On Saturday world leaders at a climate conference in Paris agreed a historic deal, intending to limit the rise in global temperatures to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The deal was reached after almost two weeks of negotiations, which commenced on 30 November. Adopted by 196 participants, it marks the first time that all of the countries of the world, both developed and developing nations, have committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.
The Paris Agreement must still be ratified. It will become legally binding only if it is signed by a least 55 countries, who together produce at least 55% of the world’s emissions. The agreement must be signed in the year between 22 April 2016 and 21 April 2017. If ratified, it will come into effect in 2020, with the implementation of the agreement evaluated every five years starting 2023.
More fully, the agreement sets the goal of limiting global warming to ‘well below’ 2°C above pre-industrial levels, asking parties to pursue efforts towards a limit of 1.5°C. The 2°C limit would require zero net greenhouse gas emissions to be reached during the second half of this century; the improved aim of 1.5°C would require zero net emissions sometime sooner, estimated between 2030 and 2050.
While all signatories will be compelled to take measures to achieve the global limit of 2°C, each country will determine individually the nature and the extent of its contribution. The agreement asks that they act as soon as possible and show ambition, but the targets that they set for themselves will be voluntary, with no mechanism by which to force any base level of compliance.
The agreement also indicates $100 billion a year in climate aid for developing countries by 2020: a sum which is scheduled to rise in subsequent years, but once again is not legally binding, remaining dependent on voluntary contributions.
Delegates to the conference cheered as the chair and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius signalled the adoption of the deal. He described it as ‘ambitious and balanced’, stating that the agreement would mark a ‘historic turning point’ in the world’s endeavour to halt warming. The agreement has been widely acclaimed as heralding an end to the fossil fuel era.
But the Paris Agreement has received criticism from some environmentalists. An analysis made during the conference of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) – in effect each country’s proposed climate plan – suggested that these would only limit the global temperature rise to 2.7°C. Others argue that even a 2°C limit will not prove enough to stem urban air pollution, rising water levels, and the acidification of the oceans.
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The Paris Agreement lies within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was negotiated in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, in what was referred to as the ‘Earth Summit’. The UNFCCC marked the international community’s acceptance of the fact of global warming, and its cause by man-made CO2 emissions. Entering into force on 21 March 1994, it set no limitations on greenhouse gas emissions, but rather served to outline the principles and mechanisms by which future agreements could be reached.
The Kyoto Protocol was concluded according to the framework in December 1997. It came into force on 16 February 2005, and obliged developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across an initial commitment period between 2008 and 2012.
A second commitment period was confirmed in 2012, in the Doha Amendment to the protocol, and will last until 2020. The United States failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, describing it as a threat to their economy, while Canada withdrew in December 2012.
The Doha Amendment laid the ground for the Paris Agreement, consolidating the demand for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol by the end of 2015. But it was a belated measure, coming only after a string of relative disappointments.
In particular the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen – commonly known as the Copenhagen Summit – argued for steps to be taken towards limiting the global temperature increase to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. But the document that was produced was ‘taken note of’ but not adopted by the participating countries, and amid general acrimony it contained no binding commitments for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.