The world is fast-approaching a key milestone in the global warming battle—a new international climate agreement.

Governments of both developed and developing countries are currently hard at work creating their national climate action plans, which outline what each country will do after 2020 to reduce emissions. These commitments will be one of the major pillars of a new global climate agreement, expected to be finalized at a United Nations(UN) summit in Paris this December (COP 21).

So why is this global agreement such a big deal, and what impact will it have on communities around the world? I spoke to the global director of WRI’s Climate Program, Jennifer Morgan, to get all the important details.


Jennifer Morgan is the global director of WRI's Climate Program.
Jennifer Morgan is the global director of WRI's Climate Program.

1) Why is the 2015 climate agreement so important?

The agreement would be a universal, UN agreement spelling out how countries of the world are going to cooperate on climate change for years to come. Since climate change is a global problem—where all countries are either suffering the impacts or have a role to play in the solution—you need international cooperation—, optimally in a legally binding agreement, to provide clarity that all countries are going to change their actions. However, getting almost 200 countries to agree, by consensus, of the way forward, is a big deal.

2) Why should the average person care about whether countries reach a global climate deal?

People and the places they care about are currently being impacted by the 0.6-0.7 degrees C of warming the world has already experienced over the past six decades. Communities around the world are feeling these impacts in the form of extreme weather, record drought, heat waves, floods and more. Imagine what it will look like if temperatures rise by 2 degrees C or more? Such impacts have to be avoided.

Addressing climate change also brings multiple benefits that people care about. Fewer coal-fired power plants mean cleaner air, a major advantage considering that 7 million people die of air pollution every year. Bus rapid transit provides a quicker way of getting to work. Renewable power like wind and solar brings energy security.

3) The UNFCCC hosts climate change conferences every year, and we’ve had international climate deals before. For example, the international climate agreement decided upon in Copenhagen in 2009 was largely viewed as a disappointment. Is there reason to think that the 2015 agreement will be different?

I am hopeful that the 2015 moment will be different for a range of reasons. First of all, countries are realizing that they do not have to choose between economic development and tackling climate change. These two goals are different sides of the same coin. For example, the cost of solar power has halved since 2010 and renewables are increasingly cost competitive or even cheaper than carbon-intensive fuels. Second, major emitters like the United States and China are now closely cooperating in implementing climate change solutions at home and finding ways to cooperate internationally. Third, countries have already committed to putting their national climate action commitments on the table well before the Paris summit so that the world can assess their ambition and fairness. This kind of transparency and engagement is quite different than before Copenhagen, and lays the groundwork for a new form of international cooperation.

4) What would an effective agreement look like?

WRI has been part of an international consortium of think tanks and universities called Agreement for Climate Transformation 2015 (ACT 2015) which, after hundreds of conversations with stakeholders and detailed research, has put forward what an effective agreement could look like.

In order to give clear signals that society must shift to a low-carbon pathway, the agreement should include two long-term goals: a goal to phase out greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century and a goal to build communities’ resilience to the impacts. Three continuous cycles of improvement are required to achieve these goals. First, countries should commit to strengthening their emissions-reduction commitments every five years. No more rolling back targets. Second, countries should build their adaptation efforts over time, with all nations completing National Adaptation Plans. And third, developing countries will need strong and increasing financial, capacity-building and technological support from developed countries to implement their mitigation and adaptation plans. Without establishing these strong commitments and strengthening them over time, the probability of success is likely to be low.

Countries also must be held accountable for staying on track, so the agreement should come with a built-in transparency and accountability system. Finally, the agreement should ensure that countries’ commitments are fair and equitable—in many cases, countries that are currently experiencing the worst climate impacts are those that are least responsible for causing the problem.

5) What needs to happen between now and December?

Countries are in the final sprint towards Paris. Although there are many pieces moving, two are most important. First, all countries have committed to table their national action plans for the post-2020 timeframe. The EU, Mexico, the U.S., Gabon and others have already done so, but more need to table in June so that there is due time to understand what countries are proposing.

Second, a draft negotiating text is on the table which needs to be narrowed down into clear choices. This will require numerous hours of negotiators’ time, but also the attention of Ministers and Heads of State. The G7 and G20 meetings before Paris offer essential opportunities for leaders to discuss the key choices in the agreement and tackle the tough decisions.

6) Is it possible that countries won’t produce an agreement in 2015?

I think it is unlikely that they won’t produce an agreement, as there is great momentum heading towards Paris. The evidence base for action is strong – we are seeing escalating impacts and a growing number of scientific studies revealing what is at stake should countries fail to act.

7) We’ve discussed a lot about what nations can do to curb climate change, but who else do we need action from?

Everyone needs to act if the world is to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees C and prevent the worst impacts of climate change. It can’t all be left up to national governments.

There is massive potential, and expectation, that corporations will take on targets that align with the level of emissions reductions scientists say is necessary to stick to the 2 degree target. This will require “decarbonizing” across their supply chains. Many cities and states are already acting—California recently established its own ambitious emissions-reduction goal—but more can join in. These local and state governments need to shift their power systems to renewables and energy efficiency, put in place low carbon infrastructure in buildings and transport, and engage their citizens.

There were some great examples of action coming out of the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit last year that can be replicated by others or scaled up further—insurance companies pledging to shift their investments away from fossil fuels, companies supporting a price on carbon, and commitments from countries and the private sector to support the restoration goals of the New York Declaration on Forests.

8) There are clear environmental benefits from international climate action, but what about the economic and social benefits?

The New Climate Economy report found that acting on climate is not only important for mitigating impacts, but is essential for strong economic growth. The United States could save $200 billion by pursuing compact rather than sprawled urban growth. The world could save $5 trillion in reduced fuel expenditures by 2030 by shifting to a low-carbon energy system. And developed countries could save $200 billion per year by 2030 by reducing food waste, which would also reduce emissions.

At the same time, small island nations are struggling for their very existence, hoping to hold on to their cultural and social histories. If the world acts now, they will hopefully still have a chance.

9) What happens after 2015?

The Paris meeting is just a moment in the long-term transformation the world needs. Hopefully it will be the turning point that moves us toward phasing out GHG emissions to net zero by the middle of the century.

But more immediately in 2016, I would expect more announcements like the Bank of England’s, where financial institutions analyze the risk of stranded assets. I would expect to see more companies shift business models toward a decentralized, low carbon energy system. And I would expect to see an empowered, global climate movement that ensures countries’ commitments are not only met, but exceeded.