Post-Paris world: towards doom or salvation?

At the end of 2015, two events took place in Paris that resonated throughout the world and perhaps altered the course of modern history in significant ways: the ISIL terrorist attacks that killed 130 people, and the UN Conference on Climate Change (often referred to as COP21, which stands for “The 21st Conference of the Parties” in UN jargon). The former brought pain and misery both to the people directly affected by the attack, and to those who have to face the resulting global wave of mistrust, hate, and xenophobia. The COP21 meeting, on the other hand, showed that the global community can come together in times of crisis and work together trying to address Climate Change – a threat that has the potential to displace and cause the deaths of many more people than any terrorist organization ever could. Or did it?

Climate March in Downtown Los Angeles. Photo: J. Baronas, 2015.
Climate March in Downtown Los Angeles. Photo: J. Baronas, 2015.

TL;DR of the Paris Agreement

In contrast to the widely acknowledged failure that was the 2009 Copenhagen COP15, the meeting in Paris has been hailed as a huge success and “the end to fossil fuel era” both bymainstreammedia, as well asclimate change activists.  So what makes it so much better?

Surprisingly, in terms of specific goals agreed upon, not that much:

  • A long-term goal of keeping global warming “well below” 2° C – previously agreed upon in Cancun in 2010;
  • At the insistence of most vulnerable countries, such as low-lying islands, an “urging” to limit the warming to 1.5° C – a new but wildly unrealistic proposal when the reality of current emissions reductions pledges is considered (more than 3°C, see below);
  • The goal of setting up a $100 billion per year fund to help poor countries reduce their emissions and deal with the impacts of climate change – first proposed in Copenhagen in 2009;
  • A requirement for countries to pledge how much they want to cut their emissions and a framework to review everybody’s progress every five years – with the “encouragement” for countries to increase the cuts each time. This one is new and the center point of the whole Paris Agreement.

To be fair, the COP meetings build on each other, and the Paris Agreement text reflects the years of work since Copenhagen and even before then. What makes the Paris Agreement truly different is that it got the approval of all the 200+ nations involved andshould become legally binding by mid-2016 when at least 55 (representing at least 55% of all CO2 emissions) of them ratify it. Whether that truly happens, remains to be seen. The second key difference is that, although legally binding, the text itself is phrased so as not to be binding in any real way, i.e. there are very few specific numbers or timelines, and instead a whole lot of feelgood promises and vague “commitments”.

Some gems (the full text can be found here):

… emphasizing that enhanced pre‐2020 ambition can lay a solid foundation for enhanced post‐2020 ambition …

… emphasizing the enduring benefits of ambitious and early action, including major reductions in the cost of future mitigation and adaptation efforts …

Essentially, the agreement says that it would be great if everyone were to cut their emissions and the sooner, the better. But then, considering what the individual parties have promised, the text recognizes that the problem has not actually been addressed:

Emphasizing with serious concern the urgent need to address the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges <…> and aggregate emission pathways consistent with holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above preindustrial levels…

(emphasis mine)

Well, at least the concern is serious. Any proposed solutions to address this significant gap? Of course there are:

In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissionsas soon as possible

(emphasis mine)

Well, that’s reassuring.

The unfortunate reality of climate negotiations is that if it were any more specific and ambitious, the agreement might not have passed. And if it had been phrased in a more truly legally binding fashion, the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress would have to vote on the ratification, which could only go one way.  The negotiators had learnt their lessons in Kyoto and Copenhagen and this appears to truly be the best that could have been.

Back to reality

Therefore, whether one considers the Paris Agreement a success or a failure, depends on whether one is an optimist or a pessimist (realist?), as well as the reference frame. Compared to Copenhagen, Paris indeed was a success. It seems that the fundamental shift in most politicians’ minds has occurred and whether “climate change is real” is not a discussion anymore, at least outside of Republican-led Congress hearings in the U.S. It is highly likely that the recent heat records, multi-year droughts, and unpredictable extreme climate events around the globe since the Copenhagen meeting in 2009 have played a role in convincing the general public, and therefore the politicians who depend on the public’s votes.

While the agreement to try and hold warming to below 2° C is certainly better than no agreement, the question no. 1 now becomes whether countries will be able to stick to their current pledges of emissions cuts (which, again, would still result in more than 3° C warming). The even bigger question no.2 is whether they will truly “ratchet” the cuts over time so that emissions peak and start decreasing at least before 2050. It essentially relies on the effectiveness of the proposed “name and shame” system, where countries report their progress for everyone to see. Peer pressure can be powerful when applied in real time but what happens when a large number of countries show up in 2023 (that’s when the first assessment will take place) without having made any progress? If they outnumber the ones that stuck to their goals, the “naming and shaming” simply won’t work, as everyone will be able to point a finger at someone else.

