For a few tense moments, it appeared that the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris would dissolve into bitter acrimony without delivering a deal, like a previous attempt in Copenhagen in 2009. But, perhaps in a sign of just how much more seriously governments now take the threat of irreversible and catastrophic climate change, negotiators held their nerve to deliver a historic agreement that commits the world to holding the rise of global temperature to “well below” 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, and pursuing efforts to limit this increase to 1.5 degrees C, a much more ambitious goal than expected. That 196 countries, all battling to protect their oft-competing interests, managed to come together is nothing less than a diplomatic triumph, and should be recognised as such — even though the pact is at times vague, and does not provide for concrete actions or set specific timescales.
Unlike the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the Paris accord does not set specific legally binding requirements on emissions cuts for developed nations. But, because countries have promised to try to peak emissions as soon as possible — with the recognition that this will be later for developing countries — and to arrive at “net zero emissions” between 2050 and 2100, it obliges every nation, rich or poor, to publish its “most ambitious” proposal to reduce emissions beginning 2020, for scrutiny. This means that under the agreement, a review mechanism will evaluate each country’s climate plans and, possibly, ask it to ramp up its pledges (though in a strictly advisory capacity). These global stocktakes, the first of which is due in 2023, will likely see calls for greater commitments from countries, since the sum of their pledges so far, under the intended nationally determined contributions, if implemented, will only be enough to limit total warming to 3 degrees C. Then there is the question of money. Though the accord commits wealthy nations to provide more climate finance to poorer nations, there is ambiguity both on how much they are obliged to assist and on what constitutes climate finance. It is similarly waffly on technology sharing and transfer — key concerns of developing nations such as India.
Still, as Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar noted, the agreement firmly acknowledges the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, which accounts for the historical contribution of developed countries in global warming — a victory for India, which has regularly risked being dubbed a spoiler at international summits in its defence of the principle of climate equity. It is true that the deal falls short of the soaring rhetoric employed by most world leaders at the inauguration of the talks. But it is an unprecedented political recognition of the risks of climate change, driving home the urgency and scale of the problem — and instilling some confidence that governments are committed to their green strategies.