PARIS The word "ambitious" came up a lot during the recent climate talks in an unseasonably warm French capital, where diplomats from nearly 200 countries and territories struck a deal to curb global warming. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it repeatedly. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said it, too. But just how bold is the actual agreement?
The accord was sealed after two weeks of talks, conducted as Paris reeled from the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks. It seeks to limit the rise in the planet's average surface temperature to less than 2 C by the end of the century, compared to levels before the Industrial Revolution. It also calls for efforts to keep the temperature increase below 1.5 C, out of concern for island nations threatened by rising sea levels. And the 196 parties to the talks agreed that developed nations would extend more financial and technological assistance to help poor countries cope with extreme weather, such as torrential rains and droughts, thought to be caused by global warming.
The scope of the deal distinguishes it from the Kyoto Protocol -- a 1997 treaty under which industrialized states committed to emissions cuts. That accord did not include the U.S. and China, the world's top two emitters of greenhouse gases. This time around, the involvement of Washington and Beijing encouraged other countries to reach an agreement.
UP IN THE AIR The participants at the Paris conference -- officially the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP21 -- accounted for nearly 100% of heat-trapping gases spewed worldwide. Still, their mere participation was not enough. Countries at different stages of economic development needed to agree on a target.
The negotiators in Paris sometimes worked through the night to figure out what, exactly, that number should be. Fabius, who has a long record of working on foreign affairs and chaired the talks, was committed to inserting the provision that calls for striving to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 C.
Yet the pact does not specify how much warming gases need to be reduced to achieve that goal, nor how to go about getting rid of them.
All nations submitted voluntary pledges to reduce greenhouse gases, but even if they deliver on their promises, estimates suggest global temperatures would rise nearly 3 C above preindustrial levels. Stephen Eule, vice president for climate and technology at the Institute for 21st Century Energy of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said he does not know whether the U.S. can meet its reduction target, which he says was set unilaterally by the government.
Japan's target, meanwhile, is based on voluntary goals set by corporations and tallied by the Japan Business Federation, the country's most influential business lobby. It was this target that Abe called "ambitious," but it is simply what the country's business community considers feasible.
To strengthen emissions reduction efforts, the Paris Agreement calls on each country to review its goal every five years. This, at least, will prod Japan and other nations to come up with steeper cuts by 2020.
TECHNOLOGICAL HURDLES By the second half of this century, the deal aims to phase out net emissions by balancing anthropogenic greenhouse gas output with absorption by forests and the oceans. This is likely to require greater use of renewable energy, as well as capture and storage of carbon dioxide -- the most common heat-trapping gas. In fact, the goal may even require technologies that have not been invented yet. Still, while it sounds daunting, this is where countries have an opportunity to build on the pact. Nations with technological prowess could use the Paris accord as a springboard to save more energy and create low-carbon societies.
And yet, it was not the most technologically advanced countries that stood out at the meeting. One could say China and India stole the spotlight. Chinese representatives held days' worth of workshops, touting the nation's efforts to check the advance of climate change.
Star climate experts also drew big crowds. They included Nicholas Stern, a London School of Economics and Political Science professor whose "Stern Review" on climate change and the economy significantly influenced the policy of the British government. Another was Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute, a major U.S. environmental research organization.
On the first day of the conference, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Francois Hollande announced the launch of an international solar energy alliance. The program seeks the participation of 120 countries and, by 2030, will invest some $1.2 trillion to set up a massive number of photovoltaic cells. Hollande said the alliance will engineer a "paradigm shift," getting governments and companies on board and substantially reducing the cost of solar power.
Through the program, India aims to generate 100 gigawatts of power by 2022. It intends to shell out $300 million to set up the alliance headquarters and fund other initiatives.
In the end, it was national interests that brought countries like the U.S., China and India to the table. Governments are out to capture bigger slices of new energy markets by developing low-cost, efficient power solutions.
Japan, for its part, has the talent and technology to make a difference on the environmental front. It also stands to benefit from its proximity to other Asian markets. The country should not simply aim to endure the "pain" of emissions reductions -- it should seize the opportunity to spur innovation and growth.