You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Final Verdict on the Paris Climate Agreement

Francois Guillot / Getty

There was uncertainty to the very end of the Paris summit, down to the final moments when the U.S. delegation demanded a change to a single typo in the draft text. Then the confusion finally cleared. After running into overtime on Saturday, the two-week Paris climate conference ended with a deal. “We met the moment,” President Barack Obama said in a victory speech from the White House on Saturday.

Did the agreement save the world? As long as you had moderate expectations headed into Paris, you won’t be disappointed. The 31-page agreement did more than the relatively low bar set for it. Indeed, it represents a powerful step in curbing climate change as the first deal that covers every major polluter. “For the first time in history, the global community agreed to action that sets the foundation to help prevent the worst consequences of the climate crisis while embracing the opportunity to exponentially grow our clean energy economy,” the Sierra Club’s Michael Brune said. Some longtime climate advocates, such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, offered more qualified praise. “While this is a step forward it goes nowhere near far enough,” the presidential candidate said. Environmental groups with high expectations for Paris were sorely disappointed, however. “The Paris Climate Agreement is not a fair, just, or science-based deal,” Friends of the Earth said.

Ahead of the conference, Rebecca Leber outlined six keys to success in her feature article previewing the talks. Here we give you our final verdict on whether the COP21 agreement achieved those goals.

Progress Report   December 14, 2015

Commit to cut carbon emissions significantly by 2030.

You might hear Paris referred to as the “first truly universal agreement on climate change.” That’s because 187 countries responsible for 95 percent of emissions came forward with plans that would mitigate or cut their emissions growth, even though they still get us only halfway to the global goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages. Though it’s a considerable success to now count India and Brazil among the nations with plans on greenhouse gases and deforestation, these pledges won’t be legally binding. Instead, the hope is that international expectations and public pressure will be enough to get nations to deliver. The deal also omits a few obvious sources of pollution, like planes and ships.

Establish reporting and transparency requirements.

There was a scuffle over exactly how to handle transparency, with China leading the campaign for more flexibility for developing nations and less oversight. So what you see in the deal is a rather vague call for a framework that is “non-intrusive” and “non-punitive,” repeating more than once the need for “flexibility.” But it will require all nations to publish national inventories of their emissions by source and also share updates on implementing their domestic climate plans to a “technical expert review” that will track progress.

Create a payment system to finance climate adaptation.

Developed nations came forward with many more financial pledges to try to convince poor ones they’re taking seriously their responsibility for climate change. But the agreement itself didn’t ease many of those concerns. It reaffirmed a goal of mobilizing $100 billion in finance a year from 2020 to 2025, requiring developed nations to contribute an unset amount. In the non-binding decision portion of the text, nations promised to reconvene in 2025 to consider a more ambitious goal. It also encouraged developing countries to contribute to their peers. The deal recognized that some countries will suffer losses and damage from a problem they did not create, but it also absolved developed nations of any financial liability.

Put past disagreements aside.

Clearly, the Paris talks reached a middle ground if it ended with a deal. The text’s clunky nature is a testimony to the heavy compromises required to get to an agreement, and it does make allowances for developing nations in nearly every section. Yet the success of the deal is that it finally unites developed and developing nations under a similar framework for transparency and reporting, even if the expectations are still adjusted for unique economic circumstances.

Agree to return to the negotiating table regularly.

Every five years, countries will need to take stock of their emissions and put new national climate pledges on the table—starting with the first formal “stocktake” in 2023. Each successive climate pledge “will represent a progression over time,” a nod to the reality that one-time action on pollution won’t be enough. 2023 is on the late side to reassess new targets. To compensate, the deal also sets up an interim “dialogue” in 2018.

Rethink the 2-degree target.

The deal calls for keeping global average temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages, and it is the first time the international community has formally recognized that staying under 1.5 degrees is ideal. To get there, it spells out an ambitious, if vague, long-term goal for countries to reach peak emissions “as soon as possible” and to reach a “balance” of emissions in the atmosphere and forests to remove carbon after 2050.  It also points out the obvious: Developing nations won’t get there as fast.

Here’s a roundup of the biggest news from around the conference:

  • Though the final text is aspirational and far from perfect, it does show momentum for further climate action. (New Republic)
  • Jonathan M. Katz, reporting from Paris, writes on the sense of relief that overtook Le Bourget after negotiators eked out a final agreement. (New Republic)
  • Get ready for the COP21 hangover. Global warming is far from solved. (New Republic)
  • How a South African negotiation technique carried the climate negotiations. (Quartz)
  • Despite the protest ban, activists had the last word in Paris—and many said the agreement does not go far enough. (Grist)
  • John Kerry defends the agreement after James Hansen, climate activist and former NASA scientist, said the talks were a fraud. (The Guardian)
  • Other activist groups applauded the agreement as a turning point in history. Read a round-up of organizations’ statements. (Inside Climate News)
  • The crucial difference between “should” and “shall” in negotiating a global agreement. (The ABC)
  • The aviation industry is a top emitter not covered by the climate talks, but a global deal should come next year. (Climate Central)
  • A breakdown of the top five key points of the final agreement. (Mashable)

Read our previous progress reports:

Monday, November 30

Tuesday, December 1

Wednesday, December 2

Thursday, December 3

Friday, December 4

Monday, December 7

Tuesday, December 8

Wednesday, December 9

Thursday, December 10

Friday, December 11