Historic Paris deal puts globe on path to limit warming to 1.5 C

Pascal Van/Flikr

By Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America / Dec. 12, 2015

Climate negotiators in Paris have approved a historic agreement that would put the world on a pathway to keeping the global average temperature rise above pre-industrial levels “well below” 2 degrees Celsius while “pursuing efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5 C.”

Nearly 200 nations took part in the COP21 talks in Paris, working for the past two weeks on a deal to mitigate the worst effects of global warming, a process of change which has already begun to impact some of the world’s most vulnerable communities through extreme weather, rising seas, and drought.

The final draft was presented Saturday by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius before being subsequently approved Saturday afternoon by 195 nations in a suburb outside the French capital.

Before the agreement officially goes into effect, it must be ratified by at least 55 individual countries. It is the first agreement that asks all countries to collectively tackle the problem of global warming, a major shift in U.N. talks that previously included pledges only by rich, not poor, nations.

“Our responsibility to history is immense,” Fabius told thousands of officials, including President François Hollande and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in the main hall of the conference venue on the outskirts of Paris. “If we were to fail, how could we rebuild this hope?” he asked. “Our children would not understand or forgive us.”

“The landmark agreement for the planet, it’s now. It’s rare in life to have the opportunity to change the world,” Hollande tweeted after the agreement was approved.

In the Paris agreement, the world agreed to eliminate net human-caused greenhouse gases by the second half of the century – a goal that would be achieved by a combination of reducing emissions and increasing capacity of natural carbon sinks like forests that remove those gases from the atmosphere.

Carbon markets, which provide economic incentives for businesses and governments to lower emissions by creating a tangible cost to use of carbon, would also be established as part of the agreement, the accord said.

However, the national pledges from each country detailing cuts to emissions and measures to mitigate climate change – which were collected at the beginning of the climate talks — were not ambitious enough to put the world on a pathway of the agreed upon goal of limiting warming to well below 2 C, the final document says. As a result, the accord included the establishment of a timetable for future meetings, including a key United Nations climate conference to be held in 2018, which will be a target by which the constituent countries of the globe are to pledge even more ambitious mechanisms for slashing emissions.

Also in 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to release a report on how to limit global warming to 1.5 C, the draft said.

“This is a floor not a ceiling, a beginning and not an end. It gives us a strong foundation but there’s hard work ahead,” Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Al Jazeera from Paris. “We’re making progress at the national level but we have to keep fighting for what we want and against what we don’t want,” Meyer added.

Other environmental groups echoed that sentiment, saying that while Saturday’s accord was an important step on the path to drastically reducing carbon emissions, it was not a sufficient milestone absent continued collective action.

“Now comes the great task of this century,” said Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace. “How do we meet this new goal?” Naidoo said that while the cuts to emissions still fell short, the progress was nonetheless important. “This deal alone won’t dig us out the hole we’re in, but it makes the sides less steep.”

For nations that face the possibility of forced migration as a result of the effects of climate change, the fact that the accord acknowledges an aim to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 C was something to celebrate.

The lower warming limit was largely unheard of a few months ago, with the United Nations and many scientists targeting the more conservative target of 2 C as a sufficient level to avert the very worst effects of climate change.

But low-lying coastal countries like the Marshall Islands, an atoll nation in the Pacific Ocean that stands barely six feet higher than sea level and has faced increasingly severe impacts from rising seas and flooding, 2 C is viewed as an existential threat.

The world has already warmed by 1 C since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and is on a pathway to nearly 3 C rise by the end of the century absent major changes. At 3 C, climate and social scientists believe the world is likely to experience massive migration crises, food shortages and increased conflict.

For Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony De Brum, the pact’s identification of a 1.5 C long-term target meant he could go home and tell his people they had a fighting chance to save their atoll nation from a rising ocean.

“I think we’re done here,” De Brum told reporters on Saturday before the final approval, after negotiating well into the night Friday with other officials to finalize the draft.

Ahead of the talks, the Marshall Islands was among 42 other nations most susceptible to the effects of climate change in a group called the Climate Vulnerable Forum, who together campaigned for the lower limit which has now been codified in the final agreement.

The Climate Vulnerable Forum “brought the discussion of limiting 1.5 degrees C to Paris,” Stephen Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International, said in a press release Saturday. “Bit by bit, there are indications that the era of fossil fuels is coming to an end.”

The accord sets out a plan for developed nations to contribute public and private funds totaling U.S. $100 billion per year from 2020 to 2025. The fund will enhance developing nations’ ability to mitigate and adapt to global warming. Poor nations have long complained of being forced to pay for the policies of rich nations, whose relatively larger emissions over time have played an outsized role in the quickening pace of climate change and the scope of the problem.

“Vulnerable communities require scaled-up assistance to cope with these impacts,” a press release by the Union of Concerned Scientists said Saturday.

Despite the ambition of the agreement, some criticized the fact that it would not be a fully legally binding treaty.

“The major barrier we face is that we don’t have a Congress that’s ready to lead,” said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a press release Saturday.

The Republican Party in the U.S. is comprised of many legislators who are openly skeptical of climate science, and a vast majority oppose plans consistent with the Paris accord which require sharp curbs to carbon emissions. The Republican-controlled Senate has resisted President Obama’s efforts to tackle the problem, and would be unlikely to support the administration going forward in the form of a legally binding treaty.

Other criticisms of Saturday’s agreement came from indigenous and human rights advocates who condemned the omission of those rights from all actionable sections of the final agreement.

Although linking fighting climate change to the protection of international human rights, including those of indigenous groups, were mentioned in the preamble of the agreement, there won’t be specific mechanisms to hold top polluters accountable for human rights violations stemming from climate change.

The Indigenous Environment Network, a coalition of North American native groups, worried that the lack of these protections could, for example, impinge upon the rights of communities living in forests, areas that are targeted to aid the capture of carbon.

Dallas Goldtooth, a campaign organizer for the Indigenous Environment Network, said local indigenous communities would continue to organize grassroots actions to protect their traditional territories with or without the support of political leaders.

For all of the perceived shortcomings of the draft among some environmental and human rights activists, however, including over the vague nature of some of the commitments pledged by constituent nations and the omission of other protections, environmental campaigners were largely laudatory of Saturday’s landmark accord.

“The Paris Agreement has the power to send loud, clear signals to economic markets that there’s no turning back from the transition to a zero-carbon economy. The agreement will be good for people, good for the economy, and good for the planet,” Andrew Steer, president of World Resources Institute, said in a press release.

With wire services

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