A 31-page accord on climate, the Paris Agreement, was adopted on 12 December 2015, and endorsed by acclamation by 195 countries, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at their 21st meeting (COP21). The achievement of universality was remarkable and historic because, for the first time, developing countries also committed to taking action to prevent climate disaster. The rich countries reaffirmed that there are differential responsibilities — code for their far greater contribution to the problem of climate disruption.
Another truly remarkable thing was the skill with which the small island states, like the Marshall Islands, and their supporters navigated the waters where the Exxons and Saudi Arabias of the world sail. They led COP21 to an accord that seeks to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change” (Article 2). The slogan was “one-point-five to survive.” Anything more would mean their destruction by rising oceans — along with so many other coastal communities and lands from Bangladesh to Shanghai to Miami and Mumbai. Hundreds of millions would be displaced at 2°C, the previous average temperature rise limit agreed to in climate negotiations. Take a look at the excellent The New York Times illustration of Chinese cities now, with 2°C temperature rise, and with a 4°C rise.
The 1.5°C limit implies an end to the large scale destruction of forests; Article 5 begins to address the issue. It would require leaving most oil and gas and coal in the ground: fossil fuels would become like stones after the Stone Age — obsolete. While essential for Mother Nature and people generally, millions of workers would lose their jobs. A just transition for them and the communities they live in was an option in Article 2 of the draft going into COP21; it was relegated to the preamble in the final document, as were “obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity…” (p. 21). But the words are still there, inviting action. In addition, there was acknowledgement of the need for “gender balance” and that the knowledge of indigenous people would be valuable in adaptation.
Critically, the substance of the commitments, if they can be called that, are not remotely up to the task of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C. Indeed, there are no legally binding targets at all. Instead there are highly inadequate, voluntary “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs) imply roughly a 3°C rise, double the 1.5°C target. Remember: damage would rise far faster than average temperature.
To keep temperature rise to less than 2°C, the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), in its Mitigation Report, estimated that CO2-equivalent (CO2eq) concentrations would have to be limited to 450 parts per million (ppm) by the year 2100 (pp. 8-10). It means emissions 40 to 70 percent below 2010 by 2050 and “near or below zero” in 2100 (pp. 10, 12; italics added). That would make it likely that the temperature rise would be less than 2°C; the chance that it would suffice for 1.5°C? Just 16 percent with a likely overshoot above that in mid-century (Figure 6-13, p. 439). The IPCC also noted in its summary explicitly addressed to policy makers that “Only a limited number of studies have explored scenarios that are more likely than not to bring temperature change back to below 1.5°C by 2100 relative to pre-industrial levels; these scenarios bring atmospheric concentrations to below 430 ppm CO2eq by 2100.” (p. 16, emphasis in the original) Below 430 ppm! The world was already at 430 ppm CO2eq (including all greenhouse gases) in 2011; we are at more than that now.
The breathtaking scale of this task is not evident in the Paris Agreement, though it does express “serious concern” about “the significant gap” between the INDCs and the ambition. Only it’s not just a significant gap; it’s a Himalayan crevasse. It seems reasonably clear that for a reasonable chance of limiting the temperature to 1.5°C, global emissions would have to go to zero well before 2100. Considering differentiated responsibilities, rich countries would have to get to essentially zero emissions by about 2050 or before.
The Paris Agreement has provisions for countries to strengthen their commitments to reduce emissions and for five year reviews. The first review will be in 2018 (“facilitative dialogue…to take stock”, p. 4). A high priority task, if we are serious about 1.5°C, would be to get zero emissions in the energy sector for rich countries by 2050 (at the latest) on the agenda for that dialogue. Global justice requires at least that. Energy justice within countries will need to be addressed too. For the United States, I suggest that the energy burdens of low-income households be capped at 6 percent, considered an affordable level. We’ve done a study detailing that for Maryland, it also explores how to provide universal solar energy access. They are more essential now both for economic justice and climate goals.
Presumably, the $100 billion a year that the rich countries promise to provide by 2020 and thereafter (pp. 16-17) would partly make up for the constraining the carbon space of those who did not contribute much to creating the problem. In fact, while recognizing that countries and peoples are already experiencing “loss and damage”, the Paris Agreement flatly states that the article covering such losses “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.” (p. 8) The accord lacks a vital tool: teeth.
There is one bad element, a carryover from the Kyoto Protocol. Article 6 of the Paris Agreement would allow international offsets (“cooperative approaches that involve the use of internationally transferred mitigation outcomes towards nationally determined contributions”). This means that some countries (likely rich ones) could continue to pollute while claiming that others are doing more than their share or storing carbon in some way, for instance in soil or trees (likely poor ones). It is a giant loophole with potential for serious corruption as well.
The Paris Agreement is a good start, especially in that it sets forth a temperature goal and commits all parties to act, with differentiated responsibilities for the rich. Most of the needed words are there; however, they are, for the most part, weak. To give them effect and keep most fossil fuels in the ground will take the global equivalent of the movement that stopped the Keystone Pipeline. Yet, the agreement could be a solid beginning: it has created immense organizing energy. The work of keeping fossil fuels in the ground has already begun, among others by 350.org, the group that led the huge and diverse Keystone struggle.
We will also need national and local roadmaps for efficiency and renewable energy, transportation, and sustainable agriculture (a large source of greenhouse gas emissions). That vision will need to be broad. For instance, it will need include the cooking energy needs of hundreds of millions of families who now cook with wood, cow-dung, and crop residues. Women and children die in the millions each year of respiratory diseases; and black-carbon (soot) emissions contribute to global warming.
The world already has more than one billion petroleum fueled cars — it is headed to 2 billion by 2030. That is incompatible with the Paris Agreement. Transportation will need to be revolutionized — and electrified — with electrified public transport much more in the center of things and all types of transportation running on renewable energy. Paris should be an inspiration for a walkable city with wonderful public transport.
We will need roadmaps, created with public input, for productively investing and spending the $100 billion-a-year, and intense pressure to ensure at least that much money is forthcoming and that it is well spent and that it creates good jobs for workers in the fossil fuel sectors now.
At bottom, 1.5°C is about reshaping a world created by imperialist-drawn borders, often with oil at the center, and a hundred years of wars — still going on — into one that is ecologically sane, peaceful, and economically just. Remember Syria and Iraq (among others) were essentially created by Britain and France after World War I. Actually achieving a limit of 1.5°C will mean taking the tiger out of Exxon’s tank and putting it into the Paris Agreement. It may well be a perilous exercise in itself. But it is one that is essential — it is the one-point-five imperative.