Historic climate agreement reached in COP21 talks in Paris

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PARIS, FRANCE - DECEMBER 12: Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Christiana Figueres (L 2), Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon (C), Foreign Affairs Minister and President-designate of COP21 Laurent Fabius (R 2), and France's President Francois Hollande (R) raise hands together after adoption of a historic global warming pact at the COP21 Climate Conference in Le Bourget, north of Paris, on December 12, 2015. (Photo by Arnaud BOUISSOU/COP21/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Representatives at the COP 21 conference on climate change celebrated after 196 nations voted to adopt an agreement designed to stop human-caused climate change.

LE BOURGET, France — After years of buildup and weeks of negotiations, world leaders accepted the final draft of an ambitious, global climate change agreement Saturday in Le Bourget, a suburb of Paris.

Though hailed as a milestone in the battle to keep Earth hospitable to human life, the 31-page plan is short on specifics. It doesn’t say how much each country must reduce greenhouse gas emissions or how nations will be punished if they violate the agreement.

The accord sets a goal of limiting average warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial temperatures — and of striving for a limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) if possible.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (C) speaks with China's Special Representative on Climate Change Xie Zhenhua (R) and officials at the COP21 Climate Conference in Le Bourget, north of Paris, on December 12, 2015. The years-long quest for a universal pact to avert catastrophic climate change neared the finish line today with conference host France announcing that the final draft had been completed in the early hours of the morning. AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP / MIGUEL MEDINA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Chinese representatives at the COP21 Climate Conference in Le Bourget, France. (Photo by Miguel Madina/AFP/Getty Images)

“We have set a course here,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said. “The world has come together around an agreement that will empower us to chart a new path for our planet. A smart and responsible path. A sustainable path.”

President Obama hailed the agreement as the “best chance” to save the planet.

“We came together around a strong agreement the world needed,” Obama said, speaking from the White House. “We met the moment.”

Obama added, “I believe that this moment can be a turning point for the world.”

Some major points not addressed

The agreement doesn’t mandate exactly how much each country must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Rather, it sets up a bottom-up system in which each country sets its own goal — which the agreement calls a “nationally determined contribution” — and then must explain how it plans to reach that objective.

Those pledges must be increased over time, and starting in 2018 each country will have to submit new plans every five years.

Many countries actually submitted their new plans before climate change conference, known as COP21, started last month — but those pledges aren’t enough to keep warming below the 2-degree target. But the participants’ hope is that over time, countries will aim for more ambitious goals and ratchet up their commitments.

Another sticking point has been coming up with a way to punish nations that don’t do their part, but observers say that was never really on the table.

Instead, the agreement calls for the creation of a committee of experts to “facilitate implementation” and “promote compliance” with the agreement, but it won’t have the power to punish violators.

‘This didn’t save the planet’

Another issue, according to observers, was whether there would be compensation paid to countries that will see irreparable damage from climate change but have done almost nothing to cause it.

The agreement calls for developed countries to raise at least $100 billion annually in order to assist developing countries. Members of the scientific and environmental activist communities responded with varying degrees of optimism.

PARIS, FRANCE - DECEMBER 04: Bill McKibben speaks during Pathway to Paris at Le Trianon on December 4, 2015 in Paris, France. (Photo by David Wolff - Patrick/Redferns)

350.org co-founder Bill McKibben spoke at Pathway to Paris, an event in Le Trianon, France to address further measures he says the world must take to curb climate change . (Photo by David Wolff – Patrick/Redferns)

“This didn’t save the planet,” Bill McKibben, the co-founder of 350.org, said of the agreement. “But it may have saved the chance of saving the planet.”

McKibben released a statement on 350.org calling for further measures to put an end to the fossil fuel era.

“Every government seems now to recognize that the fossil fuel era must end and soon,” McKibben said. “But the power of the fossil fuel industry is reflected in the text, which drags out the transition so far that endless climate damage will be done. Since pace is the crucial question now, activists must redouble our efforts to weaken that industry. This didn’t save the planet but it may have saved the chance of saving the planet.”

Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute anticipated a “historic agreement that marks a turning point in the climate crisis.”

What happens next?

Even though the text has been agreed upon, there’s still much more that needs to be done before the agreement goes into effect.

The agreement was adopted by “consensus” during the meeting of government ministers. That doesn’t necessarily mean all 196 parties approved it; French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who served as the president of the conference, had the authority to decide if a consensus had been reached.

Individual countries now must individually ratify or approve the agreement in their respective countries.

And the agreement won’t enter into force until 55 countries have ratified it. Those nations must account for 55% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

That means if the world’s biggest polluters don’t authorize the agreement, enacting it could prove challenging.

China and the United States, respectively, account for about 24% and 14% of total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Resources Institute.

The United States has backed off climate change votes in the past.

The Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions was adopted in 1997. The Clinton administration signed the agreement but, fearing defeat, never submitted it to the Senate for ratification.

In China, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress is in charge of approving treaties.

The agreement calls for a signature ceremony in April 2016, and requests that the U.N. Secretary-General keep the agreement open for signing until April 2017.

Fabius released the draft worked out by negotiators Saturday morning. Later in the day, world leaders or their representatives approved it. A crowd erupted in applause once the agreement’s adoption was announced.

‘We need all hands on deck’

World leaders praised passage of the agreement.

“A month ago tomorrow, Paris was the victim of the deadliest terror attack in Europe for more than a decade,” British Prime Minister David Cameron wrote in a Facebook post. “Today, it has played host to one of the most positive global steps in history.”

PARIS, FRANCE - 2015/12/07: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (R) and Christiana Figueres (L) Executive Secretary UNFCCC delivers a press meeting during the COP21 the World Climate Change Conference. (Photo by Jonathan Raa/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon delivers a press meeting calling for “all hands on deck” to stop climate change. (Photo by Jonathan Raa/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon hailed the draft that was put together at the 21st Conference of Parties, or COP21.

“We must protect the planet that sustains us,” Ban said. “For that we need all hands on deck.”

In the streets of Paris, outside the conference, protesters demanded action. #ParisAgreement was trending on Twitter.

“Nous sommes la nature qui se défend!” read one tweet, with a photo of one person dressed as a polar bear and another dressed as a penguin. “We are nature that defends itself.”

Some demonstrators felt differently — they called the agreement insufficient and chanted “it’s a crime against humanity.”

“We have a 1.5-degree wall to climb, but the ladder isn’t tall enough,” Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace said at a press conference. He did call the agreement a “new imperative” and positive step.

2 degrees Celsius threshold

Capping the increase in global average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius was organizers’ key goal going into the COP21. That level of warming is measured as the average temperature increase since the Industrial Revolution.

Failure to set a cap could result in superdroughts, deadlier heat waves, mass extinctions of plants and animals, megafloods and rising seas that could wipe some island countries off the map.

Scientists and policy experts say hitting the 2 degrees Celsius threshold would require the world to move off fossil fuels between about 2050 and the end of the century.

To reach the more ambitious 1.5 degrees Celsius goal, some researchers say the world will need to reach zero net carbon emissions sometime between about 2030 and 2050.