A far-reaching climate accord may well emerge from Paris climate talks—but it likely won’t have the desired effect on global temperatures
Undeterred by the deadly terrorist attacks that shook Paris earlier this month, world governments converged on the city today for two weeks of long-anticipated climate change negotiations.
If they strike a deal, as expected, those governments would likely declare the talks a success resulting in the most far-reaching climate accord ever, one that includes commitments by nearly every nation on Earth.
Environmental, human rights, and other activists, however, would point out that the agreement won’t meet the governments’ stated goal of holding average global temperature rise to 2 °C over preindustrial levels by 2100.
They’d both be right.
If the negotiations lead to a pact, nearly 200 countries, large and small, rich and poor, would together take on the responsibility to curb greenhouse gas emissions. That would represent a major shift in diplomacy since nations hammered out the first climate change treaty in 1992. Back then, industrialized nations pledged to curb their emissions while developing countries, which then contributed only small volumes of emissions, got a pass.
Yet according to recent analyses, the pledges made thus far wouldn’t limit average global temperature rise to 2 °C by the end of the century. Instead, they’d set the world on course to a 2.7 °C by 2100. And a paper published last week by researchers in the U.S. and Austria finds that the pledges increase the probability that the world can limit global warming to 2 °C, but whether this can happen will depend on what sort of further emission goals governments agree to take on beyond 2030 (Science 2015, DOI: 10.1126/science.aad5761).
“This agreement won’t solve climate change in one fell swoop,” says Jake Schmidt, international program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
Governments hope to revisit the agreement in years to come and make further commitments to cut emissions, still shooting for their 2 °C goal.
Amid security concerns, officials curbed many of the public rallies and events planned around the conference, disappointing those hoping to press the world to aggressively curb climate change.
But the biggest hurdle the Paris talks face is one that has dogged climate change negotiations for years—money. “There is no doubt that financing is the most crucial component yet to be clarified,” says Christiana Figueres, the UN’s top climate change official.
Poorer nations want richer countries to provide financial support so they can adopt cleaner energy technology and adapt to a warmer world. In addition, low-lying island nations whose very existence is threatened by climate change also want funding that will help them recover from damages caused or exacerbated by global warming, such as coastal inundation from sea-level rise.
In a 2009 agreement reached in Copenhagen, industrialized nations promised to pony up $100 billion per year by 2020 in such aid, funneling it through a new UN-overseen organization called the Green Climate Fund. Developing countries, skeptical that financing is forthcoming, want more specifics on when and how that money will flow to them.
“Credible clarity must be provided on the pathway to the $100 billion per year,” Figueres says.
Given the strained state of the world’s economy, industrialized countries have been sparse on details about financing. Whether the financing issue will end up thwarting completion of a deal in Paris remains to be seen.
Cheryl Hogue oversees government and policy coverage at Chemical & Engineering News and has been covering climate issues for decades. Follow her coverage of #COP21 on Twitter @chogue