In December, delegates and diplomats from over 150 countries met in Paris at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) and adopted an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The COP functions as a yearly meeting of parties included in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The agreement, signed off by all of the COP21 plenary (notably including delegates from large emitters such as the US, the EU and China), defines a target temperature increase limit of “well below 2oC” relative to pre-industrial levels, with “efforts” to limit warming to 1.5oC by 2100.
This new, more ambitious goal is well below the 2oC limit established in the climate talks six years ago in Copenhagen—a now commonly referenced and accepted threshold. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that if warming above 2oC were to occur, the resulting climate change would be disastrous for billions of people around the globe.
Additionally, the final text of the COP21 agreement aims to have global emissions peak “as soon as possible,” while also striving to achieve a balance between carbon released as emissions and carbon captured within sinks after 2050 (“emissions neutrality”). To increase ambition over time for greater emissions cuts, the agreement schedules a “facilitative dialogue” in 2018 to document updates from each country. Later, in 2020, countries with 2025 emissions reduction targets are urged to meet again to propose new, more ambitious targets; those with 2030 targets are urged to provide intermediate progress updates. This process will repeat every five years, with the next stock-take scheduled for 2023.
Before describing the varied criticism COP21 has attracted, the agreement deserves some credit. More countries than at any other climate talk were present in Paris—both rich and poor, from all corners of the globe—and agreed upon efforts to keep warming below even the current most widely accepted threshold of 2oC. To adequately track progress, the deal calls attention to a “facilitative, non-intrusive, non-punitive” review system to track individual country’s progress for mitigation efforts, adaptation policies, financial support, and technological transfers. Each country will report emissions reduction progress biennially according to specifications developed by the IPCC for evaluation by an outside third-party. For developing countries, this evaluation also aims to identify capacity-building needs that are required to meet goals. Acting and regulating in such a “glass house” better ensures successful implementation, as parties are more likely to put effort into their goals if they can clearly observe progress in others. Lastly, regarding the financing of mitigation and adaptation efforts, the agreement provides a legal obligation for developed countries to continue providing support to developing ones.
These important successes aside, many critics take issue with the vagueness of some of the agreement’s terms. One lingering discussion surrounds what “emissions neutrality” means. One scientist explained that “neutrality” is synonymous with “net zero,” and therefore emissions would still occur, although all emissions would be offset by anthropogenic sinks, such as planting trees or carbon capture and storage. Other scientists have voiced that, although the intention behind neutrality is clear and encompassing of all greenhouse gases, it leaves numerous loopholes. What happens to “negative” emissions? How are different gases—acting on various timescales—balanced? Are natural systems included in this balance? Avoiding the vagueness of emissions neutrality completely, some plainly ask for greater directness: “Why can’t this conference just say it like it is, that we need to quit oil, coal and gas by 2050 at the latest?” Ultimately, the vast amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere—that which is responsible for warming—is unaddressed under emissions neutrality.
Then there is the conflict between 1.5 and 2 degrees: the countries most at risk from future climate change impacts push strongly for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, while those countries most historically culpable for emissions prefer the 2 degree target. While many developed nations may remain safe if the established limit of 2 degrees is reached, small island nations have repeatedly voiced concern that warming to that level would threaten their existence and habitability. For example, the Marshall Islands, a small archipelago in the Pacific between Hawaii and Australia, could “literally could be wiped off the map.” Even under the current observed warming, the ocean has risen about a foot over the past 30 years. With the majority of the Marshall Islands just six feet above sea level, locals experience major tidal flooding as often as once every one to two months. Waves of Marshallese migrants have left their homes in recent years; nearly 15% of the Marshallese population currently resides in Arkansas, as the Marshall Islands have a consular office in the state. Marshallese people can also freely live and work in the United States without a visa because of the Compact of Free Association. However, for many others in low-lying island nations facing a similar fate, the prospects of living and working elsewhere are less clear as many cannot seek asylum legally. There is, at present, no international law to protect potential “climate refugees.”
Though stated efforts for 1.5 degree are historical in calling attention to these most vulnerable, low-lying areas, they remain merely stated. If the current emissions pledges were all followed without any further reductions in emissions, the world is still expected to warm by 2.7 degrees. Therefore, even to reach the less restrictive 2 degree limit defined in Paris, the facilitative dialogue in 2018 and stock-take in 2023 must lead to further emission reduction pledges.
And, even if significant progress is made in 2018 and 2023, 1.5 degrees of warming has already nearly eluded us: currently, the globe has risen in average temperatures by 0.8 degrees since 1880. Because of historical emissions, even if we stopped all emissions right now, Earth would still warm around 0.6 degrees in the next several decades. To meet the ambitious 1.5 degree goal, global emissions would need to peak in the next 5 to 6 years, and the world would need to be zero-carbon by 2060.
To highlight the infeasibility of these reductions, we can look to current stated goals: the United States will make its best efforts for a 28% reduction by 2025 (with an intended pathway to 80% by 2050); the European Union plans for 40% reductions by 2030; additionally, many developing countries, such as China and India, have plans for peaking emissions or emissions intensity by 2030, surely not in the next 5 to 6 years. More worryingly, all of these current emission reduction commitments and proposed future pushes for further reductions are contingent upon legislation and political appointments at both the national and local levels.
It’s easy to see why some have stated that a 2 degree warming increasingly appears to be the most realistic “best-case scenario,” rather than a number that “must not be crossed.” Perhaps the only certain thing in the goal for 1.5 degrees is that the increased ambition it reflects can hardly wait till future meetings. Only time will tell if this ambition can be sustained, but time is running out.
Image courtesy wikimedia commons.