C&EN @ COP21 – Paris Climate Change Conference – 2015, November 30 to December 11

Paris Climate Agreement: Historic, But Much Work Remains

We are almost at the end of the road, and no doubt at the start of another.” –Laurent Fabius, President of COP21, December 12,2015

Never before has there been unanimous agreement by 196 countries on climate. But in Paris, there was. Never before have 150 heads of state met at one time to discuss anything, but at the start of these talks, they did. Presidents and Premiers provided strong inducement for negotiators that climate change is a serious global problem caused by humans and must be addressed by all nations.

So the agreement is historic. But it’s also a grand compromise.

At the Paris climate meeting, Steven Pawson, NASA, presents direct measurements and modeling of carbon dioxide concentrations in the Earth's atmosphere. Credit: Jerald Schnoor

At the Paris climate meeting, Steven Pawson of NASA presents direct measurements and modeling of carbon dioxide concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Credit: Jerald Schnoor

For example, the Paris agreement is more ambitious than any previous climate accord. But it is voluntary by nature and, therefore, purposefully short on penalties for nations which do not meet their pledges. Its goal is to hold global warming “well below” the 2.0 oC above pre-industrial levels by 2100 and to “pursue efforts” for tightening that target to 1.5 oC. But the agreement does not include the stronger ambition that many environmentalists sought –“decarbonization” or “climate neutrality” by 2050. Instead it sets an aspirational goal that emissions should level-off “as soon as possible” with significant cuts after that.

Unfortunately, we are now warmer by 0.9 oC compared to pre-industrial times, and we already face an additional warming of 0.5-0.6 oC because of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. Thus, it will be almost impossible to keep warming below 1.5 oC.

The Paris agreement also calls for developed countries to take the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Even developing countries are “encouraged” to reduce emissions as they can. All countries are expected to have a living action plan that includes emission control programs, land and forest use, and adaptation to climate change. A tracking system has been put in place to track and report progress on emissions reductions. But the agreement still sets targets, not mandates.

Finally, the Paris agreement makes clear that rich countries are responsible to provide funding for adaptation and loss and damages of poor and vulnerable nations, a figure that’s been estimated to cost some $100 billion per year. But the pact does not go into the details of exact amounts—who will pay what, and who will get what. As developing countries become wealthier, the agreement invites them to contribute to funding adaptation too.

Getting 196 countries to agree on anything is truly amazing. The fact that they did so in Paris makes prospects brighter for planet earth and for future generations. But the work is just beginning.

Jerald Schnoor attended the Paris meeting on assignment for Chemical & Engineering News.  He is professor and co-director of the Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa, and former editor-in-chief of Environmental Science & Technology.  Follow him on Twitter @JerryatCOP21.

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  1. Steven Cooke December 14, 2015

    All well and good in priniciple, and certainly it looks like there will be jobs for chemists… I’d just be more confident if the nations figured out how to bring population to “pre-industrial levels” by 2100 first. New technology only goes so far, and economy is a global pit

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