World leaders met in Paris for the United Nations’ 21st Conference of the Parties climate talks from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, reaching an agreement on climate change mitigation efforts at the end of the conference. Illinois atmospheric sciences professor Atul Jain was among the many scientists worldwide who contributed data to the Global Carbon Budget report. Jain talked about the COP21 agreement with News Bureau physical sciences editor Liz Ahlberg.
Other climate talks and conferences have been held over the years, so why the urgency to reach a sweeping agreement in Paris?
Paris comes at a time when climate scientists are telling us that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are impacting Earth’s climate, and the damages of climate change are greater than ever. Average temperatures reached a record high in 2014, and the recent temperature record suggests that 2015 will likely be the hottest on record. Taken as a whole, the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage costs of climate change are likely to be significant and to increase over time. World leaders have finally realized that doing too little will create the risk of very high long-term impacts and very high mitigation costs.
What are some of the major points of the Paris agreement?
The Paris conference reached a bottom-up agreement. Rather than using the top-down climate agreement approach in which countries would agree to broad guidelines to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, countries around the world have proposed their own greenhouse gas reduction plans – called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – laying out how they plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions based on what they believe is politically and economically feasible for their own country.
The long-term objective of the U.N. Paris agreement is to make sure global warming stays "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and to "pursue efforts" to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Only developed countries are expected to control their emissions in absolute terms for now; developing countries have to enhance their mitigation efforts over time. An agreement also has been reached that developed nations will help developing countries with the costs of going green, and the costs of coping with the effects of climate change. The agreement will become legally binding if at least 55 countries, representing at least 55 percent of global greenhouse emissions, become a party to it. The agreement will be opened for the member countries to sign on April 22, 2016.
How could such an agreement be fair to all countries involved? Who would bear the brunt of the cost?
The issue of fairness has touched virtually every climate talk. This time in Paris, the developed countries assured developing countries and emerging economies that the cash promised to them to green their economies back at the Copenhagen summit in 2009 will be delivered through 2020 and beyond. However, all countries were encouraged to contribute on a voluntary basis, and actual dollar amounts were kept out of the agreement itself.
What kinds of actions could be taken to help the United States meet the goals outlined in the agreement?
The United States has proposed to reduce its CO2 emission by 80 percent by 2050. We have to understand that controlling CO2 is an energy problem. Establishment of a course toward such a drastic CO2 emission reduction will require the development of primary energy sources that do not emit carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, in addition to efforts to reduce end-use energy demand, all within the next decade.
A broad range of intensive research and development is urgently needed to produce technological options that can allow both climate mitigation and economic development. Possible candidates for primary energy sources include terrestrial solar and wind energy, and fossil fuels from which carbon has been sequestered. Other technologies that could contribute to control climate change include efficiency improvements in building, transportation and industry sectors; hydrogen production, storage and transport; geoengineering and many others. All of these approaches currently are limited in their ability to control global climate, which is why a combination of technologies is needed.
Are the goals outlined in the agreement even feasible at this point?
No doubt limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius is necessary to prevent some of the worst impacts of climate change. Failure to meet that goal will pose one of the greatest threats to societies. The triple threat of economic instability, rapidly increasing population and climatic impacts will lead to a rising tide of refugees.
This is going to affect all nations in one way or another. Therefore, nations don’t have any other options but to curb climate change. The political and socioeconomic conditions have to be changed and the climate change has to be controlled. All nations, developed and developing, have to accept their fair share of responsibility and exert the necessary self-restraint.