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Historical International Climate Agreement Signed! A foundation for big steps in the right direction

On December 12, 2015 nearly 200 countries agreed for the first time in history to take action to curb climate change. The Paris Agreement sets an upper limit for warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with a goal of 1.5 degrees. The main mechanism for achieving this is through voluntary reductions in emissions, to be determined by each country individually. These are called “intended nationally determined contributions” or INDCs. Scientists and the Paris Agreement itself note that keeping global temperature in these bounds will be challenging, but crucially necessary to protect communities, economies, and ecosystems. The world has already warmed by approximately 1degree Celsius and, although the current INDCs pledged by countries would bring warming down from a trajectory that would likely exceed 4 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, it would still be well above the 2° C limit. The Agreement requires INDCs to be adjusted, and reviewed every 5 years.

It is important to note though that the Paris Agreement does more than set targets and create a forum for cooperation and review. It creates new international bodies to facilitate capacity building, transparency, and consistent use of carbon accounting methodologies. Those groups are also authorized to work with environmental organizations, regional coalitions, and subnational governments—like California, to bridge gaps in adaptation and mitigation. It creates new mandates for scientific investigation. In the next two years, the IPCC will more closely examine the implications of a 1.5° C world and provide guidance to pathways to achieve that goal. The Agreement requests yet another body to study “loss and damage” resulting from climate change to vulnerable countries. And, the Agreement creates mechanism for transferring adaptation funds and technology to developing countries.

There are still important sources of GHG emissions that are left outside of the scope of the Agreement. Notably, international shipping, which accounts for approximately 3% of global GHG emissions—more than the entire country of Germany—was left out of the final agreement, although it did appear in earlier drafts.

Nonetheless, the Agreement is the first of its kind and provides a foundation for future bigger steps toward a safer climate. The next decade is a critical time to ramp up climate friendly technologies, policies, and practices, and ramp down fossil fuel emissions. There’s a lot of work to do in the next few years. And after decades of inadequate progress alternating with setbacks, we finally have a foundation to do it.

Post last edited on: 2015 December 14

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