In historic Paris climate deal, world unanimously agreed to not burn most fossil fuels

Flickr / COP PARIS

Author’s Note: This is the article I filed from Paris for ClimateProgress on December 12, 2015. In honor of the 5-year anniversary of the Paris Accord, we are reposting it here as a quick intro this landmark agreement.

In a literally world-changing deal that was almost unthinkable just a year ago, some two hundred leading nations unanimously embraced a plan that will leave most of the world’s fossil fuels unburned.

As part of a concerted effort to avoid catastrophic climate change, the world unanimously committed to an ongoing effort of increasingly deeper emissions reductions aimed at keeping total warming “to well below 2°C [3.6°F] above preindustrial levels.” The full text of this Paris Agreement goes even further, with the parties agreeing “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”

Already, global coal use appears to be plateauing, and global oil use will likely follow suit in the next decade as countries ratchet up their CO2 targets.

To get an idea of how challenging these negotiations have been, imagine trying to get a substantive agreement on any major topic in the U.S. Senate if the requirement for success were unanimity! Tragically, conservatives in Congress are doing everything that they can to undermine this deal, which is humanity’s best chance to avoid decades if not centuries of needless suffering for billions of people.

The economic and environmental implications of this deal for Americans are staggering. In the near term, it will unlock an accelerating multi-trillion-dollar shift in capital investment away from carbon-intensive coal and oil, which were the cornerstone of the first industrial revolution, into clean technologies like solar, wind, LED lighting, advanced batteries, and electric cars. It means far less harmful carbon pollution will be emitted in the coming years.

The agreement “sends a very powerful message to the business and investment community that the age of fossil fuels is ending,” explained the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Alden Meyer. Thus, “continued investments in high-carbon assets conflicts with their fiduciary responsibility.”

The Paris Agreement means the world may avoid many of the most catastrophic impacts. That said, a quarter century of largely ignoring scientific warnings has left the world unable to stop a number of very dangerous impacts, including sea level rise, ocean acidification, extreme weather, and Dust-Bowlification.

“I’m optimistic within a pessimistic framework,” said David Doniger the Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate & Clean Air Program. His words summed up how many of the people I spoke to feel here after two long weeks of negotiations.

At the same time, this deal is a vindication for the climate movement’s strategy to

  • mobilize a grassroots effort aimed at keeping carbon in the ground (as with Keystone XL);
  • get institutions and others to disinvest in dirty energy, while shifting capital to clean energy; and
  • push as hard as possible for a warming target below 2°C

The pledges by 186 countries big and small, developed and developing, in the months leading up to the Paris conference are an enormous first step. But these intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) will need to be reviewed and ratched up every 5 years for the rest of the century to preserve a livable climate — and that review and ratchet is a key part of the deal.

Now begins the great race between accelerating clean energy price drops and deployment on the one hand, and accelerating climate impacts on the other hand. The challenge to keep warming below 2°C — which requires essentially every country to have zero net fossil fuel emissions by century’s end — is enormous, as this chart from Climate Interactive makes clear:

Think Progress

As the graph shows, the INDCs flatten out global greenhouse gas emissions through 2030. Indeed, global CO2 emissions have plateaued the last two years, which suggests the multi-trillion-dollar global shift in investment from high-carbon growth to low-carbon has already begun. As the worlds’ nations deliver on their INDCs, and ratchet them up over time, this plateau may well get longer and longer — until it turns into a peak.

Change happens slow, until it happens fast. We have entered the fast phase.

This article originally appeared on Climate Progress. Reprinted with permission.

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