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COP21 Agreement Makes History, But Not Everyone Is Happy

Over the weekend, 195 nations reached a landmark agreement at COP21 in Paris to fight climate change and unleash actions and investment towards a low carbon, resilient and sustainable future.

The Paris Agreement, for the first time, brings all nations into a common cause based on their historic, current and future responsibilities. Its main aim is to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The 1.5 degree Celsius limit is a significantly safer defense line against the worst impacts of a changing climate.

"The Paris agreement establishes the enduring framework the world needs to solve the climate crisis," President Barack Obama said, speaking from the White House. "It creates the mechanism, the architecture, for us to continually tackle this problem in an effective way."

"I believe this moment can be a turning point for the world," Obama said, calling the agreement "the best chance we have to save the one planet that we've got."

What the Deal Does

The Paris Agreement and the outcomes of COP21 cover all the crucial areas identified as essential for a landmark conclusion:

  • Mitigation: reducing emissions fast enough to achieve the temperature goal
  • A transparency system and global stock-take: accounting for climate action
  • Adaptation: strengthening ability of countries to deal with climate impacts
  • Loss and damage: strengthening ability to recover from climate impacts
  • Support: including finance, for nations to build clean, resilient futures

As well as setting a long-term direction, countries will peak their emissions as soon as possible and continue to submit national climate action plans that detail their future objectives to address climate change.

The new agreement also establishes the principle that future national plans will be no less ambitious than existing ones, which means these 188 climate action plans provide a firm floor and foundation for higher ambition.

"Paris begins a new, more ambitious chapter in the history of climate action. The era of delay is over. We're in the race of our lives — and we're acting on that knowledge,” Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement.

"If this breakthrough happens, it will be because the nations of the world — developed and developing, north and south, large and small — moved beyond the old excuses for delay and pledged substantial cuts in the pollution that is damaging our climate.”

The Paris agreement won’t deliver all the emissions reductions that are needed, but it provides a framework to ramp up ambition over time: a transparent system for reporting and review, regular assessments of progress, and strengthening of commitments every five years beginning in 2020.

"These provisions and related language on 'cooperative approaches' are critical and should not be overlooked,” Krupp said. “They open the door for the powerful role markets must play in driving emissions down and innovation up.”

One of the most promising aspects of the deal is that it matches ambition with accountability by outlining a credible, transparent process for cooperative climate action among national and subnational groups. Due to the fact the agreement explicitly forbids double-counting of emissions reductions, governments and markets can move forward with more confidence.

Developing Nations ‘Shortchanged’ on Climate Finance

Another key component of the Paris agreement is putting in place financial flows to help developing countries and the most vulnerable to take stronger climate action, in line with their own national objectives.

The agreement includes plans to mobilize funds for climate finance, from a wide variety of public and private sources, building on the commitment made in Copenhagen and doubling the U.S. commitment to adaptation finance. This funding will help developing nations get on the clean energy path and creates an enormous business opportunity for the renewable energy industry in the U.S., China and elsewhere.

What's Missing

But not everyone was happy with the final agreement, especially its treatment of financing for climate resilience in the world’s poorest regions.

Global development nonprofit Oxfam said the deal has “short-changed” the poorest and most vulnerable people as they struggle with the burgeoning reality of rising sea-levels, floods and drought.

“This deal offers a frayed life-line to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people,” Oxfam Executive Director Helen Szoke said in a statement. “Only the vague promise of a new future climate funding target has been made, while the deal does not force countries to cut emissions fast enough to forestall a climate change catastrophe. This will only ramp up adaptation costs further in the future.”

A recent study by Oxfam found that developing countries will need to pay an additional $270 billion more each year to adapt to the impacts of climate change if COP21 failed to elicit increased global pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Rainforest Action Network (RAN) said it views it with “both hope and disappointment.”

“We are encouraged at the recognition that deforestation and forest degradation play a critical role in the climate crisis, yet greatly disheartened at the lack of binding inclusion for Indigenous and human rights in the agreement,” said RAN Executive Director Lindsey Allen. “We are hopeful that promises of addressing the loss and damage experienced by developing nations will become a reality, but this will require the full participation of wealthier nations many of whom have an even worse environmental track record.”

Work to Be Done

While the Paris agreement, flaws and all, deserves to be celebrated, this is only the beginning of a long international journey to climate change mitigation.

“This is not a moment for triumphalism given the lives that have been lost already as a result of climate impacts, and the lives that are on the precipice as temperatures rise,” Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo said in a statement. “This is a time for urgent action. The climate clock is ticking and the window of opportunity is closing fast.”


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