WSJ: Nations Unite in Global Agreement on Climate Change

PARIS—More than 190 nations have agreed on a plan to limit climate change, ending a decadeslong search for an accord requiring the world’s economies to regulate the emission of gases that scientists say are causing the earth to warm.

After two weeks of negotiations here, 195 countries united Saturday around a document that is effectively a blueprint for how the world will tackle global warming.

Negotiators sealed the deal after changing provisions that would have triggered a requirement that the agreement be approved by the U.S. Congress, where there are many lawmakers skeptical about a climate accord. They won over developing nations at the last hour by exempting them from obligations to help pay the bill for confronting climate change.

After the deal was approved, Nicaragua said it couldn’t support the agreement because it was lacking in ambition. However, it didn’t raise a formal objection, so it is still a party to the Paris deal.

The deal calls for wealthy economies such as the U.S. and the European Union to shoulder more of the burden, including a pledge to channel at least $100 billion a year to poor countries to help them respond to climate change.

The deal also requires action for the first time from developing nations, including large emitters such as China and India, to find ways to lower the trajectory of their emissions growth, even as they attempt to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

“This is a good agreement,” said Prakash Javadekar, India’s environment minister. “This means that [everyone] will act to mitigate the challenge presented by climate change.”

Governments hope the deal will spur a tectonic shift in global economic development, pushing countries away from burning fossil fuels and toward a host of newer technologies, including solar panels, wind-power turbines, electric cars and more energy-efficient buildings.

“In the coming decades the world will have to say goodbye to coal, oil and gas,” said German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks.

The agreement is also supposed to help poorer nations build new kinds of infrastructure, from levees to cyclone-resistant homes, that will protect them from rising sea levels, increased storm intensity and other effects that scientists link to climate change.

Governments have pledged to limit the world’s warming from the dawn of the industrial era to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and to “pursue efforts” to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.

Island nations and other countries most vulnerable to climate change insisted on mentioning the 1.5 degree target, arguing that even 2 degrees of warming would herald disastrous effects for them.

Whether the agreement will work fast enough to stave off the most damaging impacts of climate change is far from certain. The world has already warmed 0.9 degree Celsius since the late 19th century, according to the United Nations.

The accord’s weak spot is it allows nations to determine their own emissions reduction plans, immune from challenges by other governments. That was a compromise necessary to bring a host of governments on board, including the U.S., which would have been forced to ratify an internationally-agreed emissions reduction plan in the U.S. Senate, where Republicans and a few Democrats have staunchly opposed climate-change legislation.

The first batch of those voluntary plans, which were submitted by more than 180 governments ahead of the Paris conference, won’t be nearly enough to meet the 2 degree target, according to the U.N.

A coalition of developed countries and the poorest nations most vulnerable to climate change insisted the deal require governments to revisit their emission-reduction plans every five years. The first review will occur in 2023. “Paris is not the end but the beginning of a path on which the global community has agreed,” said Germany’s Ms. Hendricks.

To the surprise of scientists and environmental groups, negotiators made the agreement stricter during the final rounds of talks. On the last day, officials included a target to balance man-made emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases with mechanisms to absorb these gases in the second half of this century. Such a goal would require net carbon dioxide emissions to fall to zero, said Myles Allen, a climate scientist at Oxford University.

The agreement also includes a single system for reporting emissions cuts and financing, while giving some flexibility to developing nations wary of the burden of preparing such reports. Developed nations insisted on that to ensure developing nations implementtheir emissions-reduction plans.

The deal marks a rare win for the U.N., which oversees the international treaty governing the negotiations, after the organization has struggled for years to confront other threats, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Syrian civil war.

It is also a victory for French diplomatic efforts led by Foreign MinisterLaurent Fabius, a veteran politician who oversaw the talks in Paris. In the run up to the climate conference, French officials were haunted by the failures of previous climate negotiations, in particular the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009.

The meeting in the Danish capital had raised high expectations for a global deal that would encompass rich and poor countries, only to collapse into disarray on the final day, amid recriminations between developed and developing nations. At the time, U.S. President Barack Obama and Germany’s Angela Merkel salvaged a face-saving accord that saddled developed countries with a commitment to mobilize $100 billion in financing for developing states by 2020, without getting a commitment from poorer countries to cut their emissions.

Saturday’s agreement calls for developed countries to provide money beyond that initial $100 billion after 2020.

Rather than just focusing on finding agreement between the heavyweights—the U.S., China, India, Brazil and the EU—Mr. Fabius made a point of drawing in smaller players. And by inviting national leaders to attend at the start of the conference rather than at the end, the French left experts to sort out the technicalities, leaving ministers in the final days of the conference with a much shorter, more manageable text.

“This has been a master class in both classic diplomacy and modern multilateral diplomacy,” said Nick Mabey, who acted as climate adviser to former U.K. Prime MinisterTony Blair and is now the CEO of climate-think tank E3G.

Mr. Fabius sat in the negotiations into the early morning hours for several nights in a row. “This gives him immense credibility,” said Carole Dieschbourg, the Luxembourg environment minister who represented the EU in the negotiations.

French President François Hollande said the deal could act as a beacon for France and the rest of the world to leave behind the shock and pain of the terror attack that ripped through Paris just one month ago. “The 12th of December, 2015, could become a message of life and I personally would be happy, almost relieved, even proud, that this message would be launched from Paris,” he told delegates as they received the final version of the agreement.


Article by Gabriele Steinhauser and Matthew Dalton