World leaders Saturday adopted an historic international climate accord in Paris, the first-ever agreement to commit almost every country to fight climate change.
The 31-page pact does not have binding language or a mechanism to force countries to live up to the promises to cut greenhouse gases emissions or provide money for developing and poor nations to cope with the effects of global warming.
Adoption of the accord is a major win for President Obama. He has made it a central piece of his second-term climate agenda to get an international agreement, since domestic action can only make a small dent in the world’s greenhouse gases.
Obama has taken a leading international role leading up to the Paris conference, securing major environmental pledges from countries like Brazil and Mexico, and the first-ever promise from China to limit its greenhouse gas output.
Obama has also used the climate deal to bolster major controversial climate regulations. He’s argued that rules like the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) carbon dioxide limits for power plants and its methane emissions rules for the oil and natural gas sectors are necessary to obtain the 26 to 28 percent greenhouse gas reduction he pledged to the UN.
But the drive toward the accord has been opposed at nearly turn by congressional Republicans who oppose Obama’s climate push or are concerned that it would be economically ruinous.
Since the accord does not commit the United States to anything with legal force that it has not already agreed to in previous treaties, the Obama administration will argue that it does not require Senate ratification as a treaty.
Nonetheless, the GOP has tried a number of measures to stop Obama from participating in the process.
They’ve argued that the pact will need congressional review, they’ve pledged to block the funding Obama has promised to developing nations to cope with global warming and they’ve tried to convince foreign nations that Obama cannot live up to his pledged emissions targets, among other strategies.
In general, the final accord brings together a set of individual climate pledges that the nearly 200 nations have submitted.
It asks that the countries review their commitments every five years and see what they can do to increase the ambition and pledge even more cuts for the future, a key demand from the Obama administration.
The Obama administration also got its wish that countries are required to be transparent and set up a mechanism to report their emissions and their progress toward the goals they set out.
In the accord, the nations say that they’ll strive to peak global emissions “as soon as possible,” and to work toward a world in which greenhouse gas emissions are so low that the are completely offset by plants and other things that capture carbon.
They say that their goal is to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial temperatures. But in a nod to the concerns of small island nations, they recognize that limits to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
The deal recognizes the need for compensation for vulnerable nations for “loss and damage” caused by climate change. But, importantly, it makes clear that richer nations are not internationally liable for the losses.
The section on climate finance, providing money to developing nations to adapt to the changing world, is not binding, another key ask from the Obama administration, since Congress might try to block Obama’s $3 billion pledge for the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund.
Most major environmental groups welcomed the deal as a historic step in fighting climate change, although others were disappointed that it did not go far enough.
“The Paris Agreement has the power to send loud, clear signals to economic markets that there’s no turning back from the transition to a zero-carbon economy,” said Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute. “The agreement will be good for people, good for the economy, and good for the planet.”
“Climate change has met its match in the collective will of a united world,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Our challenge now, in our country and all others, is to make good on the promise of Paris, by turning the action we've pledged into the progress we need.”
The Center for Biological Diversity recognized that the agreement is important, but called it “weak.”
“The plain truth is that Paris didn’t produce the strong, just and binding treaty we need to protect the planet’s most climate-vulnerable people and our very web of life from climate chaos,” said Kassie Siegel, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But the summit did highlight the growing power of a global movement for true climate justice.”