The French probably have a word for it, and if the French don’t then the Germans likely do. It’s the word for a monumental and historic accomplishment that at the same time falls short of complete success and, in some ways, falters completely. Yet the door to success hasn’t shut — it’s open and beckoning, with the fresh-baked scent of something wonderful wafting from a clean, well-lighted future. Complicated, right? But that’s where we are after nearly 200 countries spent two weeks forging a major new international climate agreement at the UN’s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris.
The conference made history, in a good way, before it even began. That’s because 186 different countries submitted individual commitments for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. That those commitments collectively fall significantly short of what’s needed in the long run to avoid catastrophic climate disruption, though, was lost on no one. That may help explain one of the most surprising and extraordinary COP21 developments: the setting of a more ambitious target of keeping total climate warming well below 2 degrees C (and ideally less than 1.5 degrees C). Add to that an official commitment from all 195 countries to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible” and to achieve net zero carbon emissions by the end of this century.
In effect, the whole world has effectively declared its intention to swiftly eliminate fossil fuels as an energy source and replace them with clean, renewable energy sources, while also better managing our forests and the way that food is produced and consumed. That not only puts fossil fuel corporations in particular on notice but also sends a powerful signal that, as President Obama put it, “has the potential to unleash investment and innovation in clean energy at a scale we have never seen before.” This truly is momentous — virtually all of the world’s nations have agreed upon an ambitious strategy to address climate change.
Yet we can’t ignore that COP21 also fell short in some important ways. Besides the obvious gap between commitment and ambition, there is the fact that the commitments that have been made are not legally binding. In addition, although developed nations promised at least $100 billion per year in public and private investment by 2020 to help poorer countries develop clean energy and respond to the effects of climate disruption, serious disparities still exist between the countries most responsible for the problem and the ones that will be most harmed by it. Furthermore, important provisions that appeared in early drafts for protecting human rights, workers’ rights, and the rights of indigenous people either vanished or were watered down.
Here’s what’s keeping the door open, though. The Paris agreement taps into some fundamental truths about the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy: This journey is both irresistible and irrevocable. The strongest provisions in the agreement center on transparency and periodically ratcheting up each nation’s commitments. A “global stocktake” will review every country’s progress every five years, with countries recalibrating their ambitions based on advances in clean energy technology or financing (and, perhaps, with increased urgency owing to the further effects of climate disruption). That’s how the gap between action and ambition will need to be closed.
What does this mean for the climate movement? First, let’s recognize that, without the climate movement — without hundreds of thousands of people marching in the streets and working to replace dirty fuels with clean energy — the Paris agreement we have today would not even have been possible. Second, this agreement means that there’s never been a better time to double down on pushing for climate action, climate justice, and clean energy. We need to do that not only to address the shortcomings of the Paris agreement but also to take full advantage of the opportunities it has created. The next years will be crucial.
This agreement has put in place a mechanism that can amplify ambition and accelerate the progress we’re already making on protecting our climate by replacing fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy all over the world. We’re like a spacecraft that swings past a planet for a gravitational slingshot — only our trajectory isn’t taking us out of the solar system but away from fossil fuels and toward 100 percent clean energy.
What an incredible journey this will be — an entire world heading for a better, cleaner, healthier, safer future. There may be a fancy foreign word for that, but for now I think we can settle on one simple one: progress.