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All the Reasons the Paris Agreement is a Huge Freaking Deal for the Climate

The world collectively agreed to combat global warming with the signing of the first international climate treaty Saturday in Paris.

This is a historic moment. Breathe a sigh of relief everyone. This is good news.

It doesn’t mean the work is done — not by a long shot — and that’s surely something pundits, politicians, campaigners and scientists alike will go to great lengths to hammer home for the foreseeable future.

But it does mean that nearly 200 hundred countries have agreed to work together. What’s more, they’ve more or less agreed on the basis of science and that only came about after a monumental amount of time, energy, diplomacy, negotiation, steadfastness and compromise were all thrown into a giant airport hangar on the outskirts of Paris.

Such accomplishments are not come by lightly. This is as much an important victory for the climate as it is for international diplomacy. Way to go, world.

It sounded like this when it happened:

We all know the vaaaaast majority of people will never take a gander at the actual text of the agreement. But it’s chock-a-block full of really important details that will determine how countries will move forward back home after they depart from the chic Charles de Gaulle airport.

Here are some key high- and lowlights, for your overviewing pleasure.

The 1.5 Goal Post

You’ve probably heard before that, according to scientists and policy makers, the world needs to prevent temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to avoid catastrophic global warming.

Well, there’s new science in which indicates that catastrophe-threshold is actually more like 1.5 degrees of warming. At least, that’s very much the case for low-lying island or Arctic nations where the effects of climate change are hitting first and hitting hard.

Heeding that new scientific research, more than 100 countries descended on Paris with a new, stronger goal in mind. These countries, mostly smaller nations, worked extremely hard over the last two weeks to bring big, wealthy nations into the 1.5 camp.

The final agreement doesn’t enforce that hard 1.5 line, but it commits nations to the aim of keeping temperatures to “well below 2C” and to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C.”

So, not the outcome many hoped for, but undoubtedly a step in the right direction and one that demonstrates some agility when it comes to adapting relatively quickly to what the science is saying.

Au Revoir, Fossil Fuels

The agreement also commits countries to limit their greenhouse gas emissions and that means limiting the burning of fossil fuels.

A total of 186 countries submitted pledges in the lead-up to Paris that outline how they plan on reducing domestic emissions — usually through a combination of rules, market mechanisms (like carbon taxes or cap and trade), technologies like carbon capture and storage and new targets for renewable energy.

However, the current pledges are not nearly strong enough to meet the climate goal outlined in the agreement.

According to pledge reviewers, what those countries have collectively proposed puts us on track for nearly three degrees of warming.

The agreement includes a long-term emissions goal, to peak carbon emissions “as soon as possible” with the aim of achieving net-zero emissions after 2050. Yet how countries will achieve this isn’t proscribed in the agreement (which makes sense given every country will have to sketch out their own plan).

The agreement mentions the net-zero emissions target will ‘balance’ greenhouse gas emissions and sinks. Basically this provides opportunity for countries to continue to emit if they offset those emissions through, say, planting tress or using carbon capture and storage.

For more detail on just what ‘balance’ might mean, check out this great explainer of the text by Carbon Brief.

Countries to Strengthen Targets Every Five Years

One of the quagmire issues during the last two weeks of negotiations had to do with what’s called a ‘ratchet mechanism,' which addresses how countries will report on and strengthen their internal climate promises in a transparent way going forward.

The Paris agreement includes rules that require countries to renew their pledges every five years in an open process that ensures bad actors will be called out for not doing their fair share.

These five-year reviews, all countries agreed, should be done to keep pledges in line with the best available science. The start date for addressing this process is 2018 with a commitment to roll out new pledges and conduct reviews in 2023.

The review process is meant to be “facilitative, non-intrusive, non-punitive.”

How the Rich and Poor Will Work Together

Without getting to deep into the weeds here, another major issue the agreement had to address was how bloody expensive climate change is already because of losses (like Bangladesh literally loosing coastline) and damages (like flash floods from extreme weather events wreaking havoc in countries like India).

Poorer, developing nations — who aren’t responsible for much of the last century’s emissions — wanted wealthy, big polluting nations to help pay for some of these damages.

The agreement sets out in detail what developing countries can consider under a ‘loss and damage’ article.

But the deal stops short of holding rich countries liable for compensation to developing nations — something the United States and other countries said was an explicit no-go for them.

Financing the Clean Energy Revolution

It’s also super expensive to overhaul energy systems, if you’ve already got them, or to build them, if you haven’t.

The agreement commits rich countries to providing climate finance to poor countries and gives other, less well-off countries the option to pitch in.

Countries have until 2025 to figure out how they’re going to provide at least $100 billion to the Green Climate Fund, to help countries develop renewable energy resources, according to the agreement.

A number of promising coalitions were launched in Paris that demonstrate how this finance will be used. One of the most exciting initiatives is probably the African Renewable Energy Initiative that brought together more than $10 billion from developing countries to help the continent ‘leapfrog’ directly to renewable energy.

Tomorrow’s Work Remains

As the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said to world leaders this evening in Paris, “We have an agreement. It is a good agreement. You should all be proud.”

“Now we must stay united — and bring the same spirit to the crucial test of implementation,” he said. 

“That work starts tomorrow.”

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Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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