Part 1 of a series: Revisiting the Paris Agreement
By Eric Margolis
The Paris Agreement is what we’ve got.
It’s the truth. In 2015, the United Nations Climate Change Conference met in Paris per the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Paris Agreement was the result, the first major agreement since the Kyoto Protocol. There are no other major global mechanisms for cooperation on climate change.
After all, climate change is a global crisis and has to be handled globally. Market pressure and corporate responsibility do have the potential to contribute to fighting climate change. Studies show that just 100 companies are the source of 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and that stakeholder and market pressure can be just as effective as regulation. However, oil profits are higher than they’ve ever been, and the world clearly needs more change than what the market can provide.
Rather than rely on the whims of the free market, the world decided to make the Paris Agreement, legislation which binds countries to commitments to act against global warming. 180 countries ratified it, including the United States. And now those countries are reducing their carbon emissions and adapting to climate change! (Presumably.)
But what does the Paris Agreement actually do? Is it enough to prevent climate change from wreaking serious damage on ecosystems and human societies alike?
The central goal of the Paris Agreement is to keep global temperature rise this century “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels”. It also aims to help countries deal with the impacts of climate change and to provide a transparent structure for intra and international action, cooperation, and support.
Basically, countries that sign the Paris Agreement agree to meet their own NDCs, or nationally determined contributions, and to report on their GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions and implementation efforts. That means that every country makes its own NDC—some of which are effective, some of which are partially adequate, and some of which are useless.
Here are a few more important things to know about the Agreement:
- 1.5 > 2: The Agreement recognizes science that demonstrates that the ideal goal would be to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.
- Peak Early: The Agreement understands it could take decades for the emissions of developing countries to peak, which makes it all the more important that developed countries take action immediately to balance out rising emissions around the world. Signees are encouraged to make “voluntary contributions” to developing countries.
- Sink that Carbon: The Agreement emphasizes the importance of carbon sinks and reservoirs—basically, capturing carbon from the atmosphere by planting trees, repurposing wood/oil instead of burning it, and pumping carbon into the ocean (which has dangerous consequences that scientists haven’t figured out yet).
- The Devil’s [Not] in the Details: The Paris Agreement is short, (Just 16 pages!). which means that it doesn’t set forth specific mechanisms or ideal policy for countries to take. This ambiguity makes sense—every country has a different path to carbon neutrality—but it means that the Paris Agreement itself is a simple starting point as much as it is a binding framework.
Which leaves us with the important question: if the Paris Agreement were implemented properly and our earth experienced no more than two degrees of global temperature rise compared to preindustrial levels by 2100, what would our earth be like?
The outcome is not looking great. A recent round of scientific studies warns that a two-degree rise could create mass climate refugees, a global drop in per capita income, regional shortages of food and fresh water, and accelerated loss of wildlife. The vast majority of environmental scientists concur that two degrees of warming results in severe and irreversible consequences: lower grain yields, more deadly weather events, and rising sea levels. Even with only a two degree increase of temperature, we will be under significantly more environmental stress in the future than we are today—a level of stress that poses significant challenges to development.
To make matters worse, global GHG emissions have already caused close to two degrees of warming. CO2 emissions take 30 years to work their way into the atmosphere, which means we are currently experiencing the temperature rise from the global emissions in the 1990s and that we won’t experience the effects of this decade’s emissions until the 2040s. We’ve already “committed” 1.3-1.6 degrees C to global warming by the end of 2017, even if we’re currently about 1.0 degrees C above preindustrial levels.
But let’s be realistic—with a world currently on track for a global temperature rise of more than four degrees Celsius, those two degrees that the Paris Agreement might salvage are worth a lot. Two degrees worth of wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, limited water, crop failures, and insect-borne disease; those two degrees might even save the Arctic Ice Sheet. And limiting the change to 1.5 degrees of warming could spare billions the worst of extreme weather incidents and deadly fever.
Those two degrees are worth a shot. They’re all we have to fight for. And since ratifying the Paris Agreement, is the world on the right track?
More on that next time.
Eric is a senior in Davenport College. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.