After more than two weeks of negotiations, delegates appear to be on the brink of approving a final deal on international climate action.
The U.N. climate conference, which began on November 30, has brought representatives from nearly 200 nations to Paris in the hope of hammering out an international agreement on climate action. Many, from environmental organizations to politicians, have referred to the talks as historic, or the planet’s best chance at limiting the dangers of global warming. Without international action, scientists predict that the world could warm by more than 3°C by the end of the century — a threshold that could usher in, among other things, increased mega-droughts, sea-level rise, and food insecurity.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius of France — who has been presiding over the talks for the past week — called the draft of an agreement “ambitious and balanced” in an announcement on Saturday, and urged participating nations to swiftly ratify the document.
“Our text is the best possible balance — a balance which is powerful yet delicate, which will enable each delegation, each group of countries, with his head held high, having achieved something important,” Fabius said.
The text offers a few key wins to nations that have been pushing for an ambitious deal to curb emissions and limit global warming. Crucially, it sets a goal of limiting temperature increase to 2°C, compared to temperatures before the Industrial Revolution, while mentioning 1.5°C as an aspirational goal. Climate scientists have long used 2°C as a kind of upper limit for warming, warning that if temperatures climb much higher, the consequences of global warming could become increasingly catastrophic.
Throughout the Paris talks, however, many representatives from developing nations, small island states, and civil society have been pushing for a lower target, arguing that 2°C does not go far enough to protect the world’s most vulnerable communities and ecosystems from climate change.
“1.5°C is a critical threshold for all ecosystems,” Samantha Smith, leader of the Global Climate and Energy Initiative at WWF International, said in a press conference. “It’s the Arctic, it’s coral reefs, it’s tropical forests, but not the least, it’s every person who is living in the Pacific islands and a coastal area.”
Moreover, many feel that the final draft text succeeds in sending a clear market signal to businesses and world economies that fossil fuels are no longer viable investments. In order to stay below 2°C, scientists argue that the majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves — coal, oil, and natural gas — will need to be left in the ground.
“The agreement’s temperature goal, net zero emissions objective, and processes to steadily increase the ambition of national emissions reduction commitments combine to send a clear message to the fossil fuel industry: after decades of deception and denial, your efforts to block action on climate change are no longer working,” Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a press statement. “Growing public concern about climate impacts, and the availability of cost-effective efficiency and renewable energy solutions are giving leaders the political will to stand up to fossil fuel polluters and put us on a path to create the global clean energy economy needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”
The draft agreement also requires countries to return to the negotiating table every five years beginning in 2020 with the goal of ratcheting up their commitment to cutting emissions.
The negotiations were scheduled to end Friday, but organizers had booked the conference hall at Le Bourget — a suburb six miles outside of Paris where the U.N negotiations have been held — through the weekend. Last minute language tweaks, or debates over certain articles, are common in climate talks — in 2009, the final hours of the Copenhagen talks were marred by last-minute disagreements that ultimately derailed the final agreement’s strength.
There is a muted but present displeasure with this final draft agreement, with some environmental organizations worrying that it does not go far enough to protect the world’s most vulnerable communities from the impacts of climate change. Friends of the Earth International called the agreement a “a sham,” while Oil Change International called it “a lowest common denominator of global politics.”
The draft, however is still just that — a draft that needs to be agreed upon by all members of the conference in order for it to become binding. Fabius told the New York Times that he hoped to gavel the agreement through later this afternoon, local Paris time. The agreement needs unanimous consent from participating parties to pass.