The climate accord reached this month in Paris sets an international goal of limiting the increase of the global average temperature. But the accord doesn’t set a specific path for achieving that goal. The deal has limited legal force, much less a compelling enforcement mechanism to ensure all signatories hold up their end of the deal.
Meanwhile, the globe continues to warm, and the consequences are becoming ever more clear — in some places, painfully clear. Even if all greenhouse gas emissions stopped tomorrow, the world would continue to warm.
So why should we be encouraged that political leaders have even reached this deal?
It’s the first time leaders of 195 nations have agreed in writing that climate change is a problem, that it’s an urgent one, and that the nations of the world need to take action to address it.
This isn’t a panel of scientists agreeing on the causes of and threats posed by climate change. These are the people’s representatives. They’re agreeing and sending a clear signal that, as the world continues to develop, it ought to develop in a way that mitigates climate change and, at the same time, takes its effects into account.
“The world has the mandate,” said professor Paul Mayewski, director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. “Without that giant political mandate, in many ways, people felt, which way should we go?”
If there were any doubt that support would be available to encourage the developing world to develop in a sustainable way, there’s little doubt now. Thirty-eight of the world’s wealthiest nations have so far announced more than $10.2 billion in pledges toward this cause. (While Republicans in Congress have been far from supportive of President Barack Obama’s climate change-combating efforts, there’s nothing in the 2016 omnibus budget bill to keep Obama from starting to follow through on the U.S.’s $3 billion pledge.)
The amount is far short of the full amount needed; in Copenhagen in 2009, the world’s developed nations committed to raising $100 billion a year from public and private sources by 2020. But the new round of pledges in Paris send a powerful message to the developing world and a powerful message to the private sector that there is, and there will be, a market for renewable energy technologies and sustainable forms of development as well as a major push for research and development. As a business decision, investments in renewable economies — rather than fossil fuels — are wise ones.
Of course, an accord is just that. The signatories must back it up with action. The globe must transition away from economies based on fossil fuels, and that won’t happen easily. For example, in the United States, some of the only large-scale action on tap, the Clean Power Plan, will only accomplish part of the goal.
So why should we be hopeful about the Paris climate accord for reasons other than the powerful message it sends?
There’s a precedent for such an accord to work — to cause significant, positive change.
That precedent is the Montreal Protocol reached in 1987 aimed at banning the production and use of ozone-depleting chemicals, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). It’s commonly regarded as the world’s most successful environmental agreement, and it relied on a number of mechanisms that negotiators in Paris have replicated. Those included a fund to help developing nations comply, a modest start to encourage confidence, and flexibility to adjust goals as science was updated and new information became available.
The result? Nations met their targets, including developing nations, which managed to phase out CFCs, halons and other ozone-depleting substances in 2010. As long as signatories continue to live up to their obligations — and there’s little reason to think they won’t — the ozone layer is expected to return to its 1980 state between 2045 and 2060.
With the Paris climate accord, there’s reason to hope it will be successful — and there’s a need for it to work.