After decades of failed attempts, a global climate change agreement was reached at the UN Climate Conference in Paris (COP 21) on Saturday. The deal, known as the Paris Agreement, marks the first time in history that all member nations agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in some way.
In the past, only developed economies like the US and EU were required to act while less developed economies like India and China were exempt. This was one of the major reasons why previous attempts to reach a worldwide climate agreement failed. The more universal approach used this time was largely attributed to, and builds on, last year’s bi-lateral climate pact between the US and China – the worlds two largest carbon polluters.
More than a year in the making, this hard won agreement has set the target of holding global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels and urged countries to pursue an even tighter cap of 1.5°C (2.7°F) if possible. To achieve this goal, it employs a mix of voluntary and legally binding actions. While every country will follow their own emissions reduction plan, there is no requirement quantifying the amount of greenhouse gases they have cut or how it has to be done. Additionally, there are no penalties for those who do not live up to their promises. Based on the current collection of national plans, which vary widely in ambition, this agreement will only cut greenhouse gas emissions by about half of what is necessary to reach the 2°C (3.6°F) goal. But, the agreement does legally obligate countries to reconvene every five years to present updated plans spelling out how they will deepen their emissions cuts. It also requires countries to publically report how much emissions they have actually eliminated compared to their plans every five years starting in 2023.
The ultimate outcome of this historic deal will not be known for years to come, especially since it depends heavily on the tactic of “name and shame” and the hope that no country wants to be seen as a slacker in the eyes of the world. It is also deeply dependent on the actions of future government officials who will have to carry out these plans. That said, the global participation and overall spirit of the agreement is, without a doubt, a solid step in the right direction in terms of addressing climate change. The Paris Agreement goes into effect in 2020.