NfU COP21, cThe year 2015 ended on an up note, but the real work lies ahead. An election year begins in the US, and the success or failure of the Paris agreement could come down to who, come 2017, controls the White House and the Senate, and whether the agreement is ratified.

The agreement reached in Paris in December is already being hailed as a success, and rightly so; perhaps most of all from the perspective of environmentalists in the US – where consensus even on scientific fact is apparently unachievable. Nearly 200 nations reaching an agreement on climate change is a tremendous victory for hope and reason.

However, anyone looking for many substantial elements to the agreement will be disappointed. A survey of the document forged in Paris will show no mention of fracking or pipelines, no discussion of nuclear power or wind turbines, and no firm timeline by which renewables must overtake fossil fuels as the chief source of global energy. The agreement simply points its signatories in the right direction, with the hope of stronger, bolder signposts along the way.

In this blog’s previous post, the ambitions for Paris were laid out in simple and broad terms: a binding agreement with broad participation, a goal of 2ºC (or less) increase in global temperature over pre-industrial levels, and implementation after the fact. A successful agreement should have the goals of limiting future conflict and natural disasters, as well as empowering developing nations to move more easily to increased energy production through sustainable energy sources.

So how does the final agreement fulfill those hopes and desires?

For starters, language within the agreement encourages developed nations to assist developing nations with creating sustainable energy infrastructure including technology sharing, and calls on parties to assist the most vulnerable nations with climate change adaptation.

More broadly, the global will expressed prior to Paris carried more weight than any pessimist or realist would have anticipated. Based on that reality – and due in part to a resilient, positive global mindset expressed following the November 13th Paris attacks – the desire to limit conflict and to respond to crises seems inherent to the nature of the agreement reached. The agreement’s Preamble (full text available here) speaks of human rights and shared responsibilities for the Earth’s well-being. The importance of such language should not be underestimated. An agreement of the scale of the one reached in Paris does not allow for a lot of strong, substantive language within the binding Articles of the document. Instead – and this is the reason the agreement was reached and will be successful if it comes into effect – the document relies on the will of the parties, supported by the threat of international shame should real effort not be put forth.

By inserting indigenous rights, children’s rights, women’s rights, and other substantive concerns into the Preamble, parties’ success will be measured based not only on how well their efforts control the impacts of climate change, but on how well those efforts live up to human rights concerns. Where the agreement is by its nature short on mandatory specific actions, its promise is to strive for the best possible results without sacrificing the rights of vulnerable groups.

The GHG-reduction commitments made prior to Paris add up to about a 3ºC temperature rise above pre-industrial levels, but the agreement calls for a ratcheting up of goals with an ambition of surpassing 2ºC to achieve, if possible, a 1.5ºC rise. Technology forcing – setting goals that will require improvements beyond current technological capabilities – is written into the agreement. Language dense with specific, substantive requirements had to be omitted to garner broad support for the final text of the agreement, as well as to achieve ratification by the requisite 55 nations (which must account for at least 55% of global emissions). What remains are: the initial commitments made by the parties; the ambition to reach and surpass those goals while upholding the premises of human rights; the potential guilt, shame, and pariah status coming to parties that fail to make a real effort; and, crucially, independent verification of each nation’s progress reports. This transparency represents the most significant substantive element of the agreement.

Every five years, progress will be independently reviewed to gauge what is working, what isn’t, which countries are doing more than promised, and which ones are doing less. This will not only guilt parties into action and encourage the sharing of new ideas, policies, and technology, but will also allow for the public and private sectors to decide where to lend their support and provide investment. This is the piece that best guarantees execution at such time as the agreement comes into effect.

As Paris has been proclaimed the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era (see here), it can be hoped that pressure will be on business interests to move beyond fossil fuels, and that the failure to do so will result in lost opportunities (see here). If conservative politicians cannot be convinced that climate change is real, they can at least recognize that their wells of support will run dry.

The agreement was not reached by single players calling the shots, or by small and developing nations ganging up to stage a coup. It was reached because enough parties finally came to the determination that this might be the last chance to act before the worst consequences of climate change become unavoidable.

The tipping point, then, really did come before the COP even began — possibly when Presidents Obama and Xi made their informal agreement over a year earlier, or possibly immediately after the disappointing Copenhagen COP in 2009. In any event, despite commitments that, on their own, will not achieve the 2º-or-less goal, the global will demonstrated prior to Paris created the foundation for the agreement itself. That global will creates a strong likelihood that the promises made before Paris will be met and then some. Guilt and shame only work when the milieu is one of ambition and agreement. That is what Paris achieved.

The agreement, when it filters down to national policies in the years to come, can force the creation of better, cleaner energy technology, as well as behavioral adaptation to increase efficiency, decrease waste, and encourage less overall consumption. This is where the substance will take place. This is where fracking can be phased out and pipeline regulation can be implemented. This is where coal, oil, and gas use can be drawn down so that wind, solar, geothermal, and small hydro power can be stepped up.

The Paris agreement may represent a self-fulfilling prophecy: the optimism that led to the document’s creation will be the engine that drives its successful outcomes. The only thing that could derail the agreement is the failure of parties to ratify it and carry out its mandate. In the US and every other country, the global will to curb climate change must be reflected in the choices we make in selecting our leadership. A US Senate filled with members who trust in science and care about the planet’s future, coupled with an Administration that deplores environmental degradation, would be a major factor in achieving the goals set in Paris.

But a Senate filled with snowball-throwing deniers and fossil fuel pawns, or a President who disregards the importance of the Paris agreement, would assure a game of dice with our collective future. After Paris, it will be easy for politicians to indicate on which side of history they wish to stand. Hopefully we will think of the big picture, and not rely on short-term, short-sighted promises.


CSPW Contributor Adam Arnold worked with GAP’s clinical program while earning his J.D. from the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law, is a member of the Maryland Bar, and has an LL.M. in International Environmental Law and International Organizations from American University’s Washington College of Law.