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Historic pact to slow global warming is celebrated in Paris

Published 13/12/2015

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, French president Francois Hollande and foreign Minister Laurent Fabius applaud after the final conference (AP)
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, French president Francois Hollande and foreign Minister Laurent Fabius applaud after the final conference (AP)

Nearly 200 nations have adopted a global pact to fight climate change, urging countries to collectively cut greenhouse gases but imposing no sanctions on those that do not.

The "Paris Agreement" aims to keep global temperatures from rising another 1C between now and 2100, a key demand of poor countries ravaged by rising sea levels and other effects of climate change.

Loud applause erupted in the conference hall after French foreign minister Laurent Fabius gavelled the agreement. Some delegates wept, others embraced.

"It's a victory for all of the planet and for future generations," US secretary of state John Kerry said.

Brazilian environment minister Izabella Teixeira added: "Today, we've proven that it's possible for every country to come together, hand in hand, to do its part to fight climate change."

In the pact, the countries pledge to limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally, beginning at some point between 2050 and 2100.

In practical terms, achieving that goal means the world would have to stop emitting greenhouse gases - most of which come from the burning of oil, coal and gas for energy - altogether in the next half-century, scientists said. That is because the less we pollute, the less pollution nature absorbs.

Achieving such a reduction in emissions would involve a complete transformation of how people get energy, and many activists worry that despite the pledges, countries are not ready to make such profound, costly changes.

The deal now needs to be ratified by individual governments - at least 55 countries representing at least 55% of global emissions - before taking effect. It is the first pact to ask all countries to join the fight against global warming, representing a sea change in UN talks that previously required only wealthy nations to reduce their emissions.

"History will remember this day," UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said. "The Paris Agreement on climate change is a monumental success for the planet and its people."

Speaking from Washington, US president Barack Obama said the climate agreement offers "the best chance to save the one planet we have".

The deal commits countries to keeping the rise in global temperatures by the year 2100 compared with pre-industrial times "well below" 2C, and says they will "endeavour to limit" them even more, to 1.5C. The world has already warmed by about 1C since pre-industrial times.

Ben Strauss, a sea level researcher at Climate Central, said limiting warming to 1.5C instead of 2C could potentially cut in half the projected 280 million people whose houses will eventually be submerged by rising seas.

More than 180 countries have ready presented plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions - a breakthrough in itself after years of stalemate. But those pledges are not enough to achieve the goals in the accord, meaning countries will need to cut much more to meet the goal.

"We've agreed to what we ought to be doing, but no one yet has agreed to go do it," said Dennis Clare, a negotiator for the Federated States of Micronesia. "It's a whole lot of pomp, given the circumstances."

The agreement sets a goal of getting global greenhouse gas emissions to start falling "as soon as possible"; they have been generally rising since the industrial revolution.

It says wealthy nations should continue to provide financial support for poor nations to cope with climate change and encourages other countries to pitch in on a voluntary basis. That reflects Western attempts to expand the donor base to include advanced developing countries such as China.

In a victory for small island nations, the agreement includes a section highlighting the losses they expect to incur from climate-related disasters that it is too late to adapt to. But a footnote specifies that it "does not involve or provide any basis for any liability or compensation" - a key US demand.

The adoption of the agreement was held up for nearly two hours as the United States pressed successfully to change the wording on emissions targets from saying developed countries "shall" commit to reducing emissions to they "should". Experts said that means the deal probably will not need US congressional approval.

Thousands of protesters demonstrated across Paris, saying the accord is too weak to save the planet. People held hands beneath the Eiffel Tower and stretched a 1.2 mile-long banner from the Arc de Triomphe to the business district La Defense.

Kumi Naidoo, of Greenpeace, said the accord is a good start but is not enough.

"Today the human race has joined in a common cause, but it's what happens after this conference that really matters," he said. "This deal alone won't dig us out the hole we're in, but it makes the sides less steep."

French president Francois Hollande welcomed the world to a "low carbon age", saying France is ready to cut emissions even further and increase aid to poor countries that are affected. He challenged all nations to do more.

"The 12th of December, 2015, will remain a great date for the planet," Mr Hollande declared. "In Paris, there have been many revolutions over the centuries. Today it is the most beautiful and the most peaceful revolution that has just been accomplished - a revolution for climate change."

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