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It's now and happening for the first time ever. The globe coming together to battle climate change.
OUT OF THIS WORLD | What's Up In Climate Change

Six important facts about the world's brand new climate deal

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Monday, December 14, 2015, 4:06 PM - An "unprecedented" global agreement pulled us back from the brink of a climate change disaster Saturday. Here are the six most important facts about this new deal.

"Unprecedented" level of commitment from the world

The past two weeks have most certainly had their rough patches. Going into these talks, there were plenty of differing opinions about what should end up in the final text of the agreement.

In the end, though, over 190 nations from around the world - both developed and developing - arrived together to produce a plan that's not only ambitious, but also realistic in its goals.

"This is something that is unprecedented in the history of climate negotiations," French president Francois Hollande said. "This will be a major leap for mankind."

New 1.5oC warming limit

For the longest time, the goal for limiting disastrous climate change as been to keep human-caused global warming at a maximum of 2oC above the average global temperatures during pre-industrial times.

Although this was still the overall narrative going into the climate negotiations in Paris, a small contingent arrived with a much more bold goal in mind.

Working from the basis of new climate studies that suggest that even +2oC is far too much to prevent the worst for some regions of the world - especially island nations that stand to lose the very ground they live on to rising ocean levels - this contingent presented a 1.5oC limit to the warming. While negotiators could have pushed it aside in favour of the longer-standing goal, as the talks progressed, this idea gained considerable traction.

Now, while the overall goal is to limit warming to "well below 2oC above pre-industrial levels," according to the agreement, there is a special provision added "to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change."

Reaching a 1.5oC goal will not be easy. According to Glenn Peters, senior researcher for the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research - Oslo (CICERO), it would take us reaching peak CO2 emission sometime in the next five years, or a steady ramping down to zero emissions by 2025 or maybe 2030, or the extensive use of "negative emission" technology (literally stripping the excess carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere) if we need to keep emitting for longer. Since development of these technologies has been slow, we would need significant advances to keep with emissions.

To examine exactly what we can expect from a 1.5oC rise in temperature, and the exact path we need to follow with emission to get us there (and keep us there), the new agreement invites the climate change science community to pen a new IPCC report, to provide us with those details, by 2018.

An inclusive long-term outlook

One aspect of these talks that caused plenty of pessimism about a universal deal is the fact that different parts of the world are at different places in their industrial development.

Firstly, there is the issue that currently developed nations are already responsible for much of the fossil fuel burning that has taken place, and are thus responsible for most of the warming that has taken place as a result. Secondly, while adopting clean technology may be relatively easy for developed nations, other countries are going to have to continue to use fossil fuels for longer.

While previous deals seemed to bypass these issues, setting hard limits and expectations on everyone, across the board, this new deal acknowledges these differences and weaves them into the plan.

Now, developed nations have already committed to $100 billion per year towards assisting less developed nations, with the deal setting that as a hard minimum to the funding, and nations will revisit this commitment every 5 years going forward.

Also, as wealthier nations of the world strive to reach peak emissions as soon as possible, and adopt more renewable energy sources in the short-term, developing nations will be allowed to continue burning fossil fuels in order to "catch up." The idea behind this is that the emission reductions taking place in the developed world will offset (or possibly even more than offset) the increased emissions from developing nations.

At the same time, the plan introduces a "losses and damages" section, to address how developed nations can assist developing nations in dealing with unavoidable impacts of climate change.

Fossil fuels are on the way out

There is already a big move in various sectors of society to divest from fossil fuels, but this new plan pushes the eventual end of fossil fuel consumption to the forefront.

The plan calls for a balance to be achieved by the second half of this century, between greenhouse gas emission levels and what the Earth's oceans and ecosystems can absorb from the air. This will require substantial reductions in emissions.

Emission reductions can certainly be assisted through technology, but the easiest, fastest route to lower emissions is to stop burning the fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Transitioning from burning oil, gas and coal to renewable bio-energy, wind, hydro, geothermal and solar is the path this plan puts us on.

With the costs for these renewable energy sources having dropped significantly in recent years, while their efficiency has increased, we're already getting closer to a time when renewable energy will be the cheaper way to go. The added commitments, and especially funding, from this plan will make that happen all the sooner.

The deal will get better

Commitments are in place, with bold new goals, but this isn't the end of the process.

Starting in 2023, nations signing the agreement with take stock of their actions under the plan thus far, and make efforts to ramp-up their commitments moving forward. This process will repeat every five years afterward, no doubt assisted by the progress made up to that point and by new breakthroughs in technology.

Thus, not only is this a commitment made by current administrations and leaders, but it will also bring future national leaders into the conversation, drawing out commitments from them as well.

It's not perfect end, but a good beginning

Going in, the chances of making everyone happy with this agreement were next to zero. There are still points of contention, even with everyone agreeing to adopt the plan on Saturday.

Although the main parts of the agreement - the temperature goals and the five-year review process - are legally binding, many other portions of the agreement are not.

The primary goal of the agreement is still for less than 2oC of warming, with a softer commitment towards the 1.5oC goal. That still puts island and coastal nations at high risk for the most damaging impacts of climate change.

The 1.5oC goal may turn out to be unobtainable, given current emission levels.

There does not seem to be any discussion of nations "backsliding" on their commitments or any obligation for them to reach more ambitious targets with each reassessment.

It's also unlikely that any kind of binding liability or compensation will work its way into the "losses and damages" portion of the agreement.

Despite all that, this is a monumental start.

The fact that nations came together with pledges covering the vast majority of current greenhouse gas emissions. The fact that they were willing to address an even more ambitious target than was originally put forward. The fact that they accepted that developed and developing nations need to have different timelines for how they proceed towards renewable energy. The fact that they agreed to a five-year reassessment process on both emission targets and funding commitments, to tie future leaders into the process.

All of these facts indicate the world is not only taking the idea of a clean, renewable energy future seriously, but that it's really the only viable way for us to go forward.

Now it's up to us

Current leaders have developed and agreed to the plan. Now, it's going to take all of us to make it a success.

That means supporting plans for emission cuts and for clean energy. It means making changes in our daily lives towards reducing emissions - using less energy, favouring more fuel efficient vehicles and supporting public transit, and shopping locally, just to name a few.

It also means we need to choose future leaders who will uphold this agreement, and thus work towards bettering our lives and the environment, rather than those who would have us return to the cumbersome, outdated ways of the past that put us in this predicament in the first place.

Sources: UNFCCC (pdf) | Climate Brief | Desmog Canada

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