Four Things to Know About the Paris Climate Deal

The strengths and limitations of the roadmap for fighting climate change

COP 21 protests
On the last day of the climate conference in Paris, thousands of people gathered to demonstrate for global climate justice and against climate change. Leo Simon/Demotix/Corbis

Six years after the dramatic failure of the last major international climate summit in Copenhagen, politicians and environmentalists alike are celebrating the historic accord reached in France over the weekend. Now, after two weeks of delicate negotiations, nearly 200 countries have agreed to take aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gases and shift away from using fossil fuels.

But after all the back-patting is over, what does the new climate agreement actually mean? Here are four things to know about what some are calling the best chance we have at keeping the Earth habitable:

What does the climate deal mean?

The climate deal set an aggressive target to limit atmospheric temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). This is slightly lower than the previous target that several countries set of 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degree Fahrenheit), which is considered the tipping point for irreversible and devastating consequences, like rising sea levels, droughts and famine. The new deal also gives nations a short time to take action. Starting in 2018, delegates will meet again to share their progress, with the expectation of developing even more ambitious plans by 2020, Craig Welch reports for National Geographic.

What are its limits?

While the deal is a good starting point, it’s not a complete solution. According to scientists who have analyzed the deal, even if every country sticks to the agreement it will only cut about half the of carbon emissions necessary to keep global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius, Coral Davenport writes for the New York Times. And while signing countries are legally required to reconvene every five years to report on their progress, each country is responsible for setting their own goals for lowering emissions. Also, while the final deal advocates for wealthy countries to create a $100 billion fund to help developing nations, it is not legally binding, Davenport writes.

Who is happy and who is unhappy with this?

It's pretty impressive that 195 countries agreed on a single treaty, but the signatures weren't all given without some grumbling. President Barack Obama, who called the deal a “turning point” in the fight against climate change, even admitted it wasn’t a perfect plan. The same sentiment was heard from the leaders of countries like China and India, who fought for more financial support for developing countries, the BBC reports.

Unsurprisingly, delegates from oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia strongly resisted any pressure to set a strict temperature goal and regular reviews of carbon emission levels, The Guardian reports.

What happens next?

The accord may only be partly legally binding, but it sends a strong signal to investors and businesses that the world’s governments are ready to transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources. The deal’s success also requires cooperation of future world leaders, John D. Sutter, Joshua Berlinger and Ralph Ellis report for CNN. If future leaders are unwilling to stick to the agreements made in Paris last week, then research shows that it is almost certain that atmospheric temperatures will skyrocket far beyond the point of no return, the BBC reports.

Experts can only speculate on the long-term results of this month’s summit, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. Whether the world stays on this path is another question.

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