It’s the Thought that Counts

What the Paris Agreement Means

The Paris Agreement will soon come into force. The world finally decided to address climate change internationally. Climate change is a contentious political issue. Regardless of whether one believes that climate change is man-made, it is agreed that pumping inordinate amounts of carbon into the atmosphere isn’t helping maintain our ecosystem’s balance. Climate change will impact our own and future generations. Scientific studies have confirmed the early impacts of climate change across the planet. Unfortunately, the impacts of climate change, or any environmental damage, aren’t immediately felt. This delay between action and reaction allows individuals, businesses and governments to dissociate themselves with the ramifications. The Paris Agreement is the first major step of the world taking collective responsibility for the planet.

This isn’t the first attempt to get the world to combat environmental damage. A 2009 summit in Copenhagen to reduce the deleterious dangers of climate change self-destructed. Now, an increased urgency is lighting a fire under the governments of the world. China faced harsh internal criticism for its high levels of pollution, especially smog. President Obama demonstrated his support for carbon reduction when he released the first U.S. climate change policy last year.

The Paris Agreement creates a system of intergovernmental peer pressure. The system it establishes pushes countries to create their own plans to cut carbon emissions and to restructure the plan every five years starting 2020 to tighten the cuts. The peer pressure comes with the public review process every five years starting 2023. The agreement doesn’t impose strict controls over how much a country has to reduce carbon emissions because such measures would dissuade countries from joining. For the U.S., an agreement with these measures would’ve required approval from the Republican-controlled Senate, which was unlikely.

Illustrator: Taylor Daniels

Illustrator: Taylor Daniels

On Oct. 5, the agreement reached its threshold of members, and it will come into effect on Nov. 4 this year. Currently, 81 countries out of the 197 present have ratified the agreement. With many major carbon-producing countries like the U.S. and China behind the plan, it has the possibility of making huge changes. However, the impact will likely not be as great or immediate as hoped.

The plan calls to keep global heating below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and intends to keep it below 1.5 degrees C. However, even with the expected cuts, many believe global heating will be 3 degrees C. These numbers don’t sound very large, but on the scale of the entire planet, these small numbers produce changes that accumulate. We so completely rely upon our world that these changes could bring devastation with them.

Combatting carbon emissions requires change, and change is expensive. A nation won’t take action unless it sees that the benefits outweigh the costs. Although moving towards more reliable energy sources is more expensive now, once such systems have been established they will pay for themselves, even ignoring the benefit to the planet.

The Paris Agreement marks a transition in the way that environment protection is treated worldwide. The writers of the agreement were optimistic, but that is a good thing. If the agreement never reaches the high marks it sets, it’s still a success. The agreement isn’t strict enough to maintain itself without the full support of each country behind it. However, the agreement incentivizes countries to compete in reducing carbon emissions, and as any good capitalist would know, competition leads to progress.

One point of contention is how larger countries will assist smaller countries. It has been proposed that larger countries will supply $100 billion to support smaller countries with the transition by 2020. The agreement recognizes that some countries are not in the position to cut emissions as much as others and that all countries should do however much they can.

The legacy of the Paris Agreement won’t be the agreement itself. The legacy will be the transition it represents. Many countries are showing an unprecedented willingness to address the issue of climate change. Even if the agreement simply states, “We will try to cut carbon emissions,” as long as the countries are behind it, the outcome would be the same: a cleaner world.