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What the Paris climate change agreement means for you

A landmark agreement brings the world's countries together to slow climate change, but it is just a start.

On December 12, leaders from nearly 200 countries made an agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Why is this a big deal? Here are six reasons: 

1) The world is gaining agreement about climate change.

For years, leaders in the U.S. and the world have been debating whether or not global warming is real and whether there is anything we, as humans, can do about it. But 2015 was a landmark year in major parties coming together on the topic. Even Pope Francis said earlier this year that climate change has grave implications and that humans have played a role. And many Republican and Democratic presidential candidates agree that climate change is real and is man-made. Yet others argue that, even though climate change is happening, human activity isn't a factor. 

2) Countries came together to discuss solutions.

With the United Nations releasing recent figures that claim weather-related disasters over the last two decades have killed more than 600,000 people and resulted in trillions of dollars in economic losses, the ears of world leaders were perked. Over the last two weeks, leaders from almost 200 countries met in Paris for the UN's Climate Change Conference. 

3) These talks have been happening for a while, but needed a boost.

Actually, one of the most important results of the conference happened before it even started, explains Rane Cortez, director for REDD+ (a program in Mexico to reduce emissions and deforestation) and who attended the conference as part of The Nature Conservancy's delegation. "Over the last year, 186 countries produced the most comprehensive set of emissions reduction commitments ever on offer. These commitments provide a 'down payment' on global action, but they are still not enough to keep temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius." 

In what is being called the Paris Agreement, leaders from developed and developing nations alike, agreed to make efforts to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, and for the first time, to pursue efforts to limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius by limiting greenhouse gas emissions. "The Paris Agreement institutionalizes a process to ratchet up those commitments over time," Cortez says.

4) Another important outcome of the Paris Agreement was on finance.

"The $100 billion per year in public and private climate finance that developed countries agreed to provide by 2020 will be a floor for further increases beyond 2020," Cortez says. "The Paris Agreement also provides for the use of market mechanisms among countries— this will enhance the economic efficiency of mitigation efforts, including efforts to reduce emissions from forests."

5) But the most important result of the Paris Agreement is the signal that it sends.

"The Agreement sends a signal that the world has reached a turning point in the road to a low-carbon economy, a road paved by continued innovation in the technology, energy, finance and conservation sectors," Cortez says. "Years in the making, the agreement affirms a new paradigm of global cooperation to address climate change which points towards a future that is more prosperous, healthy and secure."

6) Next steps: Increase your own awareness about waste and alternatives.

The Paris Agreement was just a start. Now we all have to roll up our sleeves and put it into action. "The main thing that individuals can do is to be aware," Cortez says. "Think about where your food is coming from and how it might impact the climate. Think about where your energy comes from and investigate alternatives. Consider how you get to work each day. In Mexico, the local communities that we work with have already started. They are learning about how they can produce more food on less land and they are putting what they learn into practice on their own farms and ranches. This is a risky step for them, since many of the practices are different from how they've always done things. But they are taking the leap and it is paying off. The ranches we work with have up to four times more cows per hectare than conventional ranches. This means the ranchers can increase their production without having to cut down the forests. It's a win-win. If the indigenous communities of the Yucatan Peninsula can make big changes, so can you!"

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