Representatives from 196 nations made a historic pact Saturday, agreeing to adopt green energy sources, cut down on climate change emissions and limit the rise of global temperatures — while also cooperating to help on another cope with the impact of unavoidable climate change.
The final draft of the agreement, which was released to the public over the weekend, represents the culmination of more than two decades of United Nations climate talks. As the document states, climate change “represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet” that can only be addressed through “the widest possible cooperation by all countries” and “deep reductions in global emissions.”
While the deal still needs to be adopted and carried out by individual governments, attendees are already hailing it as “the single most important collective action for addressing climate change” ever agreed upon.
Here’s a closer look at the key points of this historic agreement:
THE LONG-TERM GOAL
The long-term objective of the agreement is to make sure global warming stays “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and to “pursue efforts” to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Temperatures have already increased by about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times. Scientists have warned that a rise in global temperatures beyond 2 degrees Celsius would trigger the most devastating effects of climate change, such as intolerable drought, mass migration and superstorms.
With mounting evidence that climate change is happening much faster than previously thought and resulting in more severe consequences, a growing number of experts have suggested limiting the rise to less than 1.5 degrees, since even that level of warming is projected to bring dire outcomes, especially to poorer nations. To achieve that goal, governments pledged to stop the rise in heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible.” By some point after 2050, the agreement says, man-made emissions should be reduced to a level that forests and oceans can absorb.
In order to reach the long-term goal, countries agreed to set national targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions every five years. More than 180 countries have already submitted targets for the first cycle beginning in 2020. Only developed countries are expected to slash their emissions in absolute terms; developing nations are “encouraged” to do so as their capabilities evolve over time. Until then, they are expected only to rein in the growth of emissions as their economies develop.
The initial targets won’t be enough to put the world on a path to meet the long-term temperature goal. So the agreement asks governments to review their targets in the next four years and see if they can “update” them. That doesn’t require governments to deepen their cuts, but the underlying assumption is that it will be possible for them to do so as renewable energy sources become more affordable and effective.
There is no penalty for countries that miss their emissions targets, but the agreement has transparency rules to help encourage countries to actually do what they say they will do. As The New York Times explains, countries will be legally required to set goals to reduce carbon emissions, meet every five years beginning in 2023 and “to monitor and report on their emissions levels and reductions, using a universal accounting system.” However, the plan does allow for some “flexibility” for developing countries that “need it.”
The agreement says wealthy countries should continue to offer financial support to help poor countries reduce their emissions and adapt to climate change. It also encourages other countries to pitch in on a voluntary basis. That paves the way for emerging economies such as China to contribute, even though it doesn’t require them to do so. Actual dollar amounts were kept out of the agreement itself, but wealthy nations had previously pledged to provide $100 billion annually in climate finance by 2020.
LOSS AND DAMAGE
In a small victory for the tiny island nations facing the most urgent threats from rising sea levels, the agreement includes a section recognizing “loss and damage” associated with climate-related disasters. The U.S. long objected to addressing the issue in the agreement, worried that it would lead to claims of compensation for damage caused by extreme weather events. In the end, the issue was included, but a footnote specifically stated that loss and damage does not involve liability or compensation.