What You Need to Know About the Paris Climate Agreement
By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster
This past weekend in Paris 195 countries adopted a milestone agreement committing participating nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The accord was hailed by President Obama as an agreement that “can be a turning point for the world” and called by Secretary of State Kerry “a victory for the planet and for future generations”.
Yes, the agreement to reduce carbon emissions is historic, one that has eluded previous summits. But statements like these from President Obama and Secretary Kerry can lead us into complacency, thinking that the work required to keep climate change in check is certain – or at least progressing as needed to protect us. Unfortunately, the ability for participating countries to keep their pledges, much less move towards the more aggressive actions required to preserve our planet for all life as we know it, is far from guaranteed.
Seven Things You Should Know About the Accords
Voluntary. Although not legally binding, 188 countries have submitted targets for emission reductions.
These will be reviewed every five years with the expectation that participating countries will increase their levels of commitment as renewable energy and emission reduction strategies become more readily available.
Keep Temperatures Below 2°C. The agreed-to goal is to work toward limiting the increase in global temperature to less than 2°C (3.7°F) above pre-industrial levels and to pursue additional efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C (2.8°F). However:
- Earth already has warmed 1°C .
- Based on the voluntary pledges made thus far, the planet is likely to warm between 2.7°C and 3.5°C, far beyond the maximum 1.5°C science now says is potentially safe.
This virtually assures catastrophic consequences such as population displacement by sea level rise, record setting droughts, more intense storms, widespread flooding and accelerated species extinction.
“It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2°C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ … ” “There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”
5-Year Reporting – All countries must report on their progress every five years. While there will be no penalties for missing stated targets, developed nations are expected to make steep cuts in their emissions and developing countries encouraged to do so as their economies develop.
No Pledge to Keep Fossil Fuels in the Ground. Language calling for “de-carbonization” or ‘zero emissions” was left out of the agreement. While some experts believe that long-term commitments to aggressive emissions reductions will help ramp up investments in renewable energy, studies have shown a 50:50 chance of avoiding dangerous climate change requires that we keep 80% of known coal reserves, 30% of all oil, and 50% of natural gas reserves in the ground.
Financial Assistance for Transition. It was agreed that wealthy countries should provide financial assistance to poor nations coping with emission reduction measures and climate adaptation. Although no dollar amounts were specified, it is believed that a 2009 commitment by industrialized nations of $100 billion per year will serve as the baseline for future discussions. This is nowhere near enough to provide for the meaningful, just transition that is required from fossil fuels to renewables. In fact – without additional resources, developing nations are likely to continue to depend on fossil fuels.
Liability. A “loss and damages” statement adopted as part of the agreement recognizes that rich countries who are responsible for the vast majority of anthropogenic carbon emissions should help poorer countries deal with the impact of climate change. While this opens the door for developing nations to ask for compensation, the U.S. insisted on the insertion of a clause that would prevent developing nations from holding the U.S. legally liable.
Not a Treaty. Through careful legal wording, the agreement is not considered a treaty, but rather an extension of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change approved by the U.S. Senate in 1992. Therefore, ratification by the Senate is not needed. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear that the agreement “is subject to being shredded in 13 months if a Republican president is elected.
After Paris, Back Into the Trenches
With each passing day, the challenge of reining in climate change becomes greater. The Paris Climate Agreement is likely to be seen as a moment in time when nations finally have agreed on what needs to be done. But the real work required to avoid disaster and the sixth mass extinction lies ahead.
We are going to need continued mass mobilizations of people across the globe, coming together to pressure developed and developing nations to keep fossil fuels in the ground, while at the same time accelerating the transition from coal, oil, and natural gas to renewables. Our ability to meet these challenges will be the real measure of whether the accords were a success or failure.
Today the human race has joined in a common cause, but it’s what happens after this conference that really matters.
– Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace International