Nations gather to commit to cutting emissions, combating climate change
Paris is known throughout the world as the “City of Light.” But if upcoming international negotiations go as hoped, it may soon be more appropriately called the “City-where-we-finally-committed-to-renewably-powered-light.” The nations of the world are gathering in Paris this week for the 21st annual meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. And while you won’t likely hear much about wildlife during these talks, this conference may very well determine whether the world can stabilize the global climate at a level that allows biodiversity—not to mention human civilization—a fighting chance at survival.
Those concerned about greenhouse gases have sought a binding, global agreement on climate change since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, when the participants drafted the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. That treaty, which has been ratified by 196 nations, including the United States, expresses a goal to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” but doesn’t itself set commitments for individual nations to reduce their emissions. The treaty is aspirational, rather than legally binding, which helps explain how it got a vote of 98-0 when it was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1992.
Establishing and committing to enforceable emissions reductions was left to subsequent agreements called Protocols, and these have faced far more difficulty gaining support. The most famous of these efforts, the Kyoto Protocol, was negotiated in 1997 and required industrialized nations (e.g., the European Union, Japan, Australia and Russia) to meet emissions targets. But it did not set targets for China, India, or any countries in Africa. The U.S. would have been among those nations required to reduce emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, but the Senate almost unanimously passed a resolution opposing any climate treaty that exempted developing nations, and thus never brought the Kyoto Protocol itself up for a vote. Additional climate negotiations over the following years also failed to bring about meaningful agreements.
All the while, carbon dioxide levels continue to rise, and so does the planet’s temperature, exacerbating severe weather and climate-related events, like the deepening drought in California, wildfires across the American West, and the record number of strong cyclones that formed in the Pacific Ocean this year. The voices clamoring for climate action have broadened from the usual cadre of scientists and activists to include Leonardo DiCaprio, Pope Francis, even the insurance industry. And yet, in some political circles, opposition to such a deal has grown more intractable than ever. So is there any hope of the nations of the world coming together to avert the worst of the climate crisis?
Actually, observers have more reason for optimism than ever before, because the nations involved have made a fundamental change in how they are approaching an agreement. Instead of negotiating emissions targets and taking them back home for ratification (the model that failed at Kyoto), countries are bringing their own national emissions reduction commitments to the table. It’s a subtle, but important difference: it means that the individual countries’ emission targets will not themselves be part of the agreement – which also means that the U.S. attempts at pursuing our own targets won’t be subject to Senate ratification as a new treaty. Put another way, the Paris agreement may come down to each country promising to do the best it can, under the laws and authorities it already has.
Will that be enough? It is certainly an improvement over no coordinated climate action, which would put us on a likely path to 8-11°F of warming by 2100. That magnitude of change would be devastating for human society, inundating coastal cities, wreaking havoc on food production, and greatly increasing damage from severe weather events—not to mention putting one in six of the planet’s species in danger of extinction. This is why the commitments being made by various countries leading up to Paris have been important.
Central to the U.S. effort is President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to cut America’s emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. In September, in a joint statement with President Obama, China announced that by 2017 it will launch a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide, covering not just power plant emissions, but other energy-intensive manufacturing sectors as well. India also released a plan to install 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022, and to start on the path towards being able to reduce its emissions.
India, China, and the U.S. have some important things in common: they are large, populous nations that together emit nearly half of the world’s carbon dioxide (though India’s share is much less than the other two), and all three were either exempt from emissions reductions under Kyoto, or didn’t ratify it. The European Union, meanwhile, recently announced an agreement to cut emissions by 40% by 2030. The U.N.’s climate lead Christiana Figueres has called these advance commitments “the beginning of a blueprint for our future.”
But the key word here is “beginning.” Though they are more ambitious than anything we have seen before, and certainly better than failing or refusing to act, the announced commitments still would leave us with a world where the temperature increases by about 6.3°F. An improvement over 8-11°F, to be sure, but still a dangerous amount of warming, particularly given that some prominent climate scientists think even 3.6°F, long considered to be a safe target, is too much warming. All eyes will be on Paris this week to see if we can do better.
This blog is the first in a four-part series on the climate negotiations in Paris. In our next installment, we will meet some of the wildlife species whose futures depend on us limiting climate change as much as we possibly can.
Impacts on Wildlife
Animals like pikas, polar bears, puffins and more are extremely well adapted to their environment. As the climate changes, these animals will be particularly vulnerable.