How the Paris Climate Deal Happened and Why It Matters

One month after the terror attacks that traumatized Paris, the city has produced a climate agreement that is being hailed as a massive expression of hope. On Monday the U.K. Guardian dubbed the Paris Agreement, “the world’s greatest diplomatic success.” Distant observers may be tempted to discount such effusive language as hyperbole, yet there are reasons to be optimistic that last weekend’s climate deal finally sets the world on course towards decisive mutual action against global climate change.

The birthing process clearly sets Paris apart from earlier efforts at global climate action, such as the Kyoto Protocol crafted in 1997. Only last-minute intervention by then U.S. Vice President Al Gore clinched a deal at Kyoto, and its impact faded as first the United States and then other major producers of greenhouse gases declined to ratify the treaty or dropped out.

High-level diplomacy to secure a Paris deal, in contrast, began building in earnest last year with a bilateral climate agreement between U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s Xi Jinping—representing the largest climate polluters and, respectively, the developed and developing worlds. Global buy-in grew over the following 12 months as one nation after another anted in with their own emissions reduction plans. “Heading into Paris, more than 180 countries producing more than 90 percent of global emissions had submitted [pledges], a much broader response than many had anticipated,” according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES).

Broad political backing was then decisively reaffirmed on day one of the two-week talks, which 150 world leaders attended in the largest single-day gathering ever of heads of state. Their presence empowered negotiators to move beyond entrenched positions according to the Guardian’s deal-making narrative. Angela Merkel secured a personal pledge from Vladimir Putin that major oil and gas exporter Russia would not block a deal. Obama huddled with Xi Jinping and Indian president Narendra Modi, as well as with leaders of some of the least developed and thus most vulnerable of the 196 nations present.

Developing high-level trust helped overcome the toughest disagreements, according to The Guardian, after a “coalition of high ambition” formed in the final days between less-developed countries and some big developed countries, including Canada. The latter, often seen as a deal-blocker at earlier climate talks, came to Paris with new marching order after October elections in which Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau defeated the Conservative Party led by the Albertan oil and gas supporter Stephen Harper.

Ultimately every nation counted because any one could have squelched the consensus-based negotiations. As Guardian correspondent Fiona Harvey writes, “most modern diplomacy carries on in small, self-selected groups dominated by richer countries—the G7, the G20, the OECD, Opec.” The annual UN climate talks are, “one of the last remaining forums in the world where every country, however small, is represented on the same basis and has equal say with the biggest economies.”

A second major distinction for the Paris Agreement—and one that secured support from small island nations—is that this climate deal is pegged to scientifically-defined climate targets. Whereas the Kyoto Protocol’s emissions reduction goals reflected political viability, the central stated purpose of the Paris Agreement is to “hold global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 C.”

Both targets derive from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Holding warming to 2 C is the scientific body’s consensus threshold for avoiding “catastrophic” impacts, which it says will require complete elimination of carbon emissions in the second half of the 21st Century. Faster action is required to meet the more stringent 1.5 C limit, which is the maximum warming allowable if small island nations are to be saved from sea level rise.

Prior to the Paris meeting few players were talking seriously about the 1.5 C limit, and rapidly-industrializing and coal-dependent China and India held out against its inclusion until the meeting’s final days. They ultimately accepted it in exchange for other provisions, such as a guarantee that developed countries will provide $100 billion per year to help developing countries comply with the deal and adapt to climate change. As Prime Minister Modi puts it: “Climate justice won.”

World leaders agreed to these science-based criteria for success knowing full well that they were not yet capable of hitting the targets. The pre-Paris action plans their nations submitted were estimated to put the world on a path for a temperature rise of 2.7 C or greater.

However, the deal includes antidotes to this apparent “reality gap,” creating mechanisms for assessing national action plans, verifying progress towards achieving them, and regularly increasing their ambition. These pathways for future emissions reductions are the number one source of post-Paris optimism for Jennifer Morgan, global director for the climate program at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization.

Instead of defining legally-binding reductions for a set period as the Kyoto Protocol had—and thus setting the Paris Agreement on a path to similarly circumscribed impact—the Paris Agreement requires nations to set their own plans for emissions reductions. But it also demands that they update and tighten their plans regularly, and calls for transparent mechanisms for reporting and verifying progress.

By 2020 and every five years thereafter, wrote Morgan in a blog post early this week, countries will submit more ambitious action plans. There will also be a five-year global review of collective progress. The numbers will be both transparent, and verifiable. “Universal and harmonized accounting, reporting and verification requirements will hold all countries accountable,” according to Morgan.

Elliot Diringer, C2ES’ executive vice president, agrees: “This cycle of commitment—tell us what you’ll do, show us you’re doing it, tell us what you’ll do next—will strengthen confidence that all countries are doing their fair share. And that will make it easier for each to do more.”

