So we made a deal with the planet, now what?

It was already December 12, a day after the Conference of Parties (COP) 21 was supposed to have closed in Le Bourget, France, and hundreds were anxiously waiting inside the plenary halls for a climate agreement.

The Twitterverse was exploding. What was taking it so long, what was happening? Many theories emerged. Was it China again? Or was it Saudi Arabia? A country must be unhappy about the agreement and holding up the plenary.

It turned out to be the United States. At the last minute, the US called for closed-door meeting with other countries over the use of “shall” (legally binding) instead of “should” (less  binding).

Will the US be the reason of another failed attempt at a climate agreement?

After a long wait, US Secretary of State John Kerry, together with Fabius and UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueras entered the plenary hall.

“It may be a small gavel but it can do big things,” Fabius said before he put his gavel down. And with that, everyone in the room stood up, clapped and cheered, tears welling up in their eyes. Top officials hugged each other on stage, knots on their throats, all thumbs up.

196 countries made history as they signed an agreement that would allow governments to take steps in solving the climate crisis. This was six years after the failed attempt in Copenhagen, 23 years after the first summit in Rio, 21 years after the first COP, and 18 years after the Kyoto Protocol.

After decades of negotiations, there is finally a legally binding document agreed to by every country.

Imagine this: the United States, China, India, and Saudi Arabia—four of the most difficult countries to negotiate with, top polluters of the world and fossil fuel producers—all agreed to sign an agreement that would limit global warming and reduce carbon emissions.

But outside the conference halls, it was a different story. Climate activists marched the streets of Paris, disappointed about the agreement. They called it a “weak” and “worthless.”

With the differing views surrounding the agreement, the question is, did we really achieve anything with the new climate agreement?

What was inside the agreement?

To understand what countries signed, let’s look at what was in there and what was not. What did we get and what did we trade-off?

Long term goal on 1.5/decarbonization

Countries have agreed to work towards limiting global temperature to below 2°C  above pre-industrial levels while pursuing “efforts” to limit temperature to 1.5°C. 2°C was agreed in Cancun but vulnerable countries like the Philippines have pushed hard for 1.5 with the slogan, “1.5 to stay alive!” This part of the agreement was a compromise to put both in the agreement.

Human rights: integral

Human rights is integral to the climate agreement because this means we can ensure that people impacted by climate change and people who will be impacted by what we do to deal with climate change will be protected. Human rights is now only in the preamble section of the agreement, which might weaken its implementation. Again, this is a compromise because some countries, like Saudi Arabia, did not want human rights included in the agreement.

‘Ambition mechanism’

An “ambition mechanism” is what will ensure that commitments of countries will be reviewed every so often and that these commitments will be renewed without backsliding. The commitments of countries today are not enough to reach 2 degrees celsius but with a good ratchet mechanism, countries will have no choice but to have ambitious commitments over time. The agreement says countries must update their commitments every 5 years, which is good.

Adaptation to climate change

With the worsening impacts of climate change, many countries need a strong adaptation commitment, including a clear adaptation finance. The good thing inside the agreement is the linking of mitigation and adaptation, saying that the more countries reduce emissions, the less other countries have to adapt. What is unclear however is finance, where adaptation is hinged on.

Responsibility of mitigation

Countries made a clear reference to the need of peaking emissions as soon as possible, with more responsibility given to rich countries. This will encourage a transition to 100% renewable energy. The Paris agreement contains a operationalization of the 1.5 temperature goals that points to zero fossil fuel emissions and development of National Long-Term Low GHG Strategies.

Loss and damage

Loss and Damage pertains to climate impacts already causing irreversible death and destruction and impacts countries can no longer adapt to. Prior to Paris, it was unclear whether Loss and Damage would be included in the agreement, as rich countries did not want a never-ending responsibility for their emissions, especially if it involved finance. Many were surprised that loss and damage is included in the agreement. However, it specifically mentions “without liability and compensation” which means there will be no finance involved. It does mention, however, support for “minimizing” and “averting” loss and damage such as early warning systems and emergency preparedness.

Essentials of finance

Finance is of paramount to the agreement as all mitigation and adaptation measures are essentially dependent on availability and access to funds. The positives with regards to the finance section include reference to provision of scaled up financial resources with floor of $100 billion and balance between adaptation and mitigation. The agreement refers to ensuring efficient access to financial resources for many vulnerable countries. However, it is not very ambitious with regards to the amount of funds. The adaptation gap remains an issue, as existing funds lag far behind actual adaptation needs.

Paris is only the beginning

The signing of the Paris agreement was a historical moment. It is important to recognize that yes, we may not have gotten an agreement as strong as we wanted it to be but also, that we were able to make all 196 countries sign a deal that would allow us to start working towards a better planet.

Because the most important point of the agreement is this: we are only just beginning. Climate change is here to stay for a long time. Our children and our children’s children will be impacted by climate change and a signed paper will not solve the climate crisis. A deal will only remain a deal unless we move and act like we mean it.

This means we need to hold our governments accountable. We need to stop investing in fossil fuel and start shifting to renewable energy. We need to have better adaptation measures. We need to ensure that women and indigenous peoples rights are upheld when we implement projects. We need to do a lot of things if we are to solve the climate crisis and ensure our survival.

We have signed an agreement, now we start working.


Article was originally published at GMA News.