by Bob Henson
A momentous two weeks of United Nations meetings that will shape the future of Earth’s climate have begun. The 21st annual UN Conference on Climate Change (also known as the Conference of Parties, or COP21) will unfold at Le Bourget, France, about six miles northeast of downtown Paris. COP21 is bringing together some 40,000 diplomats, scientists, journalists, and observers, as well as 151 heads of state–the largest such gathering of world leaders in history. A virtual tour of the COP21 site gives a quick 3-D sense of the massive size of this undertaking. The attacks in Paris on November 13 have not caused any major disruption to the formal proceedings, although off-site protests in the Paris area have been banned. Activists around the world took part over the weekend in a Global Climate March that drew hundreds of thousands to the streets. (Climate activists undeterred by the protest ban in central Paris were teargassed, and more than 200 were detained by police.)
Figure 1. Bogata, Colombia, was one of many dozens of cities taking part in the Global Climate March on November 29, 2015. Image credit: Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images.
Figure 2. Women dressed as angels holds signs at the Place de la Repubique in Paris where hundreds of pairs of shoes were placed on November 29, 2015, on the eve of the official opening of the UN COP21 conference. The shoes were placed as part of a symbolic and peaceful rally called by the nongovernmental organization Avaaz. Image credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images.
COP meetings occur each year, but this one has drawn the most attention since COP15 (2009) in Copenhagen. That meeting fell far short of hopes for drafting a global agreement for greenhouse-gas emission cuts that would succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. This year’s meeting represents the best chance at a workable global agreement since Copenhagen–and perhaps our last chance for a long time to come. What makes COP21 so critical?
1. We’ve lost years of precious time.
Scientists have known for decades that our ever-increasing output of greenhouse gases would lead to global warming, but the world has dragged its collective feet in taking global steps to reduce emissions. Some of this is due to active cultivation of doubt by political and industrial leaders in the U.S., which was the world’s leading greenhouse emitter until the last decade. (Exxon’s downplaying of climate risks, on the heels of its own extensive research showing the reality of climate change, is a dramatic example that’s come to light this year through major investigative work.) Even if everyone in the world acknowledged the risks at hand, it would remain a Herculean task to modify the world’s reliance on fossil fuels. Global leaders–including U.S. President George H.W. Bush–signed on to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which mandated the avoidance of “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. The Kyoto Protocol was first attempt at putting those words into action, but the agreement had several major flaws–including the fact that the United States decided not to ratify Kyoto and, as a developing nation, China wasn’t initially required to cut its emissions. In effect, both the U.S. and China used the other country’s non-participation as carte blanche to carry out business as usual. This meant that nearly half of the world’s greenhouse emissions went unregulated by Kyoto. Unsurprisingly, the world’s greenhouse output has continued to soar. In 1997, global CO2 emissions added up to 24.4 billion metric tons, according to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. In 2014, the total was 35.7 billion metric tons–a sobering increase of 46%. Much of this CO2 will be acting to warm our climate centuries and even millennia from now, but we’ve already seen dramatic changes since 1997, from massive polar ice loss to unrelenting sea level rise.
Figure 3. Two ways to look at carbon dioxide emissions in 2013 around the world: (top) the 18 nations with the greatest total emissions, and (bottom) the emissions per capita from those 18 nations. Larger dots indicate greater emissions. China has quickly outpaced all other nations in total CO2 emissions, due to its huge population and fast-growing economy, but the typical American is still responsible for more CO2 output than the typical person in China. Image credit: Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.
2. Individuals can’t do it all.
Each of us can make big cuts in our carbon footprint through simple changes in how we get around, how efficiently we heat and cool our homes, and what we eat. These actions not only reduce emissions but also help motivate us to get friends and neighbors interested in addressing climate change. Plus, as consumers demand energy-efficient alternatives, it spurs the marketplace to provide them. All of this is good news for climate, but there must be a worldwide agreement with at least some teeth in order to ensure truly global emission cuts. Otherwise, energy spendthrifts will take advantage of supply and demand to burn the fossil fuel that others manage to save through efficiency. A globally agreed price on carbon could leverage the power of the marketplace to accelerate emission reduction. Such a target is not part of the Paris agenda; however, if the world’s nations do come to agreement in other ways in Paris, it could help pave the way for eventual consideration of a global price on carbon.
