When the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, gaveled the Paris Agreement into existence on December 12, he said the day would go down in history. His words rang true. President François Hollande proclaimed it a “revolutionary” moment.
The Paris Agreement delivers a powerful signal to business, investors and communities that the nations of the world are committed to curbing greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating the transition to a low-carbon, clean energy economy.
The importance of that signal cannot be overstated. Trillions of dollars of investment must be transitioned to renewable energy as quickly as possible for us to have a chance of limiting the rise in global temperature to anywhere near the ambitious goal set by the agreement—well below 2 degrees Celsius, and, given the catastrophic risks involved, hopefully below 1.5 degrees.
The agreement is a clarion call to capital markets to reassess their bets on fossil fuels, move beyond short-term returns and embrace the biggest investment opportunity of the century: renewable energy. Governments of the world have agreed on the same direction of travel toward low-carbon, sustainable development and will—some quickly, some less so—adopt the policies necessary to hasten, if not require, the transition to clean energy.
Embracing ‘Cognitive Dissonance’
Minutes after the agreement was gaveled, though, the South African minister captured the enormous global challenge ahead by quoting the inspired words of Nelson Mandela: “…I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.….I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” These words rang truer still.
Despite the agreement’s ambitious goal, the climate action pledges, known as Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDCs), submitted by 188 nations still leave the world on a path to more than 3 degrees Celsius in temperature rise by the end of the century, far from meeting the agreement’s stated goal and calamitous for islands, coastal communities and the American heartland alike.
Avoiding this level of warming depends on steady, rapid increases in each nation’s climate action pledges. The Paris Agreement brings robust transparency requirements, a long-term operational goal and a five-year review cycle leading to progressively stronger national pledges. Together these elements create a political moment every five years to increase ambition in line with what climate science demands.
Cementing in Place a Virtuous Cycle
Nearly 200 countries came together in Paris to accelerate the enormous global momentum for climate action. The agreement is a triumph of multilateralism—no small achievement on the heels of terrorist attacks, waves of weary refugees fleeing wars exacerbated by climate change and years of failed attempts to seal a deal. It commits all nations to cut their carbon pollution, a major step considering that the three biggest polluters—the U.S., China and India—were not legally bound to reduce emissions in the past, and it puts enormous pressure on governments to adopt stronger climate action plans every five years.
The agreement reflects and embraces the trends happening in the real world. Cities from Beijing to Delhi to Los Angeles are finally tackling the air pollution from coal plants and diesel engines that costs millions of lives each year. The global climate movement is growing. And we’ve witnessed a stunning drop in the price of renewables.
The International Energy Agency projects that 60 percent of all global investments in power plants between now and 2040 will be in renewable power capacity. The investment bank Deutsche Bank forecasts that solar systems will be at grid parity—at or below the cost of fossil energy—in up to 80 percent of the global market within two years. Morocco, the host of next year’s COP meeting, has pledged to produce 42 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020!
A Toast to All Who Made it Possible
As UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon told the General Assembly, “Together the countries of the world have agreed that, in minimizing the risks of climate change, the national interest is best served by pursuing the common good.”
We should raise a toast to skillful French diplomats and to the citizens movements that made the Paris agreement possible. A toast to the hundreds of thousands who marched for climate justice around the world. A toast that keeps in our hearts and minds those who are struggling to survive the floods, droughts, storms and food shortages that climate change has already wrought.
The Paris agreement declares that the end of the fossil fuel era is on the horizon, though the horizon is still too far away for comfort. The world is in a race against time, with unimaginable consequences.
The agreement reflects a global commitment that every nation’s actions going forward will be touched by the better angels of our nature—our desire to leave future generations not just a habitable world, but also a world with polar bears and pikas and all the other fellow travelers with whom we share the planet and whose futures also hang in the balance.
As the Ambassador of Palau said, “When we travel home to the vast waters of the Pacific, we can tell our children that we have set in place the foundation to deliver the climate ambition and climate justice they demand.” An ambitious, durable, universal and legally-binding foundation, but still just a foundation. The Paris Agreement marks a turning point, but the responsibility to change course is on all of us.
Earthjustice was privileged to participate in the Paris negotiations as a legal advisor to the Republic of Palau, one of the Small Island Developing States whose vision and tenacity in the face of the existential threat of climate-induced super storms and sea level rise helped to secure a more ambitious agreement.