The Paris Agreement and the Second Giant Leap for Mankind

Today the world is united in the fight against climate change.  Today the world gets a lifeline, a last chance to hand over to future generations a world that is more stable, a healthier planet, fairer societies and more prosperous economies.  - Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission

On Saturday, 195 countries signed the "Paris Agreement", an agreement meant to effect serious change in industrial behaviors among all nation signatories.  After previous failures in Copenhagen and Tokyo, the outcome of COP21 in Paris provides hope that real change may actually occur.  This is the largest show of unity within climate change ever seen.

The overarching goal of the Agreement is:

Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (we've already reached 1 degree) by 2100 and peaking greenhouse gas production as soon as possible, through:

  • Drastic reduction in emissions
  • Investing in clean energy (non-fossil fuels)
  • Financial assistance from developed countries to developing countries, and
  • A report every 5 years from each country detailing their progress, as well as a new plan to improve
Paris

After years of negotiating, this is an admirable plan.  When considering the success of the Agreement, there are a few things to bear in mind:

  • The Agreement is non-binding

That's okay.  There's truly no way to force a country to lower emissions or develop clean energy technology.  Creating a binding resolution (as in the Tokyo Protocol), would make countries more resistant to agreeing to it - especially when the targets are different for each country. But it's worth remembering that no country is in any way 'required' to adhere to this agreement.

  • The 5-year report will be instrumental in pushing countries towards their goals

There's a familiar force behind this clause: Peer Pressure.  No country is going to want to be the only one not making strong effort in modernizing their carbon infrastructure.  They may flat-out lie about their progress, but with all eyes on them, there will be intense scrutiny - especially on larger, developed nations.  There are also measures to ensure transparency.  The 5-year report will set a precedent continuing progress and adaptation.

  • There are no guidelines on how a country will reduce emissions

It's one thing to agree to reduce emissions.  It's another to actually do it, and many argue that we don't have the technology to achieve the goals outlined in the Agreement.  Which begets the second reason to keep your hopes up:

Bill Gates (et al.)

Microsoft ex-Chairman and philanthropist, Bill Gates, has personally committed $2 billion to research and development of technology to reduce greenhouse gas production.  The software mogul - who's decades of heading Microsoft lead to him being among the richest individuals in the world - believes the goals for cutting greenhouse gas production need to be substantially increased.  He's driving for wealthy countries who lead in carbon production (e.g. US and China) should be carbon-neutral by 2050.

wind turbines

28 private investors (among them, Facebook's Mark Zuckerburg and Amazon's Jeff Bezos) have agreed to foster the development of private companies involved in clean energy technology.  The initiative, coined "Mission Innovation", aims to increase the annual spending on energy research from $10 billion to $20 billion.  Bill Gates and these investors believe the only way to achieve meaningful climate goals is through unprecedented innovation - and they seek to lead the way in promoting it.

In an age of tech startups and capital flowing into every new app idea, it's incredibly exciting to consider the potential of Gates' plan.  Such funding and focus on a single idea hasn't been seen since the Space Race; even as a bystander, it will be thrilling to witness the capabilities and ingenuity of our brightest minds focused on the incredibly important task.

Happy Earth