Breaking down Paris climate change agreement
The Paris Climate Change Conference or COP21 (21st Conference of the Parties) took place from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, or more accurately, Dec. 12 as participants required an additional day to arrive at an agreement in writing. The deal has been viewed by climate experts and policymakers alike as the most wide-ranging effort to address climate change since the Kyoto Protocols of 1997. The key word in that last statement is effort. Since the conclusion of COP21, the vast majority of climate experts are divided on the actual impact the agreement will make in the future.
First, let’s go over what the agreement got right. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated: “We have entered a new era of global cooperation on one of the most complex issues ever to confront humanity. For the first time, every country in the world has pledged to curb emissions, strengthen resilience and join in common cause to take common climate action.” Countries have agreed to peak their emissions as soon as possible, but most importantly, to submit national climate action plans every five years that detail their future objectives to address climate change. Furthermore, the unveiling of a new national climate plan must be more ambitious than previous ones, meaning progress will continuously be pushed forward. The challenge now will be to improve transparency and clarity of those plans, rather than just ramping up ambition.
One of the greatest concerns going into the climate talks was how to get both developed and developing nations to agree on curbing emissions without taking away the latter’s right to development. For the most part this gap seems to have been bridged. Developing countries will be supported by increased funding from developed countries and voluntary contributions from other countries to build their own clean energy systems. This will come from a $100 billion fund for climate change with a target date of 2020 for completion. In addition, plans for setting a new goal before 2025 to increase the fund’s floor are also in place. For the U.S. this means an increase from $400 million to about $800 million in climate investments for poor countries as announced by Secretary of State John Kerry.
Now, for what went wrong. According to the UN’s press release, the agreement’s aim is to keep global temperature rises this century well below two degrees Celsius and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. However, Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of four research organizations tracking climate action, says that the current pledges will not hold global warming any lower than 2.7 degrees Celsius. While it is encouraging that the agreement is shooting for such ambitious goals, the likelihood of reaching these goals are slim, essentially rendering them as just words on a piece of paper. In fact, climate experts contend that to reach a goal of 1.5 degrees temperature rise it would entail not only a major reduction in emissions, but also carbon trapping which remains a dream at this point for many.
Perhaps the biggest failure for climate change advocates is the fact that the agreement isn’t legally binding. That’s not to say that it couldn’t be made so in the future, but as it stands negotiators in Paris opted for a nonbinding, voluntary approach. The voluntary approach is likely for two reasons. Developing countries have long posed climate change issues as a product of Western development, and feel as though they shouldn’t have to limit development because of other countries actions. Secondly, within the U.S., there is a sharp division over the reality of climate change. This would make it nearly impossible for any legally binding document to be approved by Congress. This effectively takes out one of the major parties in any agreement.
While the agreement was a success in that it was reached by getting formerly divided parties to formally come to terms with a needed solution, it is nothing more than a starting point in actually solving the climate change issues. Even if climate change was entirely halted, some impacts are already set in stone. For instance, sea levels will continue to rise even after 2100 and melting ice like the West Antarctic ice sheet are already past the point of no return. Expecting these major issues to be solved by the negotiations is a misguided perception, as clearly the participants aren’t ready to fully commit themselves to combatting climate change, even if they agree it needs to be done.
Follow Jake Pfeifer on Twitter at @jake8922.