The power of the new Paris Agreement can be summed up in the words of the leaders who welcomed it. President Obama said it is “a turning point for the world.” Chancellor Merkel stated that “It is a sign of hope … for the billions.” Prime Minister Modi said that “climate justice won.” China’s Special Representative on Climate Change Xie Zhenhua called it a “historical step forward.” And Minister Tony de Brum from the Marshall Islands said “Our chance for survival is not lost.” Leaders from business, NGOs and cities communicated similar messages.

The negotiations at COP21 in Paris have not just been about climate change, but about our ability to act as a community of nations, says James Fahn, Director of the Earth Journalism Network (EJN) Photo/EJNTheir enthusiasm is warranted. The new Agreement takes the world further than it has ever gone before on climate policy. Four elements in particular demonstrate that the Paris Agreement is the start of a new era of international action on climate change:

1) It establishes a clear pathway for future emissions.

Past international climate agreements provided no clarity on the long-term process for reducing global emissions. Countries’ emissions targets stopped in 2020—no one knew what would happen after that.  Agreements mentioned “reviews” of progress made, but established no process for doing so. The Paris Agreement sets out concrete plans, including:

  • Starting by 2020 and every five years after that, every country in the world will submit a national climate action plan more ambitious than its previous commitment.
  • Every five years, countries will collectively conduct a “Global Stocktake” to assess implementation of the Agreement and collective progress towards achieving its long-term goal.
  • A new long-term goal commits countries to aim for net-zero emissions in the second half of this century.
  • These elements are all connected to the Agreement’s purpose to “hold global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels.”
  • Universal and harmonized accounting, reporting and verification requirements will hold all countries accountable for meeting their intended emissions-reduction targets, while also building the capacity of developing countries to do so.
  • An expert committee will facilitate implementation of and promote compliance with the provisions of the Agreement.

Learn more about the Agreement’s long-term goal here.

All of these elements combined create a clear and robust architecture that binds countries together in a continuous process to increase ambition over time.  There is now no doubt that emissions will continue to decline, because the Agreement establishes clear mechanisms for monitoring progress and holding countries accountable.

2) It strongly recognizes the risks of climate impacts.

Unlike previous international climate agreements, which focused solely on mitigation, the Paris Agreement provides equal attention to building resilience in all countries, especially the most vulnerable. It sets out key mechanisms for doing this, including:

  • The Agreement establishes a long-term goal to enhance adaptive capacity and strengthen resilience, keeping the temperature goals in mind.
  • While impacts of climate change are happening everywhere, not every country currently has long-term plans in place to address them.  Under the Agreement, every country will engage in adaptation planning processes.
  • Adaptation finance has historically lagged behind finance for mitigation. The Agreement mandates a balance in finance between these two areas of action, ensuring that adaptation funds will grow.
  • The Agreement recognizes the importance of averting and minimizing the loss and damage associated with the effects of climate change and makes permanent a mechanism to address those issues.

These unprecedented provisions elevate the importance of addressing the impacts that are already occurring and will occur due to the long-term nature of climate change.

Learn about the Agreement’s framework for transparency and accountability here.

3) It shifts finance toward low-carbon, sustainable development.

The Agreement’s financial components provide a signal to international financial institutions, UN agencies and governments that the integration of climate risk into their business plans is now the norm, and should be treated as such. Already, stocks of renewable energy firms rose just after the Paris Agreement was agreed.  Some of the Agreement’s key financial components include:

  • Provisions make it clear to governments and private sector actors that finance flows should be consistent with a pathway towards low–carbon, climate-resilient development.
  • This is complemented by a set of provisions that developed countries will continue to take the lead on providing climate finance, but that the contributor pool will expand over time to include more countries.
  • All countries will report their finance provided and received more clearly, providing greater clarity on where financial flows are going.

Recent decisions in the financial sector itself will magnify the effect of these provisions. Statements by Mark Carney from the Bank of England, leaders of Bank of America or insurance companies like Axa and Allianz indicate clearly that the financial and investment future is shifting to align with the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement. The Agreement provisions should assist those actors in planning for the future and shifting assets into clean and resilient investments.

4) It builds on a strong foundation.

The good news is that we are not starting from scratch.  Otherwise, one could be skeptical that this is all doable.  The Agreement builds on recent progress outside the negotiating halls. More than 188 countries have put forward climate action plans, which have national buy-in.  One hundred and fourteen companies have committed to set science-based emissions-reduction targets, signaling their alignment with the goal to limit warming to below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F).  More than 400 cities have joined the Compact of Mayors, committing to ambitious emissions-reduction efforts.  The Paris Agreement will accelerate this momentum happening around the world by endorsing it as smart action—economically, politically and socially.

Learn why studies of climate action plans reach different temperature estimates here.

Finally, it is fair to say that the Paris Agreement makes the world feel a little bit different when it comes to tackling global challenges.  The fact that representatives from almost 200 countries gathered in Paris during a time when it seemed so difficult to pull the world together on foreign policy challenges should not be underestimated.  Where there is determination, skill and political will, it is possible for the world to cooperate on a massive scale to solve problems.  Paris is an inspiration—not just for climate action, but for international cooperation on so many issues.

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