The governments of 195 countries overcame decades of deep divisions to strike a watershed deal aimed at preventing catastrophic climate change and putting the world on course to a low-carbon economy.

To thunderous applause just before 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Paris, Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister and president of the climate change conference, said “the Paris accord is accepted” and hit the green gavel on the table in the vast auditorium full of national envoys, including Canadian environment minister Catherine McKenna.

The global accord, known as the Paris Agreement, commits all countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say threaten catastrophic climate change. Some businesses and many environmental groups insisted the Paris deal marks the eventual end of the oil era, though oil executives said they can be part of the global transition to a low-carbon future by cutting emissions through innovation.

After the accord was accepted, a succession of national representatives made congratulatory speeches in striking a deal among 195 countries, with some warning that enormous work still lay ahead to ensure that carbon-reduction commitments are met, reviewed and made ever more ambitious. “This is a tremendous victory for all our citizens … for all of the planet and for future generations,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Ms. McKenna – who played an active role in the negotiations – said she was thrilled with the outcome of an “ambitious” deal.

“This just shows multilateralism works,” the rookie Canadian environment minister said outside the conference room. “That countries can come together for a common purpose and the common good, and it’s for the betterment of future generations, for my kids, for my grandkids, for the world. And it’s just such a thrill to be part of it.”

Ms. McKenna said the Paris accords will serve as the international framework for the Canada’s climate strategy, which the Liberal government has vowed to fashion in concert with provinces, territories and aboriginal leaders.

“Canadians know we need to act and this is what we’re going to do,” she said.

All countries vowed in the agreement to reach peak emissions as soon as possible, “and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter” to achieve carbon neutrality – the removal of as much carbon from the atmosphere as is put in – in the second half of the century.

Struck after two weeks of tense negotiations that started with the arrival of 150 world leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and went around the clock in recent days, the agreement symbolically ended more than 20 years of rancour among rich countries, which powered their way to prosperity on the back of cheap oil and coal, and the developing countries, which argued convincingly they should not be punished for a problem they did not create.

But the agreement, for the first time, makes fighting climate change a common cause, with each country doing what it can to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. In recognition that even a 2-degree limit would cause widespread damage, from rising oceans that would swamp low-lying countries to damaging crop yields that might trigger mass hunger and human migration, the accord made a 1.5-degree limit an aspiration goal, if not a firm target.

“Nature is sending urgent signals,” the United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said in urging parties to approve the text. “People and countries are threatened as never before. We have to do as science dictates. We must protect the planet that sustains us.”

But the UN, scientists, business groups and environmentalists held out little hope that the Paris accord will prevent, let alone slow, global warming at least in the next decade or two. Even the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the sponsor of the Paris conference, acknowledged high up in the final text that it had “serious concern” that the carbon-reduction pledges made by almost all countries ahead of the Paris talks were not enough to limit average temperature rises to less than 2 degrees.

Canada has pledged to cut its emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 over 2005 levels. But its last attempt to cut emissions by a lesser amount, under the 1997 Kyoto Accord, failed abysmally due to rising population and the rapid expansion of the Alberta oil sands. The government of former prime minister Stephen Harper yanked Canada out of Kyoto in 2013, becoming the first country to do so.

The agreement is meant to be “legally binding” on the parties, at least the regular monitoring and assessment of national carbon-reduction plans. But it does not impose specific emission-reduction requirements on governments or even require them to meet their own “nationally determined” commitments. The administration of U.S. president Barack Obama has adamantly opposed any binding language in those areas, arguing such requirements would require ratification from the Republican-led Congress.

But even the “binding” aspects of accords have no enforcement mechanism or penalties for failing to meet them.

Even before the Paris agreement, Munich Re, the German reinsurance giant that has been tracking climate disasters, and warning about the dangers of relentlessly rising man-made carbon dioxide emissions, for decades said that Paris would not spare the planet from climate change disasters. Peter Hoeppe, the scientist who runs the company’s Geo Risks/Corporate Climate Centre, said “it is unlikely that an agreement will be made in Paris to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius…We have to be prepared for the increasingly inevitable and significant consequences of climate change.”

Still, the Paris agreement was widely praised as a significant step forward in the climate-change battle, though one that will just be the start of a long process to bring emissions down. Duncan Marsh, director of climate policy at the Nature Conservancy, said the agreement will accelerate private and public investment in renewable-energy technologies that will compete with, and eventually overcome, the use of fossil fuels in electricity generation and transportation. “In fact, the Paris Agreement signals that the world is on an irreversible path to a low-carbon economy, which should shape investment for decades to come.”

Some of the small island states, where climate change damage has intensified in recent years, endorsed the final Paris text. The government of the Maldives, which has been warning the world about rising seas since the late 1980s, considered the 1.5-degree aim a victory. “We’re happy with this text,” said Thoriq Ibrahim, the Maldives’ minister of environment and energy.

The agreement requires all countries – developed and developing – to subject their national emission-reduction commitments to monitoring and verification, and to reconvene every five years to review progress towards target.

The latest proposed text commits developed countries to provide ongoing financing – a “floor” of $100-billion a year between 2020 and 2025 – for developing countries to address climate change and cope with its harmful impacts, while encouraging large emerging economies to share that burden.

Elliot Diringer, executive vice-president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, of Washington, said the agreement should find support in the United States. That’s because the final text did not provide “a basis for any liability or compensation” to be paid under the UN convention on climate change by the developed world to any country that has suffered damage because of rising carbon emissions.

He also noted that the Paris text did not insist that developed countries ramp up their climate change mitigation and financing commitments to the developing world beyond the commitments they have already made in the UN convention. The transparency section – the reporting and verification of emissions by all countries – has also been clarified.

However, Republicans in Congress have warned that they will block promised financing to developing countries, which is a key pillar of the pact.

The deal will provide an ambitious context for the Liberal government’s effort to fashion a national climate strategy with the provinces, territories and indigenous leaders over the next three months. Ms. McKenna was in the thick of the Paris negotiations. She facilitated negotiations on market mechanisms for trading emissions credits, and was dispatched by Mr. Fabius to work on other sticking points late in the process.

PARIS — The Globe and Mail
Published Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015 8:22AM EST
Last updated Monday, Dec. 14, 2015 1:44PM EST