The word “historic,” already being used to describe the just-accepted Paris climate agreement, is more than warranted. The world will now have a new and comprehensive regime in place to shape how its diverse nations go about the urgent task of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.
That’s why climate activists are ecstatic the world over right now. It’s a big deal.
The more ambiguous news, however, is that this document, by its very nature, depends on key sectors of society to respond to help make sure its goals are realized. Countries, companies and individuals all across the planet will have to do the right things — and very hard things, at that. And it’s too soon to tell exactly how they will do so.
What’s more, even if everyone plays by the rules, the standards and goals set out by the Paris agreement may not be enough to prevent the catastrophic effects of climate change. New science suggests that forces already set in motion — the melting of glaciers, the release of carbon dioxide from thawing permafrost — could unleash considerable impacts that this new deal is unable to prevent.
But those doubts should not overshadow the magnitude of what was accomplished. And there are reasons for hope.
Most important is the energy sector. We have seen even before this landmark text a sharp growth in renewable energy installments around the world, from the U.S. to Germany to China. We have seen the coal industry begin to stumble and a surge in natural gas.
The trends, in other words, are already pointing in the direction that the agreement itself means to encourage.
But what will energy companies — and energy investors — do once they read that the world now intends to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible…and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter?” Will this send a strong enough “signal,” in the words of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, to change the decisions that these companies, and these wealthy individuals, make?