December 13, 2015


[The task may prove most challenging for India, which is struggling to lift more than half of its population of 1.25 billion out of poverty and to provide basic electricity to 300 million of them. Rich countries are intent that India not get stuck on a coal-dependent development path.]

By Sewell Chan and Melissa Eddy

Coal vendors in Lucknow, India, earlier this month. The country is struggling
to lift more than half of its population of 1.25 billion out of poverty and to
provide basic electricity to 300 million of them.
Credit Rajesh Kumar Singh/Associated Press      
PARIS — Before the applause had even settled in the suburban convention center where the Paris Agreement was adopted by consensus on Saturday night, world leaders warned that momentum for the historic accord must not be allowed to dissipate.

“Today, we celebrate,” said Miguel Arias Cañete, the European Union’s energy commissioner and top climate negotiator. “Tomorrow, we have to act.”

With nearly every nation on earth having now pledged to gradually reduce emissions of the heat-trapping gases that are warming the planet — a universal commitment that had eluded negotiators and activists since the first Earth Day summit meeting, in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 — much of the burden for maintaining the momentum now shifts back to the countries to figure out, and put in place, the concrete steps needed to deliver on their pledges.

The task may prove most challenging for India, which is struggling to lift more than half of its population of 1.25 billion out of poverty and to provide basic electricity to 300 million of them. Rich countries are intent that India not get stuck on a coal-dependent development path.

“It is essential that the developing countries are able to transform their energy system before they develop a level of dependence on coal that we have in the industrialized countries,” said Jan Burck of the activist group German watch.

During negotiations, India insisted that it would not be able to make the transition without assistance.

“There will have to be new mechanisms,” Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar told reporters after the agreement was adopted.

China, meanwhile, is investing so heavily in clean energy that some observers think its carbon emissions might have hit a peak — a milestone that China had only promised to reach by 2030.

Its top climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, said on Saturday that “China will actively implement its nationally determined contributions so as to reach a peak as soon as possible,” but privately its officials have expressed pride that it no longer has the coal-stained reputation it had during theCopenhagen climate talks of 2009.

Giza Gaspar Martins, an Angolan diplomat who represents the Least Developed Countries, which negotiated in Paris as a bloc, said of the accord: “This is but one stop on a long journey. This puts a system in place to do climate action, but we will have a lot of work to do.”

He said the pledges were designed to emphasize participation rather than ambition, but now “we have to make sure our national contributions are aligned with what the scientists tell us we need to be doing.”

Leaders here agreed that while legislation and regulation are essential to set the ground rules for the marketplace, the ultimate goal of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy will require accelerated research and investment, and technological breakthroughs.

By calling — albeit indirectly, and in delicately crafted phrases — for net carbon emissions to be effectively brought down to zero “in the second half of this century,” the Paris Agreement could mark “the beginning of the end of the fossil-fuel era,” as Marcelo Mena Carrasco, a Chilean biochemical engineer and climate negotiator, put it.

That is certainly the hope of the Obama administration. Secretary of State John Kerry said the American government had helped catalyze the agreement by toughening fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, cracking down on emissions from coal-fired power plants, and reaching a deal with China, the only country that emits even more greenhouse gases.

President Obama has endorsed the idea of a price on carbon — in the form of a tax, or a cap-and-trade system like California’s — and leaders of Canada, Chile, Ethiopia, France, Germany and Mexico endorsed the idea at the start of the Paris conference, but there was not nearly enough support to incorporate it into the Paris Agreement.

While attention is shifting to the marketplace, the United Nations process will move ahead. The Paris Agreement’s provisions will not kick in until 2020. Indeed, though adopted “by consensus,” no nation has signed it. Countries will be invited to do so in a ceremony at the United Nations headquarters in New York on April 22; the agreement officially will take effect after at least 55 countries, representing at least 55 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, have signed on.

The United States will be one of them; through careful legal craftsmanship, the Paris Agreement will not be considered as its own treaty under American law but rather as an extension of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the Senate ratified in 1992.

The United Nations has several short-term priorities. One is to get the remaining countries that have not submitted emissions-reduction pledges to do so. Venezuela and St. Kitts and Nevis submitted their plans on Saturday, bringing the total to 188.

By May, the United Nations climate staff will update its estimate for the combined impact of the national pledges (now known as nationally determined contributions, the qualifying word “intended” having been dropped). Estimates of the first round of pledges suggested that, if carried out, they would still result in a rise of 2.7 to 3.5 degrees Celsius (4.9 to 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels — far above the newly adopted aspiration of an increase of just 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Those national plans must be revised every five years. Also every five years, starting in 2018, the United Nations will “take stock” of the pledges to see how much progress has been made in the aim of reaching peak carbon emissions “as soon as possible” and limiting the rise in temperature.

The Paris Agreement also “strongly urges” rich countries, which in 2009 pledged to spend $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poorer countries mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, to “scale up” their commitment. The agreement calls for a new financial goal — with $100 billion a year as the minimum — to be agreed upon by 2025.

A Green Climate Fund, established by 194 countries in 2013 to invest in technology, said on Saturday that it had raised $6.5 billion out of a total of $10 billion pledged last year. The Global Environment Facility, a fund established in 1992 for the first Earth Day summit meeting, announced $250 million in new financing for the least developed countries. The Paris Agreement urges additional support for both funds.

But as the Paris Agreement gets implemented, the front lines of the battle to stabilize the planet’s atmosphere will shift elsewhere. At the start of the talks, 20 governments — including those of Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Mexico and the United States — pledged to double spending on clean-energy research and development over the next five years, while a coalition of business leaders led by Bill Gates vowed to invest billions on developing renewable energy.

Many governors, mayors and other leaders of “subnational” governments have announced their own commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions — including one effort led by Michael R. Bloomberg, the United Nations special envoy for cities and climate change, and another spearheaded by California and the German state of Baden-Württemberg.

Gov. Jerry Brown of California and Winfried Kretschmann, president of Baden-Württemberg, convened in Paris during the talks to attract more supporters. “You don’t pull a switch and solve climate change,” said Mr. Brown, a Democrat. “You have to do many different things and each place it’s different. It is a process of shifting and balancing and it takes a lot of people.”

Climate activists have long used a “power of the people” approach to promote sustainability and organize globally, and the world leaders who met here credited “civil society” for keeping up the pressure.

“Now the work to hold them to their promises begins,” the American environmentalist and activist Bill McKibben wrote on Twitter, moments after the gavel fell on the Paris Agreement. “1.5? Game on.”