Nearly 200 nations adopt historic Paris Agreement, set path for action on climate change

This story appears in the COP 21 Paris feature series. View the full series.
Thousands assembled along the Avenue de la Grande Armee in Paris Dec. 12 hours before 195 nations adopted the Paris Agreement, which provides a framework for global climate action. (NCR photos/Brian Roewe)

Thousands assembled along the Avenue de la Grande Armee in Paris Dec. 12 hours before 195 nations adopted the Paris Agreement, which provides a framework for global climate action. (NCR photos/Brian Roewe)

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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World leaders here Saturday evening reached the first-ever globally binding deal to address climate change, concluding two weeks of the “most complicated, most difficult,” and, at times sleepless, negotiations among nearly 200 nations.

Catholic activists said the Paris Agreement marks “the end of the fossil fuel era” and provides a roadmap for the next several decades, but at the same time still “lacks ambition” in terms of providing necessary protection for the most vulnerable from climate impacts.

The United Nations climate change conference in Paris, or COP21, was set as a type of second-chance after a similar effort six years ago in Copenhagen failed to procure a binding deal. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told journalists Friday the talks have been the “most complicated, most difficult” he has attended.

As diplomats reviewed the text line by line Saturday, thousands of people formed their own red lines across Paris in demonstrations aimed at symbolizing their resolve to not quit pushing for ambitious action on climate change.

1.5 degrees in, human rights out

The dense yet bracket-free 31-page agreement establishes the goal of limiting global average temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial levels, with a commitment to pursue the more stringent 1.5 degrees C target -- an aspiration advocated by many island nations and one backed by numerous Catholic groups, and eventually the Vatican, which joined more than 100 nations in publicly offering its support.

To reach that temperature goal, countries “aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible” in order to “to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.” The wording appears a type of compromise, as numerous nations and civil society groups sought the text to specifically state “decarbonization” while the previous draft described it as “greenhouse gas emissions neutrality.”

Before the adoption vote, Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister serving as COP21 president who twice entered the plenary hall Saturday to roaring applause, told diplomats representing 195 member nations to the U.N. that they have reached a draft agreement “which is ambitious and balanced,” and one that “is necessary for the world and for each of our countries.”

“You have a chance to save the world, you must seize it,” added French president Francois Hollande.

The deal also holds the U.N. to conduct every five years a “global stocktake” of collective progress toward achieving its goals, “considering mitigation, adaptation and the means of implementation and support.” Toward transparency, countries will regularly provide national inventory reports on net emissions and progress reports on implementing their emissions pledges -- a key aspect in that the 180-plus voluntary pledges countries arrived in Paris with, as stands, would result in temperature rise between 2.7 to 3.7 degrees C.

In addition, the agreement “strongly urges” that developed countries ramp up financial support for developing countries’ efforts to adapt and deal with climate change in the form of fulfilling the $100 billion pledge by 2020 to the Green Climate Fund and to build off that figure. Still, some have argued the sum, while substantial, doesn’t begin to approach the actual climate cost for the whole world, projected as high as $1 trillion.

Civil society weighs in

The Paris Agreement includes language around “loss and damage” -- a point of focus for developing, nations, particularly island nations -- but makes note it doesn’t provide a basis for liability or compensation. Like the previous version, the final text still omits reference to human rights from its main body. That exclusion, in part, led two Catholic development groups to view the Paris deal as coming up short for the world’s most vulnerable people, despite the connections it made among climate change, ending poverty and sustainable development.

“We were hoping for courage and creativity from leaders to tackle climate change, yet the draft agreement lacks ambition and does not offer an adequate solution to this global emergency which is affecting millions of the most vulnerable people on Earth,” Michel Roy, secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, said in a statement.

CIDSE,an international Catholic development coalition, also expressed concern with the lack of a human rights framework as well as future climate financing.

While the world has long come to Paris to negotiate and sign treaties, the latest accord doesn’t so much end conflict -- future climate negotiations no doubt will see tense and heated debates -- as it marks a starting point and charts a path for climate action through end of the century.

The Vatican has been active in these talks, with its delegation basing its proposals on 10 principles from “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” the encyclical on the environment and human ecology that Pope Francis released in June with special attention toward influencing these negotiations. In addition, Catholic organizations have held an active presence here, hosting side events in the two conference halls at the Le Bourget site, as well as numerous other activities, prayer services and workshops throughout Paris.

At a panel discussion on ecology and spirituality Friday co-sponsored by CIDSE and Caritas, Archbishop Gabriel Anokye of Kumasi, Ghana, said that African countries wanted to see the climate summit help in the fight to eradicate poverty and establish social and internal peace, in addition to securing the financial means to address climate change.

