Nature’s role comes through in historic climate agreement

© Giuseppe Milo/Flickr Creative Commons

Climate negotiators in Paris approved a landmark climate change agreement on Saturday, with the role of nature featured prominently as a solution to climate change. The pact was widely praised by environmental and scientific organizations, including Conservation International (CI).

Among the accomplishments of the negotiations were the overall inclusion of nature in the agreement, recognition of the role of tropical forests in curbing emissions — forests are referenced 11 times in the final draft — and a growing emphasis on adapting to climate impacts.

The Paris Agreement will serve as a foundation for all nations to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), with an aspiration to reach 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F), and to adapt to climate change impacts already unfolding. With buy-in from nearly every country in the world, the agreement represents the single most important collective action for addressing climate change.

“The Paris Agreement is a transformative diplomatic victory,” said Peter Seligmann, chairman and CEO of CI. “The hard work of delivery begins now. The security of nations and humanity depends upon the reduction of emissions and the protection of nature.”

Negotiators and experts reinforced the notion that there was still much work to be done to assure the success of the pact.

“With this agreement, we start down a path to avoid devastating impacts from climate change, but we will all need to do much more than what has been pledged here in Paris,” said Lina Barrera, CI’s senior director of international policy.

Significant elements of the agreement include:

  • The new agreement explicitly recognizes that REDD+ — Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, a mechanism to keep forests standing to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions — is part of the solution to climate change, sending a strong political signal to governments to responsibly manage forests and scale up REDD+ activities. Tropical forests alone represent at least 30% of the solution to limiting emissions.
  • Countries have agreed on the fundamental importance of nature for ensuring sustainable development and the eradication of poverty, permanently enshrining the role of nature in addressing the dual challenges of adaptation and mitigation. This will encourage countries to maintain healthy ecosystems for the sake of the climate.
  • The new agreement puts forth a global goal to enhance humanity’s ability to adapt to a changing climate, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability. It will help countries cooperate and share knowledge and will facilitate planning for the future to support climate-resilient development, particularly by explicitly recognizing the importance of ecosystems and ecological systems.

Despite the recognition of nature as a means of combating climate change, country commitments as they stand will limit warming only to 2.7 degrees C, far short of the collective aim of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C, observers noted. The deal also falls short in securing the necessary funding to enable the transition to a low-carbon economy and address immediate as well as long-term adaptation measures needed to cope with the impacts of a changing climate.

Support for forests

During the first days of negotiations, Germany, Norway and the U.K. announced a commitment to provide up to US$ 5 billion to reduce deforestation through 2020. REDD+ remained an important topic throughout the talks, leading to formal recognition that countries should finance and implement REDD+ in the final Paris Agreement.

“Two significant features of this agreement are that all countries commit to reducing emissions and that these pledges will be revised and improved on a five-year cycle,” said Steve Panfil, technical advisor for REDD+ initiatives at CI. “Coming up with an agreement that includes universal participation while respecting the different circumstances of countries was difficult and is a major accomplishment.”

“The agreement leaves a number of details to be worked out,” he continued, “but there are clear signs that nature, including forest protection and restoration, is going to be part of the solution for many countries.”

Adapting to climate change

The pact includes a global goal on adaptation, indicating accord among countries that adapting to climate impacts is as important as slowing emissions — a nod to developing countries faced with immense challenges as climate impacts increase. For many of these countries, including Kiribati and other low-lying island nations, adaptation is not just a matter of building resilience, but of survival. It remains to be seen how this agreement will deliver concrete actions for them — not only in the long term, but also to address their immediate needs.

“While we have an aspirational global goal for adaptation, mobilizing the resources to address countries’ urgent individual needs is not going to be easy,” said Shyla Raghav, director of climate policy at CI. “We have much to do to ensure we can scale up adaptation and the finances needed to implement it.”

Paying for change

Developed countries agreed to continue to provide financial support for climate action in developing countries, recognizing the importance of increasing their support and also expanding the sources of funds for climate solutions. The agreement emphasizes the importance of immediate investments for both mitigation and adaptation, especially supporting developing countries — particularly those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

The inclusion of these actions for financing climate solutions will provide more opportunities for using nature’s power to combat climate change, though work remains in creating frameworks and incentives for further investments.

“Today, countries laid the groundwork for financially supporting climate action; however, how this support is realized is essential and remains largely unresolved,” said Maggie Comstock, senior manager for climate and biodiversity finance policy at CI. “In order to meet the goals of this historic agreement, an important next step is to build policy frameworks and create incentives for greater investment in addressing climate change.”

Many countries also indicated that they intend to meet at least part of their national commitments to reduce emissions by cooperating with other countries through investment in mitigation activities abroad. The Paris Agreement fully endorses such transfers, which could help the world collectively limit warming more quickly, and provides basic rules to ensure that they are carried out openly and fairly. Such cooperation is also likely to drive investment in keeping forests standing as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Paris Agreement will take effect in 2020.

Bruno Vander Velde is editorial director at Conservation International.

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Cover image: Mountains in Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy. (© Giuseppe Milo/Flickr Creative Commons)