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Paris Climate Agreement: Gap Between Science and Politics is Closing

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After over 20 years of climate talks, the gap between climate science and politics is finally closing.

As leaders from multiple nations commented after the conclusion of the landmark Paris climate agreement this week, it’s not perfect, but it is the first global agreement that commits all countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions. President Obama said the Paris agreement on its own will not end climate change but it “will help delay or avoid some of the worst consequences of climate change, and will pave the way for even more progress, in successive stages, over the coming years.”

The basis of the new agreement involves the “long-term goal” that commits countries to limit the global average temperature to a rise of “well below 2 degrees Celsius” above pre-industrial levels, and to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C.” This is a more ambitious goal than the 2C previously agreed to, and more in line with current scientific consensus on what will constitute dangerous global warming. The long-term goal states that in accordance with best available science, “in the second half of this century” the world should reach a point where the net emissions should fall to zero. The agreement also calls for stopping the overall rise of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.

Combined pledges by all countries will miss the aspirational 1.5C target, but the agreement includes a rule where countries must review and renew their pledges every five years. As the world gets on track to achieve the agreed targets, it’s conceivable that targets could be increased to achieve the goal of zero emissions more quickly than expected. For all the cries of “it’s all too difficult and expensive” we’ve heard from various quarters over the years, once momentum is gained toward the goal of transitioning the world’s energy systems and phasing out fossil fuels, countries may find that picking up the pace will not be all that difficult, and may serve to boost economies.

Each country will set its own emissions targets and be responsible for meeting those targets. Each country will set its own goals to increase renewable energy and to begin phasing out fossil fuels. The agreement does not include strict timelines to achieve goals, and it doesn’t make the goals binding under international law.

For the United States, the world’s second biggest emitter, binding targets would mean getting the approval of the still climate-denying Republican-controlled Senate, so the American delegation could not commit to binding targets. Not having binding targets was a way of bypassing the Republican party to achieve a global agreement. Although emissions targets are not binding, countries will still have to submit to outside monitoring of their progress.

Developing countries have long wanted wealthier nations to contribute financially to help develop clean energy sources. This would not prevent them from continuing to develop economically in coming decades. It was agreed that $100 billion a year in climate finance would be provided for developing countries by 2020, with a commitment to further finance after that. However, the agreement does not include a legal commitment to an annual amount.

Overall, the agreement states that countries signing-on “recognize the importance” of minimizing and addressing damage caused by climate change and the role of sustainable development in reducing the risk of loss and damage. It remains to be seen how quickly each country will act on the new agreement. What is clear is that this agreement marks the beginning of a global transition away from the fossil fuel era, which is a significant moment in human history.


Image CC licensed by Zach Flanders

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