The Paris Climate Agreement Changes Everything

World leaders agree to take meaningful steps to slow the impacts of climate change

On Saturday, 196 nations made voluntary commitments to cut carbon pollution and slow rising global temperatures. Credit: Stephane Mahe/Reuters

The last time the world came together to cut a climate deal was in Copenhagen in 2009, and it was a diplomatic train wreck, ending in melodrama, bitterness and recrimination. Even worse, it resulted in an agreement that did little to solve the problem of climate change. In fact, it arguably made the problem worse, since it suggested that nations of the world were about as likely to cut a deal to reduce carbon pollution as a class of hungry kindergarteners would be to cut a deal to reduce ice cream consumption.

But this month's UN Climate Change Conference in Paris was no Copenhagen. The world has changed a lot in the last six years. Long before French foreign minister Laurent Fabius slammed his green gavel down on Saturday night to close the deal, everyone knew Paris was going to have a happier ending. Exactly how happy, no one was sure. But two nights before the negotiations ended, while hourly news reports from the conference were still playing up the intrigue, I was at a reception in an elegant 18th century building on the Place Vendôme in central Paris co-hosted by billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer. I asked Tim Wirth, former senator and now vice chair of the United Nations Foundation, who has been in the climate fight as long as anyone, how he thought the negotiations were going. He beamed. "It's a done deal," he told me. "All that's left now are the ankle-biters."

This is not to say there wasn't plenty of backroom drama in the final hours: would China accept the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C that was being pushed by the small island nations? Would Saudi Arabia throw a monkey wrench into the deal at the last minute? Would India balk because it wanted more help with new energy technology? The word at the conference was, "Everything is up for grabs until it's not." But the hard problems had been solved by several years of talks between the U.S. and China, the two 800-pound gorillas in this deal. Negotiations were also propelled by Mother Nature, who had been wreaking havoc around the planet, as well as by climate activists, who had dialed up the political pressure on leaders around the world. Perhaps most important, the rapidly declining price of clean energy – the cost of solar power has fallen by 80 percent in the past few years – made it much easier to imagine a future without fossil fuels.

The conference, which was held at an old airport on the outskirts of Paris, had a kind of Woodstock vibe – not because dancing diplomats were tripping on biofuel, but because of the feeling among many attendees that Paris marked the beginning of one of the biggest cultural, political and economic shifts the world has ever seen. To kick off the meeting, heads of state from 150 nations all posed for a group photo. Outside the conference itself, there were hundreds of side events, parties and rallies that featured trash pickers from India, billionaries like Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates, celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Bianca Jagger, climate refugees from eroding islands in Alaska, scientists and economists from universities around the world, and activists marching for human rights. If you cared about climate, it was the place to be. Everyone knew something important was going to happen here.

And it did. 196 nations of the world made voluntary commitments to cut carbon pollution and help the vulnerable nations of the world deal with the impacts of climate change. There are plenty of devils in the details (the World Resources Institute has a good summary of the agreement), but the larger message was unambiguous: after decades of arguing, fighting and betrayal, the people of the world stood together and said goodbye to fossil fuels. The conference was so full of good feeling that it almost felt like a Coke commercial. Of course, given the degree to which climate change is already ravaging the planet, this farewell should have happened twenty years ago.

As far as the details of the Paris agreement go, there are two big accomplishments worth mentioning. The first is that it more or less eliminated the old distinction between developed and developing countries, which was enshrined in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and led to two decades of political warfare both in the U.S. and abroad (and was one of the big reasons the Kyoto Protocol was never ratified by the U.S.). The basic idea was that the developed world – i.e., the U.S. and the European Union – bore the burden for cutting emissions first, largely because they were the ones who had caused the problem with their 150-year-long fossil fuel party. In order to grow, the developing world – i.e. China and India – believed it had the right to do the same thing. This binary distinction was a big diplomatic blunder, not only because developing nations like China and India are quickly becoming the largest carbon polluters on the planet (even if per capital emissions are well below the U.S.), but also because it created a political dynamic in the U.S. that allowed deniers in Congress to argue that if China and India weren't doing anything to solve the problem, why should we? The Paris agreement eliminates the old binary distinction – now nations are expected to contribute to the best of their abilities. By putting everyone in the same boat, the Paris agreement underscores an essential truth: We have one atmosphere, and if we screw it up, everyone suffers.

The second big accomplishment is that the agreement sets up a kind of public accounting method for carbon pollution (and one which, unlike commitments to emissions reductions, will be legally binding). Public accounting is key to making sure the emissions reductions that nations claim they are making are real, and not just carbon PR designed to boost their status as good global citizens. Accounting standards will take time to evolve, but the Paris agreement at least begins the process.

When I asked President Obama last September how he would define success in Paris, he said, "The key for Paris is just to make sure that everybody is locked in, saying, 'We're going to do this.' Once we get to that point, then we can turn the dials." It's fair to say that everyone is locked in – now we'll see how far world leaders can turn the dials. Because the truth is, this agreement is only as strong as the will of the people behind it. When it comes down to it, the only thing that matters is how much carbon pollution is cut and how fast. The carbon reductions in the Paris agreement are entirely voluntary. No international treaty is going to ban coal plants or internal combustion engines. More important, no president or prime minister is going to choose to reduce pollution over economic growth. For all the enthusiasm in Paris on Saturday night, it will be ten years before it's clear whether it was a historic turning point in the fight to preserve a habitable planet, or just a feel-good event for well-meaning people who are doomed to be steamrolled by Mother Nature. In the end, all the Paris agreement really says is, "This is the direction we are going. We are moving toward a carbon-free world." Whether we ever get there or not remains to be seen.