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What every Earthling should know about the Paris Climate Treaty

By Scott Brown

On December 12, 2015 in Paris, representatives of 195 nations signed on to a treaty that they hoped would change the course of our planet. The treaty was the result of four years of negotiating and 20 years of international collaboration on climate change, since the first United Nations Conference of the Parties in 1995. If implemented, the contents of this treaty will literally shape the world all of us live in for the rest of our lives and the lives of future generations.

But man, that thing is A LOT of words.

Lucky for you, ION has broken things down:

What is COP21?

COP stands for “Conference of the Parties”, and no, this isn’t a gathering of fraternities planning out their ragers. The “Parties” are those countries and UN non-member states (like Palestine) who have signed onto the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty created in 1992 to address human-caused climate change. The UNFCCC outlines how more specific international treaties to limit greenhouse gas emissions should be negotiated – sort of like a rulebook for how to make the rules. Since 1995, the 197 parties to the UNFCCC have met annually at a COP, making this the 21st year, “COP21.”

What happened at COP21?

COP21 was a two-week conference in Paris where government representatives from around the globe gathered to negotiate the final major details of an international treaty on greenhouse gas emissions. The product of those negotiations is considered an official agreement under international law, but is only legally binding in certain parts- specifically where the word “shall” is used in the place of “should” in the text.

The treaty will take over the role of the Kyoto Protocol, a UNFCCC agreement that has been in force since 2005 but is set to wrap up in 2020. Kyoto committed industrialized nations to legally binding carbon emissions reductions and created a number of paths for them to carry those out, including emissions trading and clean development projects. That treaty had only voluntary commitments for developing countries. The U.S., one of the world’s largest polluters, did not ratify Kyoto due to Congressional backlash over the lack of commitments for developing nations. As a major world power, the U.S.’s refusal to cooperate greatly undermined the effectiveness of Kyoto, making it clear that any new treaty would need to have Uncle Sam’s approval.

What is the goal of the treaty?

The treaty’s goal is to keep the planet’s warming below 2 degrees Celsius. With any greater increase, scientists almost universally agree that the impact of climate change will be disastrous for human life. But for small island nations facing sea-level rise, a 2 degree limit doesn’t go far enough– with a slogan of “1.5 to Stay Alive”, they believe a rise past that threshold could mean they lose everything. While the treaty encourages parties to make efforts toward a 1.5 degree limit, it is an ambition rather than the goal.

How’s it going to happen?

The treaty creates a two-part timeline: peaking emissions ASAP and greenhouse gas neutrality in the second half of this century. Peaking means just what it says: each country should aim to begin a permanent decline in fossil fuel use. On the other hand, greenhouse gas neutrality focuses on balancing any remaining emissions with a “carbon sink”– a forest, body of water or other means by which carbon can be absorbed and kept out of the atmosphere.

To make these happen, the treaty requires every party to submit a detailed plan for emissions reductions, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Though submitting a plan is a legal requirement, the commitments themselves are not binding- this is a significant move away from the legal commitments of Kyoto that drove the U.S. away.

Going into the negotiations, over 180 parties had submitted an INDC, representing over 90 percent of global emissions. However, the current commitments do not yet do enough to keep the world within the 2 degree limit, according to a UNFCCC analysis. To improve this, countries will be required to meet up every 5 years starting in 2020 with a revised plan that strengthens their goals. In addition, a “global stocktake” meeting to assess global progress toward the below 2 degrees C limit will happen every five years starting in 2023.

Ok, but who’s enforcing this?

Part of the treaty establishes a committee that will ensure that the parties did more than just sign a piece of paper. Every two years, countries will be required to submit reports of the progress made on their emissions reductions to this committee for review, who will then publically announce the results.

However, because the INDCs themselves are not binding, this committee can’t actually do anything if countries don’t meet their goals. The incentive to stick to an INDC is going to need to come from international peer pressure; the hope is that any country who doesn’t follow through will be internationally shamed, hurting their foreign relations. Whether this model really works, well, only time will tell.

How can we tell developing countries not to use fossil fuels?

It’s true that industrialized nations like the U.S. and Western Europe could not have the high-standards of living they have today without massive fossil fuel use–it’s what put us in this climate pickle in the first place. But the hope is that, with the cleaner technologies now available, developing nations can “leapfrog” that dirty step and still improve its people’s lives.

Of course, this isn’t cheap. The treaty includes a binding obligations for industrialized nations to contribute to a fund to help this development along, with a goal of raising $100 billion each year starting in 2020. Developing countries can contribute as well, but it is voluntary.

However, no amount of funding will stop the impacts of climate change from hitting developing nations the hardest. At the negotiations, these parties fought for a “loss and damage” clause which would require the nations that burned released the emissions causing climate change to provide compensation as things like extreme weather and sea level rise start to hit. However, powerful nations again got their way: while the treaty does extend the existence of an international body to help vulnerable countries, the U.S. insisted that this will not include a basis for liability or compensation.

So what’s next?

The treaty will open for ratification by the parties on April 22, 2016. At least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global emissions are needed for the treaty to go into effect. Congress will not be required to ratify the treaty since it does not have legally binding emissions commitments or new financial commitments, and as Secretary of State John Kerry and his negotiators played a lead role in Paris, it is expected we’ll be on board this time around. Ratification, however, is only the first step. The real impacts of this treaty will depend on each nation’s willingness to make major changes and sacrifices for the future of humanity. Things are already heating up- the question is if we can come together to weather the storm.

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