COP21 and the Paris Agreement: Raising our Voices in the Wake of Hope and Uncertainty

Written by Caitlin

There has been a lot in the news lately about what is being called the historic Paris Agreement reached at COP21 earlier in December. Indeed, the headlines sound promising: a total of 195 ended up signing the agreement, including major emitters China, the United States, and India.  But is this really a historical agreement that environmentalists can bank on?

First, some important background information: COP stands for Convention of the Parties, which is the ultimate decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (i.e. the UNFCCC). Upon the creation of the UNFCCC in 1994 (whose goal is to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent major anthropogenic interference with the climate system), participating parties agreed to meet on an annual basis to review both the implementation of the UNFCCC Convention and any other proposals these COPS may adopt; for instance, the new Paris Accord.  

What’s truly historic about the Paris Agreement is its near-universal international acceptance: 195 countries have all universally agreed to greenhouse gas reductions, which has never been achieved by any previous COP. Indeed, the Paris Agreement arguably marks a new era in how countries deal with global issues in the international arena. Specifically, the Paris agreement seeks to limit global temperature growth to below 2 degrees Celsius, with the preferred temperature target being 1.5 degrees. Starting in 2023, governments are to give reports describing their countries progress towards meeting their specific greenhouse gas reduction targets, which will continue indefinitely every 5 years until targets are met.  Developed countries have also pledged to provide 100 billion US dollars per year to developing nations to help them transition to clean energy economies and cope with the impacts of climate change.

Unfortunately, the 1.5-degree target is likely unrealistic.  Given the delay between carbon entering the atmosphere and global temperature change, we have already emitted enough greenhouse gases to cross this temperature threshold, even though global temperature increases have not currently passed this threshold. Furthermore, the economic and political changes required to meet the 1.5 target would be so drastic they are seen by some as being, “…incompatible with democracy.” The agreement is also not legally binding; thus it will be difficult to hold nations accountable.

That being said, all hope should not be lost. The necessary mitigation target (i.e. 2 degrees) is still attainable. Hope lies in the global acknowledgement of the fact that climate change is both real and needs to mitigated in order to preserve life as we know it. This holds true even though the Paris Agreement cannot currently meet this target; indeed, the 2-degree target merely stresses the fact that such changes must take place. In my mind, the truth of the matter is this: The Paris Agreement will only be successful if ordinary people like us keep raising our voices so that the policy-makers do not have the chance to forget the global gravity of their promises. Change depends on collective, not the executive.

Want to see the Paris Agreement for yourself? click here.

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