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The Paris Climate Agreement


The Paris Accord is a really big deal. This global climate agreement brokered by the United Nations and signed in December 2015 by some 195 countries went into effect in October 2016. A key goal of the accord is for all member countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to keep global temperature rise below 2C of pre-industrial levels (measured in 1880). This is a threshold level above which most scientists agree that the impacts of climate change will be catastrophic, including flooding of large coastal cities by sea level rise, brutal heat waves, and droughts that could cause widespread starvation in developing countries. The agreement also lays the groundwork for countries to strive to reduce emissions to keep temperature increase below 1.5C which is considered to be the catastrophic level for low lying island nations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans that are threatened by sea level rise. We are currently at 1.3C above 1880 levels, so the goals are aggressive and the stakes are very high.

World map showing parties (orange) and signatories (green) of the Paris Climate Agreement
Parties (orange) and signatories (green) of the Paris Climate Agreement

There have been numerous previous climate agreements in the past, most notably the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that laid out stringent emissions targets for the countries that signed on. One of the reasons the Paris Accord was adopted by so many nations (only Syria and Nicaragua did not sign initially, but Nicaragua now has) is because the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly urgent. Although 127 countries signed on to Kyoto, the US did not.

The second reason the accord was so widely adopted is that the emission targets are voluntary, set by the individual countries based on what they believe is feasible. For example, the US’s goal was to reduce emissions by 26 percent by 2025. Once a country sets its target, it is required to abide by it and present supporting monitoring data. A country can change targets every five years. The downside of the flexibility is that many experts believe that with current targets, 1.5C is impossible, 2C is highly unlikely and 3C is more realistic. So, even if countries reduce emissions, it will be hard to stave off the highly adverse impacts of climate change.

Two other key provisions of the Paris Accord is that richer developed countries have made a financial commitment to help poorer developing nations meet their targets, although there were no firm amounts in the agreement. President Obama pledged $2.5 billion to this fund while he was in office, but only $500 million was paid. Another key provision is that the agreement recognizes and addresses deforestation as a key element of emission reduction and for countries to use forest management strategies as part of their emissions goals.

For the US, one of the key components of the emissions reduction strategies is the Clean Power Plan, introduced in 2014 under President Obama. The CPP set out to reduce emissions from electrical power generation by 32% based on the reduction of emissions from coal-fired power plants and the conversion to renewable sources of energy including wind, solar, and geothermal.

So, the strength of the accord is that it is voluntary, highly transparent and collaborative. The downside is that it is voluntary! The general fear is that the agreement may not go far enough, fast enough.

However, that said, this is by far the most widely adopted agreement and the global scope is a massive accomplishment. So, it was a major disappointment on June 1st, 2017 when President Donald Trump signaled that the US would withdraw from the Paris Accord in 2020, the earliest time the US could pull out under the agreement guidelines. The fear is that if the US, the second largest producer of carbon, does not abide by its emissions goals, other countries might not as well. Trump's reasons were largely economic, that the conversion to renewable energy would be too expensive and hinder the bottom line of businesses, especially the fossil fuel industries. However, as we will see in this class, conversion to renewables has begun and has the potential to be a very large and highly profitable business. Moreover, cities, states, and businesses themselves, especially those in the northwest and on the west coast are already committed to reducing emissions, so at least part of the US will continue to collaborate with other countries to address the critical issue of climate change.

Trump's overall strategy involves defunding and repealing the Clean Power Plan. However, the plan is protected in that it improves the health of communities; there have been studies that enactment of the plan will save 4500 lives by 2030. This public health element will make the CPP hard to overturn, at least not without a lengthy court battle.

We will refer to the Paris Agreement in the remainder of the course. In this module, we discuss how models simulate the climate of the future. In closing, remember the 2oC number, it's going to come up over and over again.