3. For the first time, most nations are ready to commit to long-term emission cuts.
The Kyoto Protocol was hobbled largely by its division of the world into developed and developing nations, with the latter spared from mandated emissions cuts for the time being. The idea was that developing nations should have the same chance to build their economies that developed nations had already gotten. But the massive growth of international trade complicated the picture, because it allowed nations like China to grow rapidly while manufacturing things for developed countries–thus allowing those countries to “offshore” some of their emissions. Recognizing this flaw, organizers of the Paris summit have created a system through which each nation comes up with its own emissions goals. Going into the Paris meeting, a total of 176 nations representing more than 95% of carbon dioxide emissions have submitted what are known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Together, these INDCs will not be enough to keep the world’s climate from edging beyond the 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels that is typically assumed to be the threshold of “dangerous” climate change. At best, it appears they would keep warming closer to 2.7°C. So it’ll be vital that the Paris agreement include at least some mechanisms for strengthening the plans over time.
4. A successful outcome in Paris could jump-start other action.
We already have the ability to deploy current forms of renewable energy (such as solar and wind power) at scales far larger than now exist. With a concerted effort, new technology could catalyze the process. This is the idea behind Monday’s announcement of the world’s largest-ever partnership for clean-energy research and development, involving a group of nations teaming with Bill Gates and other global billionaires.
5. It could be many years before the stars align this way again.
Given its outsized role in world affairs, the participation of the United States in any global climate deal is absolutely crucial. Yet the U.S. remains a world capital of climate-change misunderstanding. As shown in Figure 2, a poll this year by Yale University and George Mason University found that only about half of Americans believe that, assuming global warming is happening, humans are responsible for it (and only about two-thirds of Americans think that climate change is occuring at all). These numbers have changed little since 2009, though adifferent series of polls conducted since 2012 by the University of Texas suggests there may in fact be a recent shift toward greater climate-change acceptance.
Figure 4. Results of the polling of randomly selected Americans conducted from November 2008 (far left) to March 2015 (far right) by Yale University/George Mason University. The question: “Assuming global warming is happening, do you think it is caused mostly by human activities, or mostly by natural changes in the environment?” Image credit: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
The Climate Action Plan put forth in 2013 by President Barack Obama includes many concrete steps toward emission reduction, most importantly through the restrictions on U.S. coal plants. Yet the plan has already facedstiff resistance in the U.S. Congress. Depending on the outcome of the 2016 elections, the U.S. commitment to climate action is far from set in stone, which makes any agreement reached in Paris all the more important.
How to follow COP21
WIth so many journalists on the scene, and so much happening, we can expect an avalanche of coverage over the next few days. The most newsworthy periods should be the first couple of days, as world leaders assemble, and late next week, as any agreement(s) are finalized. Here are some good sources for frequently updated material:
WU climate blogger Ricky Rood has posted a series of blogs in the run-up to Paris, including a guide to the evolution of the COP meetings. Ricky’s words are worth keeping in mind as the events in Paris unfold: “My understanding is that the present INDC contributions produce a few percent real reduction of emissions by 2030. Though this will not avoid climate change, we have known this to be the case for many years. Hence, no surprise, and I worry that this will be construed as hopelessness or failure. If there is a real reduction by 2030, and we have avoided that descent to the Dark Ages, this will be an amazing achievement. “
Two students from the University of Michigan received a scholarship from Weather Underground to attend the Paris meetings: Lizz Ultee and Matt Irish. Lizz Ultee, a doctoral candidate, is studying how glaciers contribute to global mean sea level rise. She values a holistic, justice-centered approach to her work and looks forward to learning how natural science research is translated into worldwide policy in the UNFCCC process. Matt is finishing up an undergraduate degree studying climate science and how our understanding of climate change is informing the transition toward cleaner energy systems.
Figure 5. Lizz Ultee (left) and Matt Irish (right).
Lizz sent us these initial thoughts from Paris on Monday:
“I’ve been deeply impressed by the organization of the COP today. We were expecting long lines and the assorted delays usually associated with convening tens of thousands of people in one (extremely secure) place, but thus far we have passed quite smoothly almost everywhere. Dozens of security lanes minimized the delays of x-ray and metal detector screening at the entrance, and the huge site seems to spread people out. There are 40,000 people here, but I’ve only been encountering a few hundred–rather than a few thousand–at a time. It all feels very well planned and managed. The morning started off with the opening ceremony and leaders’ statements. Many statements were in French or a mixture of French and English, with live translation provided via the headphones I’ve always seen on videos of UN proceedings. I was disproportionately excited to get to use live-translation headphones for the first time in my life. Observers were not permitted in the main hall and had to watch via CCTV in an adjoining room, but I suppose security has to be at its tightest for the largest-ever gathering of world heads of state. Having 150 heads of state together in one room would be powerful under any circumstances–literally, it is an unprecedented concentration of power–but it makes an especially stirring kick-off to the hard work of COP21.”