One final reason to believe that the Paris Agreement is worth more than its papier: the reaction of global stock markets, where coal firms sank and renewable stocks surged on Monday in response to the deal.“The transition to clean energy will take place on a long and bumpy road, but investors appear to be taking the transition seriously,” noted oilprice.com yesterday.

Reuters cited several analysts whose views captured the market assessment, including a note from London-based financial services firm Barclays that summed up the deal thusly: “We think the Paris agreement represents a strong outcome and will therefore help boost the long-term fundamentals of the capital-goods and low-carbon power-generation sectors while weakening the long-term fundamentals of fossil-fuel industries.”

Even Greenpeace—the environmental movement’s most respectable outsiders—took a moment to be (semi) hopeful in a statement by Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International: “It sometimes seems that the countries of the UN can unite on nothing, but nearly 200 countries have come together and agreed a deal. Today, the human race has joined in a common cause… The deal alone won’t dig us out of the hole that we’re in, but it makes the sides less steep.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Obama and Xi Breathe New Qi into Global Climate Talks

Context is everything in understanding the U.S.-China climate deal struck in Beijing by U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week. The deal’s ambitions may fall short of what climate scientists called for in the latest entreaty from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but its realpolitik is important.

Obama and Xi’s accord sets a new target for reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. And for the first time sets a deadline for China’s rising GHGs to peak: 2030. This is potentially strong medicine for cooperation, when seen in the context of recent disappointments for global climate policy. Continue reading

EU Climate Summit Commits to 2030 Carbon Cuts

European leaders wrapped up a two-day climate summit in Brussels last week with a deal to cut the European Union’s total greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels. This would continue a downward trend – the EU is already on track to meet a 20 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020 – but the agreement is weak relative to Europe’s prior ambitions to confront climate change.

Investors in green tech pushed aggressively for the deal, seeking a longterm signal that the European market will continue to reward advances in energy efficiency and low-carbon energy production. The deal is also a shot in the arm for the Paris global climate talks, scheduled for December 2015, which will seek to achieve the decisive binding global targets for greenhouse gas reductions that failed to emerge from the 2009 Cophenhagen climate talks.

What the deal lacks is specificity and ambition regarding the mechanisms by which European countries are to achieve the carbon reduction. “Key aspects of the deal that will form a bargaining position for global climate talks in Paris next year were left vague or voluntary,” reported The Guardian. Continue reading

Renewables to Dethrone Nuclear Under French Energy Plan

After months of negotiation, the French government has unveiled a long-awaited energy plan that is remarkably true to its election promises. The legislation’s cornerstone is the one-third reduction in the role of nuclear power that President François Hollande proposed on the campaign trail in 2012.

Under the plan, nuclear’s share of the nation’s power generation is to drop from 75 percent to 50 percent by 2025, as renewable energy’s role rises from 15 percent today to 40 percent to make up the difference. That is a dramatic statement for France, which is the world’s second largest generator of nuclear energy, after the United States. France has a globally-competitive nuclear industry led by state-owned utility Electricité de France (EDF) and nuclear technology and services giant Areva. Continue reading

Amid Blackouts, India’s New Leader Vows 24-7 Power for All

Blackouts this week in New Delhi and surrounding states are providing a dramatic backdrop for a bold promise by India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist party swept to power in a landslide election last month. As a scorching heatwave drove power consumption beyond the grid’s capacity, Modi’s government vowed to deliver “round-the-clock power for all by 2022,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

That will be an awesome task. Nearly one-quarter of India’s 1.26 billion citizens lack grid access. And India’s utilities have struggled to keep up with demand from those who are connected. Power cuts are frequent. Continue reading

The Debate: Fracking and the Future of Energy

France 24 Energy in 2013 DebateThe Arctic is melting faster than predicted. Is now the time to shut down the low-carbon nuclear power plants in France — the 20th Century’s staunchest proponent of nuclear energy? Is natural gas produced via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ a gift that is buying time for a transition to renewable energy or a curse that reinforces fossil fuel dependence? Will carbon belching heavyweights such as the U.S. and China ever get serious about cleaning up their energy systems?

Such questions are top order in France, whose President kicked off a Grand Débat on energy this month Continue reading

How Canada Should Return Obama’s Oil Pipeline Punt

Late last week President Barack Obama deferred consideration of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, designed to ship Alberta petroleum to the Gulf Coast, until after next year’s U.S. elections. Obama’s move immediately sparked vows in Canada to redirect crude exports to Asian markets less angst-ridden by the environmental impacts associated with tapping Alberta’s tough, tarry petroleum. A smarter strategy would be to reduce those impacts, starting with the black mark that brought Keystone XL to national attention: oil sands crude’s bloated carbon footprint. Continue reading