Paris: how the world was saved in 13 days

Climate deal: Christiana Figueres, Ban Ki-moon, Laurent Fabius and Francois Hollande. © PA

A “major leap for mankind” says France. “The best chance we have to save the one planet we have” says the USA. How did we achieve the Paris pact on climate? And just how historic is it?

Over almost two weeks, 30,372 people attended the UN’s climate summit in Paris. There were 196 negotiating parties — 195 countries, plus the EU. Around 412,500 meals and snacks were served over the fortnight. And after printing an estimated three to five million sheets of paper during the negotiations, it all came down to this: a 31-page document containing a first global agreement on how to fight climate change.

On Saturday night, the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius finally brought down his hammer with the simple words “I see no objections”. The room erupted in celebrations — and a few tears of relief. It has taken over two decades to negotiate a new agreement, and some had thought the day might never come.

Three days before, it had seemed as though they might be right. Developing countries wanted the richer nations to do more, as they have gained most from greenhouse gases; the USA did not want the agreement to be legally binding; the EU warned that the pact still showed “unacceptable levels of low ambition”; Australia feared it was “unbalanced”.

Then, more than 100 countries revealed a secret “trump card” they had been planning for months: a “coalition of high ambition”, including the USA and EU, which would negotiate as one.

It was founded by Tony de Brum, foreign minister of the Marshall Islands — a country which he has warned will “go under” if sea levels continue to rise — and the move countered the objections from China, India and Saudi Arabia, who had hoped to weaken the language of the agreement.

In the frantic final days, negotiations went on into the night, as French ministers convinced the final hesitant countries to make last-minute compromises. And then, at last, a deal: to keep global warming “well below” 2C, aiming for 1.5C, by cutting emissions. The richest nations will help fund the poor, and progress will be reviewed every five years.

Turning point?

This is an amazing achievement, say the proud negotiators who put their hearts and souls into finally agreeing on a text. There is a long way to go before the problem is solved — but never before have so many nations come together with a common goal. The word “historic” is a cliché, but in this case it really is true.

Don’t go overboard, chastise others — it is not so unusual. Since 1945, the UN has agreed global treaties on everything from human rights to who has control of the moon. Besides, what has really been agreed in Paris? Even if all the nations involved stick to their current emissions pledges, temperatures could still rise above the 2C target — and they are not even legally bound to do so. This may be a moment of great symbolism, but the reality is far less promising.

You Decide

  1. If rich countries are most ‘to blame’ for climate change, should they make the biggest sacrifices?
  2. Is this really a ‘historic’ moment for the world, or is it all just hot air?

Activities

  1. Many developing nations are worried about how they will improve the lives of their people without relying on fossil fuels. Design a ‘green’ village for around 50 houses which is powered by clean energy.
  2. The EU has pledged to reduce its emissions to 40% of 1990 levels by 2030. List ten things it could do to achieve this.

Some People Say...

“Governments won’t solve climate change — businesses will.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t ‘saving the world’ a bit of an exaggeration?
Yes on two counts. First, the world is not at threat from climate change, humanity’s place on it is. Until recently, we have enjoyed a fairly stable climate. Earth, on the other hand, has seen huge shifts in temperature during its lifetime — unfortunately for us they often involve mass extinctions. The second, less apocalyptic point is that the agreement made in Paris is only the first step towards fighting climate change. Now, promises must be put into action.
What happens next in the UK?
Energy secretary Amber Rudd says that the UK is ‘absolutely committed’ to the deal, and the government has previously stated its aim to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050 — although it has been criticised for plans to cut subsidies for renewable energy.

Word Watch

30,372 people
According to official statistics from the UNFCCC. That’s roughly the same as the population of Harpenden in Hertfordshire.
million
That’s around 300-500 trees, assuming an average of 10,000 pages per tree.
Laurent Fabius
The foreign minister was elected president of the summit, and was instrumental in smoothing over many problem areas in the negotiations.
Greenhouse gases
Gases which trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Although they occur naturally, the most significant by far is carbon dioxide, which is released when carbon fuels are burned to generate electricity.
2C
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a rise in global temperature of more than 2C would have ‘serious’ consequences, including more extreme weather events, such as flooding and heatwaves.
Human rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on 10 December 1948.
Moon
According to the ‘The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies’ of 1979, the Moon belongs to the international community as a whole.

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