Seven Wrinkles in the Paris Climate Deal

Oscar Reyes, Foreign Policy in Focus, 16/12/15

Will the landmark UN climate deal mark a turning point in the fight against climate change? The devil's in the details.

The headlines from the Paris climate talks tell an inspiring story. Agence France-Pressereported an outbreak of “euphoria” as the international climate accord was sealed. Reutershailed a global “turn from fossil fuels.” The Guardian headlined “a major leap for mankind.”

The celebratory tone is partly relief at the fact that 195 countries managed to agree to any kind of climate deal at all. It drew a stark contrast with the finger-pointing and despair that followed the failed 2009 talks in Copenhagen, which ended with only vague promises to action and left many climate activists pessimistic that negotiators would be able to bridge their differences.

This time, they were. They managed to seal a pact that sets a surprisingly ambitious target for limiting global warming, reflects the vast differences between countries in terms of their different historical and current responsibilities for causing climate change, and recognizes poorer countries’ need to eradicate poverty even as they embark on a more sustainable development path.

Unfortunately, however, the main text of the agreement is long on rhetoric and short on action. Here are seven takeaways from a closer parsing of the deal.

1. Its targets are ambitious, but they’re unlikely to be met.

An extraordinary claim at the heart of the Paris Agreement aims not only at “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2° C above pre-industrial levels” — that’s 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit — but also promises “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C,” or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

In other words, the emission reduction goals from Paris are even more aggressive than the 2-degree baseline promoted by scientists as a means to prevent the worst impacts from climate change

Yet actually achieving the 1.5°C goal is more than even many climate campaigners have the audacity to hope for. It would mean the world would have to stop burning fossil fuels by 2030. Unfortunately, nothing in the Paris deal itself suggests that’s likely to happen. This is even acknowledged in the introductory blurb to the treaty itself, which says that “much greater emissions reduction efforts will be required” to meet even the 2-degree target.

The new agreement doesn’t take effect until 2020, the chance to achieve the 1.5-degree goal will have already gone, unless all of the world’s largest economies dramatically change course.

But big polluters like the United States have been dragging their feet for years — watering down and then abandoning the Kyoto Protocol (which was the last global climate deal),scuppering progress at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen six years ago, and then killing off hopes of new global targets in Durban in 2011. The European Union, which has already met its unambitious 2020 emissions reduction pledge, has been similarly obstructive, refusing to take on more cuts despite falling a long way short of its fair share of global efforts to limit climate change.

Going into Paris, 176 of the world’s 195 countries wrote down what they intended to do to address climate change. But even if all of these promises were met, the world would still be heading for 3 degrees or more of global warming. That would take us into extremely dangerous territory, with rising seas inundating coastal cities and setting off some chain reactions (called “tipping points”) that could fundamentally alter our ability to live on large parts of the planet.

Leaving Paris, that’s still the case.