Most of you know by now about the Paris climate talks. The meeting of 195 countries has been referred to somewhat ambivalently both as a victory for the planet and future generations, and a system of voluntary, unenforceable pledges relies on peer pressure for ambitious commitments.
What exactly is this agreement, and will it help us? The agreement is freely avaliable online, but it’s wordy and tedious, so here’s a brief digest for you!
The initial goal of the COP21 was to make sure global temperatures didn’t increase by more than 2 degrees celsius by the year 2100. This goal has since been been modified to 1.5 degrees. Unfortunately however, current UNFCC simulation models say that if countries stick to their pledges, we will still see a temperature increase of 2.7 degrees by 2100.
Nonetheless, the agreement also asks that countries review their commitments every 5 years, and amend them with the aim of surpassing this initial goal. In short, the agreement is that we will all learn to crawl before we learn to walk, but that we will learn to walk as fast as we possibly can without destabilizing our economies.
For instance, most countries agree that they will not decrease their emissions, but will instead decrease the rate of increase of their emissions. This means that emissions will continue to increase, will peak somewhere between 2030 and 2040, and then decrease as our society gradually substitutes fossil fuels for renewable energy sources to power itself. Ultimately, the agreement aims to achieve carbon neutrality by the second half of this century.
To help make this happen, a group of rich countries (and some private banks) has pledged to donate roughly $100 billion per year starting in 2020, and increasing over time. At first, this money will be used to invest in renewable energies and help developing countries to modernize sustainably (unlike our own modernization). It will also be used to protect the world’s remaining forests from deforestation, habitat destruction and all that other fun stuff that economic development leaves in its wake.
This money will also be used for infrastructure that will reduce the damage caused by global warming, mostly for developing countries as well. This infrastructure includes: warning systems in areas that are vulnerable to floods or hurricanes, aid for relocation for affected areas (including island states that become submerged in water), insurance to protect people from natural disasters and even an eventual “dam bridge” across the strait of Gibraltar that could save southern Europe and Northern Africa from the damage that rising sea levels would cause.
As with any political agreement, the COP21 has problems. There is a significant gap between pledges. Some countries will donate much more money than others. Some countries, like Bangladesh, have a lot to gain from the agreement and very little to lose, while other countries, like the United States, will put in a lot of money and receive next to nothing. This is the reason the Republican party wants to retract the United States’ pledge to the COP2. This brings us to our second problem.
The agreement will only enter into force if it is ratified by at least 55 of its 95 signatories. Moreover, these countries must represent 55% or more of global emissions. This means that if it is not ratified by those who have little to gain economically from the agreement (countries that happen to be the greatest contributors to global emissions), it will be void. Also, even if the agreement is ratified, it has no system of enforcement. The pledges countries make are “non-binding”, which means the only enforcement mechanism is a “name and shame” system.
However, let’s not get too cynical. As Al Gore said: “no agreement is perfect, and this one must be strengthened over time, but groups across every sector of society will now begin to reduce dangerous carbon pollution through the framework of this agreement.” If it is carried out, it will limit us to a global temperature increase of 2.7 degrees by 2100. This could still be catastrophic, and cause extensive flooding, unpredictable weather patterns and rising sea levels. However, it is much better than a temperature increase of 4.5 to 6 degrees, which was until now considered the most likely trajectory. The COP21 has taken us from bad to slightly better.
What can you do to support it? I’m going to regress and talk politics for just a second. Some parties have openly refused to participate in the COP21.
The COP21 needs us, especially those of us who live in the world’s wealthy countries. It is important for all of us to not only avoid voting for these parties, but to get registered, go to the polls, and vote against them.
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