Paris climate deal: what you need to know

The agreement reached in Paris this weekend has been praised as a feat of international diplomacy

December 14, 2015
Several Non Governmental Organisations (NGO) gather to form a human chain reading "+3°C SOS" on the Champs de Mars near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. © Clement Martin/ABACAPRESS.COM
Several Non Governmental Organisations (NGO) gather to form a human chain reading "+3°C SOS" on the Champs de Mars near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. © Clement Martin/ABACAPRESS.COM
"The world's greatest diplomatic success," was how a Guardian headline described the historic international climate deal reached in Paris this weekend. But what does this feat of diplomacy actually mean? Here are seven things you need to know (and you can read the full text for yourself here)

The difference a degree makes

You'll read three numbers everywhere in discussion of the deal: 2.7 degrees, two degrees and 1.5 degrees. All are important. The first is (roughly) the level of global warming above pre-industrial levels which we will hit if every country sticks to its individually determined plan for reducing carbon emissions. The second is the objective set by the Paris agreement for a maximum level of warming (strictly, the deal says we need to limit warming to "well below" this level). The third is a sort of bonus aim contained in the agreement—an ideal target to aim for rather than one we have to hit. Two degrees is the level generally agreed by experts as the maximum amount of warming which won't be totally disastrous. But 1.5 would be a much better bet and the differences between 1.5 and two are stark—for example, a rise of two degrees could see up to a 15 per cent bigger reduction in water availability in some of the earth's driest regions compared to a rise of 1.5 degrees. So each country has plenty more to do before we're even hitting the least ambitious target in the deal.

Do we have to?

The deal is a mix of legally mandatory obligations and voluntary commitments. The individual countries' emissions plans are voluntary, but the framework for reporting on progress and tightening those plans is mandatory. Countries are required to reconvene every five years starting in 2020 with updated, stricter plans. They are also required to reconvene every five years from 2023 to report on how well they're doing in cutting emissions compared to their plans. They are required to monitor their progress according to a set framework. The New York Times says that the framework is "designed to create a 'name-and-shame' system of global peer pressure," and that it also avoids having to pass through the republican-controlled US senate.

Too late?

You may notice that those first two legally-mandated meetings are five and eight years away, respectively. Some argue that we need to get moving much quicker than that. An assessment by the consultancy Mckinsey, for example, says we need to hit peak emissions globally in five years to reach the two degree target. Climate scientist Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre told New Scientist “If we wait until 2020, it will be too late,” and Piers Forster of the University of Leeds told the magazine that we'd need “a true world revolution” to hit 1.5 degrees. Let's hope they're wrong!

What does it mean for us?

The UK's Climate Change Act makes it the only nation whose individual climate targets are legally binding, and some MPs have raised concerns that, where many nations could try to shirk their obligations under the deal, the UK could be forced to get even tougher on carbon. Peter Lilley, the Tory MP, spoke to the Telegraph to bemoan the fact that "as a result of this treaty we've got greater legal obligations than we had previously.”

A leg up

The relationship between rich, developed countries who spent years pumping carbon into the air before starting to change their ways and poorer nations who see fossil fuels as key to lifting their populations out of poverty has always been a contentious aspect of climate talks. This time round China and India, respectively the first and third biggest carbon emitters in the world, delayed negotiations when they objected to various provisions in a draft deal on Friday, Politico reports. Both nations have historically called for developing nations to share less of the burden of solving climate change, though this time around their objections were weaker and their stance more open to compromise than in the past. This led to two key compromises in the deal. First, China, India and other developing countries won't have to contribute towards the $100bn a year from 2020 richer countries are raising to help poorer countries meet their targets. Second, the deal now calls for ”low carbon development” instead of the earlier “greenhouse gas emissions neutrality,” Politico reports, which will allow for more fossil fuel use among poorer countries.

Plenty of praise

The deal has been welcomed by governments around the world, with glowing statements by western politicians matched by plaudits in Russian and Chinese state media and in Saudi Arabia.

Vive le France

It's been a tough couple of months for France, but as the country's political establishment welcomes the news that the Front National has been held back in regional elections, it can also bask in international praise for foreign minister Laurent Fabius. Delegates and foreign dignitaries cheered the French minister, who chaired the talks, at the summit's conclusion, the New York Times reports. US Secretary of State John Kerry said he had done a "superb job."