On Monday, roughly 40,000 heads of state, diplomats, scientists, activists, policy experts, and journalists will descend on an airport in the northern Paris suburbs for the biggest meeting on climate change since at least 2009—or maybe ever. The summit is organized by the United Nations and is primarily aimed at producing an agreement that will serve as the world’s blueprint for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the impacts of global warming. This is a major milestone in the climate change saga, and it has been in the works for years.
Like any high-stakes diplomatic summit, representatives of national governments will sit in a big room and parse through pages of text, word by word. The final document will actually be a jigsaw puzzle of two separate pieces. The most important part is the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). These are commitments made individually by each country about how they plan to reduce their carbon footprints. The United States, for example, has committed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, mostly by going after carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. Nearly every country on Earth has submitted a plan, together covering about 95 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Is this actually going to stop climate change? Short answer, no. The latest estimate is that the INDCs on the table will limit global warming to about 2.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That’s above the 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) limit scientists say is necessary to avert the worst impacts—but it’s also about 1 degree C less warming than would happen if the world continued on its present course.
No one expects that this summit will be the end of the battle to stop climate change. As technology improves and countries get more confident in their ability to curb greenhouses gases, they’ll be able to step up their action over time. That’s why it’s essential for the agreement to include a requirement for countries to do so. In any case, even if the whole world stopped burning all fossil fuels right now, warming from existing greenhouse gas emissions would continue for decades, so adaptation is also a crucial part of the agreement.
Meanwhile, the mere existence of the talks has already spurred a wave of new investment in clean energy, new commitments from cities and states around the globe, and other actions that aren’t part of the core agreement. And the international peer pressure around the INDCs has already made it clear that simply ignoring climate change isn’t a realistic geopolitical option, even for countries like Russia or the oil-producing Gulf states.
That’s a significant change from what would be happening in the absence of the talks.
In other words, it’s safe to say that the Paris summit has already been somewhat successful, and now we have the opportunity to see how far that success can go.