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Did The Paris Climate Change Conference Change Anything?

On November 30th, 2015, delegates from 196 parties (most of which represented countries) met to discuss how to stop ruining the world. Specifically, the Paris Agreement decided that based on the science, we would need to limit global warming to less than 2ºC by the year 2100.

“And of course, by ‘we’ we mean ‘you two.’”
-Everybody, to China and the US

Laurent Fabius, the Foreign Minister of France, says that the Agreement is a “historical turning point,” while others seem to think that it’s just a bunch of back-slapping and empty promises. So did it achieve anything? The true answer, of course, is “It’s complicated,” so let’s break it down.

What “The Paris Agreement” Looks Like

First of all, let’s address what the Paris Agreement is. The actual document is short— only 12 pages long— but we can sum it up in less than 300 words.

The Premise of the Agreement is that think tanks like the World Pension Fund have determined that if man-made global warming causes a change of greater than 2ºC by the year 2100, it will be too late to prevent catastrophe. Coastlines will shift, forests will turn into deserts, and Mars will begin to look like a nice place to retire to. Just like dental cavities, waiting until the problem becomes painful isn’t going to work.

The Aim of the Agreement is threefold:
1. Prevent the world’s average temperature from increasing by more than 2ºC, and shoot for more like 1.5ºC;

2. Help underdeveloped countries handle climate change;

3. Make sure that it’s financially viable to pursue lower emissions and climate-resilient development;

The Contributions of each country are decided by each country on their own. On one hand, this is good because each country is its own best judge of its needs and capabilities. On the other, some people feel that it’s kind of like letting your kids decide for themselves what they’re having for dinner: They’re probably just going to choose ice cream.

The Punishments that a country faces for not keeping its promises are that the other countries will point at them and say “Hey, you didn’t do what you said you were going to do.” That’s it. Other than this “name and shame” (or the less-catchy “name and encourage”) system, the country will not be punished for falling short.

Finally, there will be a Review Period every 5 years. All 196 participating parties will have their commitments and progress evaluated, and use that data to create new targets for the next 5 year period.

That’s it. That’s the whole Agreement. It’s very simple, not very coercive, and puts a great deal of emphasis on united vision, cooperation, and good faith.

So how many countries signed the agreement by the end of the conference?

Zero.

“We’re just going to use the bathroom and be riiight back!”
-Every country

Which is okay, actually. Nobody signed the Agreement because they’re not allowed to yet. Everybody is to go home, think about what they can do, and fly to New York between April 22nd, 2016 and April 21st 2017 to sign, if they’re willing to participate. If at least 55 countries sign, and they account for at least 55% of the world’s greenhouse emissions, then the Agreement will be passed into law.

But didn’t we already sign the Kyoto Protocol?

Yep, but there are three problems with that:

1) It’s Not Enough

The promises made in 1997 with the Kyoto Protocol aren’t enough to guarantee that the global average temperature will stay below 2ºC. Part of that is that because when the agreement was signed, the scientific consensus was that we didn’t need to hit that target, but since then, we’ve realized that the situation is much more serious. The other part is that…

2) The biggest emitters are NOT part of the Kyoto Protocol

China has a good excuse for this one: When the Kyoto Protocol was drafted, developing countries like South Korea, Mexico, and yes, China, were exempted from limiting their emissions. Now that China is by far the greatest contributor of global pollution, it’s time to reconsider.

The United States, on the other hand, just didn’t want any part of it. Then-Vice President Al Gore was all aboard, but the U.S. congress was staunchly pro-smog. George W. Bush’s administration turned up its nose as well, and so the country with the biggest carbon footprint (at the time) was never on board for change.

In fact, remember how the Paris Agreement needs signatures from countries representing 55% of greenhouse gas emissions? Same with Kyoto. Without the U.S., the Kyoto Protocol couldn’t even be passed. From 1997 until 2004, Kyoto sat there in legislative purgatory until out of nowhere, Russia decided to push it through.

3) The commitments of the Kyoto Protocol expire in 2020 anyway

Even if the Kyoto Protocol was enough, and even if the U.S. and China were a part of it, we would need a new agreement soon anyway.

There is still time to save the world… Barely.

With the U.S. and China on board with the Paris Agreement and $100 billion in aid to help developing countries develop in a sustainable, climate-resilient way, we think there is still time to prevent catastrophic man-made climate change. The Paris Agreement may seem toothless to some, but strong-arming countries into making sensible energy choices is not a viable option.

The world has chosen ice cream for dinner for long enough to know that it’s a bad decision long-term, and it’s time to start setting better habits.

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