makes the sides less steep.”

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