“We must at all costs save our planet, our common home, our common house. It is our common house. We cannot remain indifferent nor neutral,” said Anokye, vice president of Caritas and president of Caritas Africa.

The Paris Agreement represents the first climate treaty to bind all nations to work toward curbing greenhouse gas emissions. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which expired in December 2012, set emissions targets only for 37 developed countries, with the U.S. never ratifying it in Congress and large emitters like China, India and Brazil excused from inclusion.

CAFOD, the develop agency of the Catholic church in England and Wales, said in a statement it welcomed the final text, “which opens a new chapter for action on climate change.”

“The draft agreement represents a start towards what Pope Francis calls a global common plan where we put the needs of the most vulnerable first. Now we all need to redouble our efforts to guarantee the safety of future generations,” said Neil Thorns, its director of advocacy.

Tomás Insua, global coordinator of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, said the agreement “represents the end of the fossil fuel era,” and “a turning point in the conversation on solutions to the ecological crisis that Pope Francis called for in his Encyclical.

“The 1.5C target and the goal of net zero emissions enshrines the moral imperative to leave fossil fuels in the ground. This is a meaningful step forward on the path to protecting the poor and most vulnerable from climate change,” he said, though added key issues of climate financing and human rights remain unresolved.

Before the final text was released, Bernd Nilles, secretary-general of CIDSE, told NCR that a satisfactory deal would be one that sent “a strong signal that we end the fossil fuel era, and that we go 100-percent renewable, and that everybody in business, in society, understand that big message.”

“This is a milestone in the human story to tackle climate change and gives us hope for a climate friendly, resilient and more equitable future,” said Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgabo of South Africa, global ambassador of the 137-member ACT Alliance, in a statement.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of the climate group, said the agreement appears to reflect that every government “seems now to recognize that the fossil fuel era must end soon,” though added the text still shows instances of the industry’s continued influence.

“This didn’t save the planet but it may have saved the chance of saving the planet,” he said in a statement.

‘People pushing things’

At noon Saturday, Catholics affiliated with CAFOD joined an estimated 10,000 people along the Avenue de la Grande Armee, one of numerous boulevards that conclude at the Arc de Triomphe in central Paris. Clad in red, they danced, chanted, drummed and sang during the multicultural, multilingual spectacle for climate justice now and acceptance of a deal. Late Friday night, French police authorized the protest, though many planned to attend with or without permission.

Billed as a major public demonstration, the rally’s atmosphere, like the inflatable cubes at its mid-section, bounced from a festive parade spirit to a somber remembrance for victims of climate change, to a frenetic enthusiasm for the power their movements have had and can have going forward.

“I really truthfully believe this is a watershed moment for the environmental movement in terms of the people pushing things,” said Ricky Knight of the United Kingdom as he joined others in carrying a long red cloth ribbon that stretched along the boulevard.

The line, organizers said, represented protestors’ commitment to defend their common home. Knight, who biked his way to Paris to deliver a report of 4,000 climate pledges from everyday citizens, said COP21, while not delivering all he hoped, was “much better” than he expected.

“Because of the grassroots participation and the pressure put upon the leaders by massive representations of what real people want from their so-called leaders,” he said.

The red ribbons ran the length of the demonstration. Along its span were diverse segments but ones all united in the cause to continue pushing for climate action well beyond Paris.

Many people wore red while others filled the air above with red umbrellas. Women with flowers in their hair and others dressed as polar bears helped give the ribbon movement, while a woman danced along a tarp with the message “climate justice” painted on it. Brass bands and drum circles provided rhythm for the chants and cries of “What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!” “This is what democracy looks like!” and “The people, united, will never be defeated!” Climate clowns pranced in front of police officers manning the route’s end -- to keep it from approaching the Arc de Triomphe -- in hopes of evoking a smile.

Toward the demonstration’s end, participants placed flowers on the ribbons as a tribute to those impacted by climate change.

“We’ve been around the COP for all this week, and this is the best way to end these two weeks, celebrating that the solutions are here outside the COP and not in there,” said Adriana Gonzalez, a member of Sierra Club-Puerto Rico.

She and her fellow young adult companions said the rally and climate conference itself provided valuable opportunities to network and learn from other groups in the world seeking the same people-driven outcome -- an important aspect, said Jahdiel Torres-Cabá of the Sierra Student Coalition-USA, given they recognized that COP21 would not provide all the solutions.

“We came into this space knowing that, and we are getting out of here feeling more empowered and we’re going back to our communities,” he said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe]

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