Leaders and representatives of almost 200 countries met in Paris in November at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), or Climate Change Conference, to discuss climate change in November. Two weeks of deliberations led to an unprecedented deal that formally recognizes climate change “as an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet.” The historic agreement is a turning point in global efforts to address climate change, as extensive COP conferences have taken place regularly for two decades without resolution.
The Paris climate deal is also historic because for the first time in COP history, participating countries agreed on the need to keep the global average temperature from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. For years, 2 degrees was more or less accepted as the standard limit of allowable increase to discuss—in spite of scientific data revealing a point of no return.
If global temperatures increase by 2 degrees Celsius, the world would be long past the point of preventing devastating consequences, including increasingly extreme weather patterns, flooding, and droughts. Widespread food and water shortages would be inevitable; climate refugees would be a persistent global problem. Scientists who have analyzed this climate change deal say it will cut global greenhouse gas emissions by half enough as necessary to delay the catastrophic events that would follow a 2 degrees Celsius rise.
However, the climate change agreement is non-binding—meaning that the success of the agreement in achieving reduced carbon emissions is reliant on countries voluntarily following their stated commitments. The deal is not legally binding by law. The U.S. was the primary force pushing for the agreement to be non-binding due to the fact that the current Congress would be unwilling to pass such legislation.
Also inherent in the deal is that all countries have common responsibilities for climate change, but the extent of their participation depends on their wealth. Wealthier countries like the United States have an obligation to fund climate assistance for poorer countries.
In January, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that the Obama administration has a set of goals to solidify the United States’ involvement in responding to climate change, including increasing technical assistance to foreign governments in monitoring and controlling emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. According to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, the challenge for many developing countries is how to continue to grow economically in a way that does not increase emissions that will contribute to climate change. McCarthy said the EPA will share their experience as leaders of substantial environmental policies with their less resourceful nations in 2016.
Despite the historic nature of COP21, citizens of the world are relying on their governments to translate the climate change deal into action. With only public scrutiny and the honor system to feed the fire, one can only hope that officials move this formal recognition of climate change into action with more earnest than the decades it took to reach this deal.