The world’s nations took the boldest steps yet to stem climate change, adopting an historic package of measures to limit fossil-fuel pollution and establish a mechanism to step up the reductions for decades.
After two weeks of intense negotiations overseen by the United Nations, envoys from 195 nations in Paris on Saturday endorsed a program that also set an ambitious goal to curb temperature increases and set up ways to measure and verify emissions everywhere.
French President Francois Hollande hailed the deal as the “first universal agreement in the history of climate negotiations” and “a major leap for mankind.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who spent days in Paris negotiating, said the deal sends “a critical message to the global marketplace.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called it a “monumental triumph.”
The landmark program applies to all nations, rich and poor. It’s broader than the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which limits greenhouse gas emissions in 37 mostly European nations. Environmentalists said that while the Paris package is a step forward, more action is required to contain temperatures that are on track to set a record in 2015.
The 31-page accord also heals a rift between industrial and developing nations over how to act on climate change that erupted in 2009 when the last big push for a deal dissolved in finger pointing over who should take the first step.
The global average temperature this year is set to be about 1 degree higher than the 1800s for the first time, a quicker shift in the climate than when last ice age ended 10,000 years ago. Researchers say current climate-change pledges would only contain rising temperatures to 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) rather than the 2 degrees backed by the envoys.
“The tightening of the temperature is a momentous achievement,” said Donald MacDonald, chair of the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, a group of 120 funds managing $14 trillion. “Pension funds recognize their fiduciary duty to address climate risk and, where necessary, to reallocate investment away from high carbon-related activity likely to destroy shareholder value.”
The Paris deal consists of a 12-page enduring agreement that would take effect from 2020 and take in voluntary commitments from all nations, expanding on the current treaty in place sealed in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan. So far, 186 countries have made pledges for the Paris deal, with nine yet to submit plans. A 19-page so-called decision text completes the package, setting shorter-term legal provisions.
The new deal also sets out goals on the following:
TEMPERATURE — Calling for temperature increases since the industrial revolution to be limited to 2 degrees Celsius [3.6°F] and for the first time challenging nations to work toward a more aggressive target of 1.5 degrees Celsius [2.7°F].
FOSSIL FUELS — Says nations should work toward “a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.” That means that greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels must be equal to those absorbed by planting trees and the facilities capturing carbon for permanent underground storage.
TRANSPARENCY — Seeks a single system for measuring the emissions of every nation, and for monitoring progress toward their voluntary targets. Every five years, starting in 2018, there would be a global assessment of whether combined efforts are sufficient. From 2020, countries must update old pledges or prepare new ones every five years.
LOSS AND DAMAGE: A key provision sought by island nations who say that changes are already occurring that they can’t adapt to. The new deal sets up a mechanism to provide expert advice, emergency preparedness and insurance. A clause in the decision text says that mechanism will not provide for liability and compensation, paying heed to a red line by the U.S., Japan and European nations.
FINANCE — Developed countries pledged in 2009 to ramp up climate aid to vulnerable ones to an annual $100 billion by 2020. The draft agreement says that from 2020, “climate finance should represent a progression beyond previous efforts,” without mentioning a numerical target. A separate so-called decision document says industrialized nations should continue the existing goal through to 2025, when they would set a new collective goal.
The goals are to send a message to investors and governments that they need to shift away from using oil, natural gas and especially coal, said Alden Meyer, who has followed the talks for more than two decades for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S. advocacy group.
“It sends a very solid signal that demand for fossil fuels is going to be reduced,” Meyer said in Paris. “The industry has to transform itself. You’re seeing that now with the bankruptcies in the coal industry, and this will accelerate that trend in oil.”
Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the deal is bringing developing countries under the umbrella of the program, something the European Union and U.S. insisted on after China and India surged up the ranks of polluting nations.
Architects of the Paris deal want the goals to “ratchet up” over time. The ambitions are currently framed in national commitments on emissions by 2030, or in some cases 2025. The envoys asked scientists to deliver a report in 2018 about how to reach their more aggressive temperature target and put pressure on nations to deepen their greenhouse-gas reductions before 2020.
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