PARIS—The two-part climate agreement adopted on Saturday by the nations of the world represents the historic culmination of a diplomatic process that began at Rio in 1992, at the Earth Summit. That year, the world agreed to adopt actions so as to prevent “dangerous climate change,” proceeding on the basis of “common but differentiated responsibilities and capabilities.”

Having enunciated those foundational principles, nations were unable to agree in the next decades about what they meant in practice. An attempt at Kyoto in 1997 foundered on the opposition of the United States to a treaty that required no action on the part of the major emitters among the developing countries. A second attempt at Copenhagen in 2009 was stillborn.

Only today, for the first time, have all the world’s nations agreed on a common approach that rebalances and redefines respective responsibilities, while further specifying what exactly is meant by dangerous climate change. Paragraph 17 of the “Decision” notes that national pledges will have to be strengthened in the next decades to keep global warming below 2° Celsius or 1.5°C, and Article 2 of the more legally binding “Agreement” says warming should be held “well below 2°C” and if possible limited to 1.5 °C. Article 4 of the Agreement calls upon those countries whose emissions are still rising to have them peak “as soon as possible,” so “as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”—a formulation that replaced a reference in Article 3 of the next-to-last draft calling for “carbon neutrality” by the second half of the century.

“The wheel of climate action turns slowly, but in Paris it has turned. This deal puts the fossil fuel industry on the wrong side of history,” commented Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International.


The Climate Action Network, representing some 900 organizations including Greenpeace, would have preferred language that flatly adopted the 1.5 degree goal and that called for complete “decarbonization”—an end to all reliance on fossil fuels. But to the extent the network can be said have common positions, it will be able to live with the Paris formulations, to judge from many statements made by leading members in CAN’s twice-daily press briefings.

On the critical issue of financial aid for developing countries struggling to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change, Paris affirms the Copenhagen promise of $100 billion by 2020, in the Decision (Paragraph 115) but not in the more binding Agreement, from which it was removed—to the displeasure of the developing countries, no doubt. Nevertheless, every aspect of the Paris accords will be reassessed in a global “stocktake” set by the Agreement for 2023, including the financial provisions. In other words, not only carbon cutting efforts but obligations of the rich countries to the poor will be subject to the world’s critical scrutiny at that time.

The so-called G-77 group, which actually represents 134 developing countries, appears to have played a shrewd and tough game here at Le Bourget. Its very able and engaging chairperson, South Africa’s Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko, sent a sharp shot across the prow of the rich countries on the third day of the conference, with a 17-point press release enumerating the Group of 77’s complaints.


Though the developing countries wanted stronger and more specific financial commitments and “loss and damage” provisions that would have included legal liability, there is evidence throughout the Paris Decision and Agreement of the industrial countries’ giving considerable ground to them. During the formal opening of the conference, President Obama met with leaders of AOSIS—the Alliance of Small Island States—and told them he understood their concerns as he too is “an island boy.” Evidently that made a good impression. Yesterday he reportedly called Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who wanted to back off from the mid-century carbon neutrality pledge, which may have helped save the substance if not the exact wording of that commitment.

Assessing overall U.S. diplomacy leading up to Paris, Harvard’s Robert N. Stavins told me simply, if perhaps a little crudely, “we won.” What he meant was that in seeking to blur the distinction made at Rio and Kyoto between rich and poor countries, and seeking to get all countries of the world to join in carbon cutting efforts, the United States was brilliantly successful.

It was indeed, but was that a victory not just for us Americans but for all of us, the citizens of the world? It was. When the Paris conference convened two weeks ago, virtually all the nations of the world had submitted climate action plans to the United Nations, the so-called Independent Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs, covering 95% of the world’s total emissions. Independent evaluations indicated the aggregate INDCs collectively would limit warming to between 2.7 and 3.5°C.


While that still fell well short of 1.5 or 2°C, it was significantly better than 4-5°C warming, which is where business as usual would take us, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent assessment.

It was an outcome that far exceeded most expectations, including this writer’s.

In what are arguably the Paris accords’ most important provisions, the national pledges are to be collectively reassessed beginning in 2018-19, and then every five years after 2020. The general idea is to systematically exert peer group pressure on regularly scheduled occasions, so that everybody will ratchet up carbon cutting ambitions. Again, the language is slightly less strong than the Climate Action Network and climate scientists would have liked, but again, it is far better than nothing.


When the United States re-introduced the idea of voluntary pledges in the run-up to Copenhagen, rather than the program of mandatory emissions cuts that Kyoto put in place, it met with considerable suspicion among climate diplomats and specialists. Japan had proposed a pledge-and-review system in the negotiations that led to the Rio Framework Convention, and at that time—1990-91—it was considered one of the weaker ideas around. Yet in the reincarnated form of the INDC, the system seems to be working so far. And that is testament not only to tactful but persistent U.S. diplomacy, but to the diplomacy of its allies, notably France, which by all accounts did a beautiful job of organizing and managing the Paris conference, and in preparing the ground for it.

Speaking at a number of Paris side events, V. Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego said the INDC, which really is the foundation of the Paris accords, was a “brilliant invention” and a “fantastic idea.” Ramanathan is by any reckoning one of the world’s most influential and constructive climatologists, and so his opinion counts for something.

What “Ram” always hastened to add is that everything will now depend on how the Paris accords are implemented. And in that everybody at Paris has been unanimous. If the spirit of Le Bourget lives on, the accords will be considered in the long view of history an epochal achievement. If we falter, we will be in deep trouble.


A science and technology journalist with 40 years' experience. Currently a history adjunct in the CUNY system and at work on a book about climate diplomacy.