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What does the Paris Climate Agreement mean to me?

Even with its long-term vision, the climate talks should give hope for short-term change

By Nicole Collins

Earlier this year, my 18-year-old daughter called me from her college dorm, excitedly telling me that she figured out what she wanted to do with her life. She wanted to become a climate change modeling engineer and possibly work for a coastal nation so she could help them adapt to sea-level rise. I praised her for her thoughtfulness, but as I hung up the phone, I had a pit in my stomach. I wished that I shared her optimism that we could still take action to stop climate change.

But then the Paris climate talks happened. On Saturday, December 12, like many other climate nerds, I took breaks from my holiday shopping to listen for the outcome of the talks. Amid the current atmosphere of unsettling events and political wrangling in the news, I was looking for something to brighten my spirits and add some hope to the holiday season. And the Paris talks delivered!

Seeing our world leaders cooperate in this unprecedented deal, my holiday wishes were answered and the season gained a new sparkle. But after the initial celebratory vibe started to fade, I began to wonder what this agreement means to my life and that of my fellow Americans. After digging into the agreement and reading countless analyses from all sides of the political spectrum, the conclusion I came to was that the agreement would probably make very little difference in my life. Or maybe it would make a huge difference. In the end, I think it really depends on your perspective.

Please don’t get me wrong; the agreement and stopping global warming depends on every signatory nation meeting their carbon reduction targets and returning to the negotiation table, every five years, to ask themselves and other nations what more they can do. It also depends on the ingenuity and cooperation of governments, business, universities, inventors, and financial institutions to bring new products and technologies to market that will help the meet the ambitious targets our world leaders have set. But the truth is the average American might not see an immediate impact.

In order to let you decide for yourself, let’s take a look at the agreement.

What does the agreement do?
The Paris Agreement commits 196 countries to work together to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with a stretch goal of keeping below 1.5° C. It also sets a global long-term goal to phase out greenhouse gas emissions this century, which could signal a turning point in the world’s consumption of fossil fuels.

Before the Paris conference began, each country submitted a climate action pledge, called an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), creating its roadmap to decrease emissions, increase renewable energy, and/or reduce deforestation. It’s important to understand that the INDCs are not legally binding, but voluntary. What is legally binding is each participating country must declare GHG reduction targets and prepare policies that will help them reach those targets. The voluntary nature of the INDCs has caused some climate scientists to distrust the agreement. But we need to start somewhere, and I view this agreement as a foundation to create future, tougher action.

What does the agreement really mean?
Now that we have the nuts and bolts, it might be easier to put in context what the agreement really means.

Global Warming: The first question on my mind was: Does this deal do enough to stop global warming? The answer is a quick no. The targets set forth by signatory nations are not enough to limit warming to the 2 degree Celsius mark, yet some of the consequences of an overheated planet might be avoided, or at least slowed, if the climate deal succeeds in reducing GHG emissions. At the least, by requiring regular reviews, the deal lays a foundation for stronger action in the future.

And slowing the effects of global warming does give us more time to work on adaptation measures, though it may be tough to adapt completely to the severe storms and sea-level rise anticipated with temperature rise over 2 degrees Celsius.

Global Politics: We are living in a conflict-ridden age. Watching world leaders bury the hatchet and cooperate for climate action gave me a lot of hope for resolving other conflicts that we are faced with. For example, before the talks, relations between the US and China have been tense. During the talks, the US and China found common ground and worked together amicably. Island nations and impoverished African nations found themselves sharing center-stage with industrial powerhouses such as the European Union and Japan. Could this new configuration of power create new opportunities for world peace and prosperity?

The Economy: The ambitious targets for limiting the rise in global temperatures may help companies involved in renewable energy and energy efficiency by expanding their markets. Investors such as Bill Gates have already pledged millions to spur energy innovations, and many are calling for increased public-private partnerships to bring new technologies to market. With more investment dollars flowing towards clean energy, could we see more jobs created through the construction of a new energy infrastructure, the maintenance of solar fields, and the development of new transportation systems that are less dependent on fossil fuels?

With the answer to these questions uncertain, I can see why the average American might not see any change in their lives. But the Paris Agreement has given me a renewed hope that in three years, when my daughter graduates from college, there still will be time for her to help stop the effects of global warming. Being able to picture my daughter living out her life in a world that has come together to solve one of the greatest challenges facing humanity… does that hope change my life for the better?

You bet it does.

Watching world leaders bury the hatchet and cooperate for climate action gave me a lot of hope for resolving other conflicts that we are faced with.

Action plans for reaching the 2-degree target (infographic courtesy of COP21)

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