In an uplifting follow-up to last week’s article, the international community has finally come together to take a stand against global warming.
On Saturday, December 12th in Paris, France, 195 countries agreed to the first international climate accord in history that holds all nations accountable. The timing here is critical, because we are very close to seeing the average global temperature rise by 2°C since pre-industrial times.
Understandably, this may not seem so dramatic. In our daily lives, 2°C is essentially the difference between needing a scarf or not. However, on a global scale, if our atmospheric temperature rises by 2°C (3.6°F), scientific studies have concluded that as a planet, we will face dire consequences including rising sea levels, severe droughts and flooding, widespread food and water shortages and far more (and more intense) devastating storms. The Paris agreement caps the maximum degree rise at 1.5°C (feasibility notwithstanding).
So what was specifically agreed upon in this historic accord, other than keeping our warming to a 1.5°C minimum? The New York Times has picked some of the more impactful passages from the full text, which touch on forest preservation, developed nations’ responsibility to mobilise climate financial resources, limiting fossil fuel extraction and use, regular national reports every five years, and all parties’ responsibility to be aware of and actively minimise “loss and damage” due to climate change (for example, the disappearance of the Maldives).
The requirement of public national reports from all participating countries every five years is an important way to make sure that everyone is held accountable. Starting in 2023, countries will not only be required to provide updates to their planned programs, but also reports on their efficiency in actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They will also be legally required to monitor and publicly report on their emissions levels and reductions, using a universal accounting system. This seemingly “soft” stipulation – in that it does not mention specific, numerical goals – was particularly important for the United States; if the agreement had included reduction percentages, the text would have had to have been ratified by the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, which of course would never happen. Republican leader of the Senate Mitch McConnell was quoted in the NYT as describing the deal as “unattainable” and “based on a domestic energy plan that is likely illegal, that half the states have sued to halt, and that Congress has already voted to reject.”
Luckily, the international community was able to avoid that unfortunate roadblock to progress. Support from the U.S. was pivotal, as was support from India and China – two other countries that have opposed climate change measures in the past. The Paris Agreement can truly be seen as the moment when the world officially took climate change seriously, and as the beginning of the end of over a century of fossil fuel-driven industry and economic growth.
That being said, this climate deal isn’t enough on its own to truly end global warming. At best, it will cut greenhouse gas emissions by half as much as would be required. There are still many challenges to be faced – developing countries were notably disappointed by the exclusion of the proposed annual budget of US$ 100 billion in aid from developed nations to help in emissions limitation and industry transformation. Progress also depends on a kind of “name and shame” program for international accountability when it comes to the 5-year reports from each country. This is certainly less of a deterrent than, say, sanctions or other concrete restrictive measures.
But it is an incredibly historic moment in that as a whole, humanity has agreed on the absolute necessity to dramatically alter our behaviour in order to preserve our world for future generations. Part of this shifted perspective will hopefully include changed attitudes in the global energy markets by encouraging investment in clean energy sources such as wind and solar, while spurring divestment in fossil fuels. We have had the financial resources to turn the energy industry around for some time – now we might just have the will.
Fossil fuels have definitively been put on the wrong side of history, and as a planet, we have agreed to move forward together to preserve life for future generations.
I know the Paris Agreement has flaws, and I also know that this is only the beginning: France, the U.S., and all of the other 195 countries now have to get to work, and put their diplomatic rhetoric to action; I think we will all be anxiously waiting on the first five year report.
But today, this gives me hope. We might just make it! For ourselves, for the planet, and for everyone’s shared future.