If the mood at Le Bourget, Paris, where the climate change deal was sealed last weekend, was celebratory, it was understandable. The deal is a big step forward for humankind and well worth celebrating. It is the first time a universal agreement on curbing carbon emissions to slow down global warming has been reached. The journey required 20 years of fraught negotiations, including the dismal failure in 2009 in Copenhagen to reach a similar pact. It also came at a crucial juncture, as the earth is experiencing what is likely to be its hottest year on record, a reminder that there is little time to lose if more extreme weather and bigger disasters are to be averted.
Yet, as United States President Barack Obama pointed out, while "the agreement represents the best chance we have to save the one planet that we have got", the deal "was not perfect. The problem is not solved because of this accord". For one thing, the pact is legally binding only in parts. It requires all nations to review and raise their emissions reduction targets every five years in order to reach the goals set - to limit global warming to "way below" 2 deg C above pre-industrial levels and, if possible, to achieve 1.5 deg C. However, it does not bind the nations to the targets that they set. And those submitted by 187 countries will lead to a global warming of 2.7 deg C, which is way above the goals of the pact.
There is much work still to be done that requires all countries to not just keep to their responsibilities under the accord, but to also reach for ever more ambitious goals. But when reality bites and the costs prove too high - the International Energy Agency says achieving the Paris agreement targets will cost US$16.5 trillion (S$23.2 trillion) by 2030 - some governments might be tempted to scale back on their green policies. Vulnerable countries need assistance from richer states to realise their targets but climate finance, too, is not binding.
Still, the agreement rests on something more solid than a hope and a prayer. The dangers of not doing anything are so real that many nations will not just comply with the terms of the pact but will also pressure recalcitrant states to do the same. The deal also encourages private investors to put their money in green technologies that will spur the development of green economies. Already, technopreneur and philanthropist Bill Gates has made an announcement at Le Bourget that an investment group would be pouring billions of dollars into clean energy technology research.
There needs to be greater awareness among people that lowering carbon footprints need not be about cost alone. It also means a cleaner, healthier environment, slower depletion of natural resources, and time for the tired earth to heal. Knowing that sustainable development hinges on the world realising its climate change goals would surely motivate people to act as they should.