Beth Slaninka

After years of work and two weeks of intense negotiations, last week 195 nations agreed to take steps to address climate change. The 21st meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 21) in Paris was a historic event, and has already resulted in hundreds of published articles, commentaries, and opinion pieces. We’ve been following the negotiations and pulled together a brief summary with some of the key takeaways.

What was agreed to?

Leading up to COP 21, 188 countries submitted plans to reduce their emissions, including the United States and China. These two nations, which combined represent almost half the world’s carbon emissions, jointly announced their plans last November, providing political momentum heading into Paris. Under the COP 21 agreement, countries are required to update their nationally determined contributions every five years, and agreement measures verify that countries are following through with their pledges. That said, their pledges are not binding.

The agreement acknowledged that “deep reductions of global emissions” would be needed to constrain this century’s global temperature rise to less than a 2 degrees Celsius increase from pre-industrial levels. The agreement goes further and sets the ambitious goal of limiting this increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.  However, the combined impact of the initial pledges is not enough to reach that goal.

“What this Paris agreement does, then, is provide a set of diplomatic tools to prod countries into cutting emissions even more deeply over time,” according to an article in Vox. The article goes on to say that the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius is “a signal that countries at least hope to do more than they’re already doing.”

Why is this important?

The Paris Agreement has done something that previous climate negotiations have failed to do: get 195 nations to agree to take action on climate change. The agreement was possible largely because of its voluntary nature.

As one article in Vox pointed out: “There is no global SWAT team that will bang down your door if you don’t sign on.”

What happens next?

A signature ceremony is planned for Earth Day (April 22, 2016) at the United Nations, and the agreement will “enter into force” after 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global emissions have ratified the agreement, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The agreement was structured so it would not be a treaty. Because of this, only the president’s signature is required for the United States to ratify the agreement, rather than U.S. Senate approval.

Many have called Paris a good first step, and are already looking ahead to COP 22, which is scheduled for next year in Morocco.

As UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres said in a statement, “One planet, one chance to get it right and we did it in Paris. We have made history together. It is an agreement of conviction. It is an agreement of solidarity with the most vulnerable. It is an agreement of long-term vision, for we have to turn this agreement into an engine of safe growth.”

People will continue to debate whether the agreement comes too late or goes far enough, but at this point we can only wait to see. We can hope that after coming together in such a historic way, the 195 nations will take meaningful steps to reduce emissions and address climate change on a global scale.