Report back from Paris: What the new climate deal means – and where we go from here

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The United Nations climate agreement in Paris, and the intense negotiations leading up to it, were a breakthrough in a number of important ways.

First of all, the agreement represents the coming of age of climate diplomacy. It was evident from the beginning that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who chaired the talks, had the full trust and confidence of the room.

He artfully identified a zone of agreement among 196 delegations that gave nearly everyone something they wanted without crossing red lines.

The agreement was also the culmination of months of bilateral diplomacy at the highest levels, most visibly between the U.S. and China. The direct involvement of President Obama and other world leaders was critical to success – and shows a strategic savvy and leader-level involvement that we haven’t seen in past climate talks.

But it’s the language of the agreement itself, and the broad backing it received, that makes it such a big deal. It means that we now have a chance – not a guarantee, but a chance – to put the world on a healthier path.

What COP21 achieved

We know that the COP21 commitments so far will not deliver all the emissions reductions we need. That’s why the heart of the deal is the process it establishes to review countries’ progress toward meeting their commitments, and to ratchet up ambition over time.

The Paris deal:

  • Lays out a common, transparent, and legally binding framework for countries to report their emissions regularly and undergo a technical expert review.
  • Includes regular assessments and strengthening of commitments every five years, beginning in 2020. 
  • Includes strong provisions against double-counting of emissions reductions, to make sure that every ton of emissions reductions is only counted once — a critical safeguard for environmental integrity.

That strong framework for transparency and review is critical because it will provide the accountability needed to keep pressure on countries to meet their commitments. And it will send a strong signal to energy producers, world markets and governments that the future lies in clean energy.

As a result, it will drive investments, policy choices and a fundamental shift in decision-making. As an economist, I’ve seen it over and over again: Once strong rules are in place, the money follows.

187 countries, 99% of emissions onboard 

Critics have complained that the deal does not penalize countries that don’t meet their emission targets. But the greater flexibility inherent in that non-binding approach made possible the most striking aspect of the Paris outcome: the broad participation underlying the agreement.

As of today, 187 countries covering almost 99 percent of global emissions have submitted commitments to take action on climate.  Joining them were more than 120 states, provinces and cities that made strong commitments of their own – along with many of the world’s largest companies.

The Paris conference did not create this wave of momentum on climate action – but it will provide an important boost to keep it going.

With an eye toward markets

The unsung hero of the agreement, meanwhile, is a set of provisions that encourages the use of markets to drive up investment in clean energy and drive down pollution.

You won’t find the word “markets” in the text.  But that is what the agreement is referring to, when it lays out clear rules for “cooperative approaches that involve the use of internationally transferred mitigation outcomes.”

By affirming a role for this powerful tool, the agreement recognizes the realities already on the ground, where emission trading systems are already at work in more than 50 places that are home to nearly 1 billion people. 

What’s more, the deal strikes the right balance between “bottom-up” and “top-down.” Carbon markets will continue to be driven and shaped by national priorities. The UN’s role will be limited to providing clear guidance to ensure that when countries choose to use markets internationally, the  emissions reductions are correctly tracked and accounted for.

The role of markets may not be in this week’s headlines – but a decade from now, it will be one of the enduring legacies of Paris.

Next: Keeping up the pressure

Over the course of the two-week long conference, I and my colleagues from Environmental Defense Fund walked the halls and worked the delegation rooms, talking with reporters, negotiators and fellow activists.

We pushed for accountability, transparency, forest protection, an opening for markets, regular strengthening of national commitments – and, above all, for an agreement that would actually make a significant difference for the climate.

Together, we made progress because the nations of the world – developed and developing, north and south, large and small – moved beyond the old excuses for delay and pledged substantial cuts in the pollution that is damaging our climate.

When Fabius finally brought the gavel down on Saturday evening, formally adopting the agreement, I was sitting with hundreds of other attendees in a packed meeting room at the conference site, watching on closed-circuit TV.

We were bone-tired after a week of late nights and little sleep, but the mood was ebullient.

Three days later, the exhaustion has begun to fade. But the ebullience remains, along with the sense that we were witness to a transformative moment.

Now it’s up to all of us to keep up the pressure on nations – and to deliver on the promise of the Paris agreement.

Nat Keohane

Nat Keohane

Nat Keohane, an economist, is EDF's Vice President for Global Climate.

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I hope we will be able to get the most out of this chance and that the job these days will translate into real results, and not only wishes. Will humanity have another chance after this?