Science that was sidelined

One might wonder what scientific arguments have been used in coming up with the 1.5 and 2° C warming goals. The answer, unfortunately, is none. The “best case” (read: unlikely) scenario inthe latest IPCC report represents 1.8° C of warming by 2100, whereas the “worst case” scenario goes up to 6.4° C within uncertainty. The Paris Agreement actually includes a request for the IPCC to consider a 1.5° C scenario in the next assessment. It will be interesting to see if IPCC decides to essentially waste time and computing resources modeling it, considering how unrealistic it is.

Let’s consider the slightly more realistic, but still highly improbable scenario, where the humanity manages to keep warming to below 2° C (essentially the IPCC scenario B1 or RCP4.5). Here is how IPCC describes it would have to happen:

… a future world of very rapid economic growth, global population that peaks in mid-century and declines thereafter, and the rapid introduction of new and more efficient technologies. Major underlying themes are convergence among regions, capacity building and increased cultural and social interactions, with a substantial reduction in regional differences in per capita income.

.. with rapid change in economic structures toward a service and information economy, with reductions in material intensity and the introduction of clean and resource-efficient technologies. The emphasis is on global solutions to economic, social and environmental sustainability, including improved equity, but without additional climate initiatives.

That sounds quite positive, perhaps even a bit utopian. But mind you, this would still result in 1.1 – 2.9° C of warming. What would that mean in terms of effects on the climate system and society? Below I am adopting IPCC’s language where very likely is > 90% and likely is > 66% probability. If you’re into gambling or betting, those are pretty amazing odds.

  • Sea level rise of 0.2-0.4 m, enough to inundate a number of low-lying islands and coastal areas, especially when coupled with likely frequent and intense tropical cyclones (think Katrina in New Orleans becoming a regular event);
  • Further ocean warming and acidification with well-documented adverse effects on corals and other marine life. Coupled with overfishing, this could result in the collapse of various fisheries and ocean ecosystems;
  • Very likely more frequent heat waves and floods;
  • A shift in precipitation patterns, making high latitudes very likely wetter and making lower latitudes, where a lot of regions are already drought-stricken, likelyeven dried.
  • Additional 0.5° C warming in 22nd century.
  • Possibly, a complete melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and a sea level rise of 7 meters over the next few centuries.

This is what the diplomats and media are calling the “world’s greatest diplomatic success”“a historic turning point”, “a monumental success for the planet”,  “the agreement that changes everything”, and so on.

What is to be done

Despite the optimistic goals set out in Paris and a lot of self-congratulation after governments agreed to essentially “do their best” for now and “try to try a little harder” in the future, the reality is that fossil fuels are being extracted, and for the past few years at a rate that is significantly higher than the demand. While oil is so much cheaper than any other form of energy, it will continue to be extracted and eventually end up as CO2 in the atmosphere. With the deluge of Saudi Arabian oil, and soon, Iranian oil in the market, it is anybody’s guess when (if ever) the oil price will start to rise again. And if it does, the fracking and the deep offshore drilling industries will be ready to jump back in the game. Overall,  there is three times more fossil fuels still in the ground than that needed to cause 2° C warming by 2100. We cannot pretend to be addressing climate change, in Paris or elsewhere, while at the same time pumping and digging all that carbon up.

James Hansen, (ex-)NASA’s most prominent climate scientistis not buying into the Paris Agreement and suggests that the only actual way to cut emissions is to establish a carbon fee. However, it is hard to imagine carbon fee implementation at a rate and on a scale necessary to keep warming below 2° C and to avoid the resulting ecological catastrophe. Increasingly, humanity will have to look to potential geoengineering (or climate engineering) solutions, that is, global scale projects that aim to either reduce the solar radiation that our planet receives, or actively capture and remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Interestingly, the latter possibility was hinted at in the Paris Agreement itself. The potential advantages and dangers of climate engineering require a separate discussion. However, as climate change starts adversely affecting millions and then perhaps billions in the decades to come, climate engineering might become a moral imperative. It might become the only way to for the future generations to save themselves from the astonishingly huge mess that our generation has left them to inherit.


Jotautas Baronas

Jotis currently pursuing a PhD in Earth Sciences at the University of Southern California, and is the president of the Science Policy group at USC. You can see his original post and personal blog here.

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