Over the weekend, the world applauded the “breakthrough” climate agreement reached at COP21 in Paris, an event that many considered humanity’s last chance to save the planet.

The immediate lore held that in the final, last-minute session, none of the gathered leaders objected to the terms. A gavel then resounded throughout the hall, marking the first climate agreement involving the entire world. Video clips and images show leaders applauding and congratulating one another, clearly relieved.

After reading headlines, you might think that the world had just been saved.

But what actually happened at COP21? And was the agreement as much of a “breakthrough” as it is being called? Here's what you need to know.

1/ General outcome

The fact that an agreement was achieved is a breakthrough. Never before have 195 countries agreed to some form of emissions reductions, even if they aren’t exactly binding.

But country-by-country commitments are uneven. The US, China and India remain the x factors--promises by the Obama administration to cut emissions could be thwarted domestically; China has the highest emissions in the world and shows no sign of slowing anytime soon; and India is on pace to dramatically increase emissions as it develops.

If the new target of keeping worldwide temperature growth under 1.5 degrees celsius is to happen, these 3 countries need to aggressively cut emissions and invest in green energy.

The US plans to reduce emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025; China plans to hit peak emissions by 2030 and then decline from there; and India plans to cut “emissions intensity” by 33-35% by 2030 while also restoring forests to create carbon sinks. All three countries will also invest substantially in green energy.

These are good steps, but they do not go far enough.

Each of the 195 countries involved in the agreement put forward plans to cut emissions. Countries also agreed to stop deforestation, accelerate reforestation, restore oceans and protect communities around the world that are most vulnerable to changing climate. 

2/ A not-so-binding agreement

Emissions targets are not legally binding, but report cards and updated promises are binding.

Beginning in 2020, countries will have to provide updated plans every 5 years, with the expectation that they’ll be more demanding each time. Beginning in 2023, reports will have to be produced that describe progress. No penalties will be given out for countries who fail to meet targets.

If the past is any measure for the future, then this arrangement is not encouraging.

But never before have the effects of climate change been so keenly felt around the world and never before has the consensus been so great that something be done.

3/ The developing and developed countries split

Developed nations are responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions. Nobody disputes this. But for climate change to be kept to a somewhat manageable level, every country has to sacrifice and make bold commitments.

Many developing countries view this as unfair. And it is. But the science is unyielding.

The world has already burned more than two-thirds of the carbon that is expected to raise global temperatures by 2 degrees celsius (the previous target)--a catastrophic threshold. If developing nations followed similar development trajectories as the US, for instance, then there would be no possibility for keeping climate change under control.

So the COP21 plan tries to appreciate both the need for poorer countries to develop and for emissions targets to be universal.

Developing nations will begin to implement plans after 2020 and are encouraged to do their best to begin before then.

An international fund to help countries transition to green economies and cope with climate change will have an expected $100 billion US dollars per year. So far, only $62 billion US dollars has been gathered.

4/ Environmentalists are unhappy

It seemed clear going into COP21 that the agreement would not go far enough. Many countries had submitted middling plans that weren’t binding, giving the impression that everyone wanted everyone else to deal with climate change.

Environmentalists made it clear that fundamental and radical changes would have to be made to economies around the world if the worst of climate change were to be avoided.

On the other hand, the deal is a good starting point--even if decades late. It’s the first time that all countries have agreed that action must be taken. So now it’s just a matter of working with countries to accelerate that action.

5/ Special negotiating tactic: Indabas

Cop21 was daunting for everyone involved. There were so many competing priorities among the thousands of delegates that it seemed like the whole thing would end in gridlock.

To prevent delegates from bloviating and draining time, the UN instituted a special negotiating tactic called Indaba, which hails from the Zulu and Xhosa people of Southern Africa.

Basically, delegates could only say their “red lines” (the things they wouldn’t agree to) and then had to propose solutions for finding common ground.

That’s it.

No lengthy historical explorations of why this or that should happen. Just red line and solution. This concision allowed teams to speed through meetings and ultimately arrive at an agreement.

6/ The woman behind it all

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Without her tireless work leading up to COP21, this agreement would not have happened.

She spent years building little bridges between countries, achieving small victories and diplomatically changing minds. She spearheaded the event planning for COP21 and summoned the emissions targets from all the countries.

She has become the most vital environmental figure in the world.

The COP21 deal is not perfect. It could be a lot stronger. But, hey, I could be writing that it was a failure and that the world is doomed.

I’m not writing that. The climate change narrative is beginning to change. A burst of optimism appeared over the weekend, generated by the voices and actions of millions of global citizens, and maybe it will be powerful enough to bring about a green revolution.

You can keep the momentum of COP21 going by calling for a world that is 100% renewable.


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