Beginning today, 40,000 world leaders, diplomats, experts and partisans will meet in Paris to begin 12 days of climate talks that could very well decide the future of our planet.
The conference is called Conference of the Parties 21, or COP 21, which refers to the countries that have signed up to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). UNFCCC is an international treaty now signed by 195 parties, with the aim of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions to control climate change. This is the 21st meeting since 1992, hence COP 21.
The goal is a new global climate treaty, involving all nations, that would take effect in 2020 to help the world avoid the worst consequences of manmade global warming. According to the UNFCCC, this means limiting global warming in 2100 to less than 2°C, or 3.7°F, above pre-industrial levels.
According to recent data, we’re already halfway there. In 2015, global temperatures have reached 1°C higher than pre-industrial levels. Without action, temperatures are expected to increase by 3.7 – 4.8°C by 2100.
The consequences of inaction
Failure to act now will have huge consequences. According to NASA, this is what we can expect:
- Increases in precipitation and major storms in some areas. The intensity, frequency and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes, as well as the frequency of the strongest (Category 4 and 5) hurricanes, have all increased since the early 1980s.
Droughts in the Southwest and heat waves (periods of abnormally hot weather lasting days to weeks) everywhere are projected to become more intense, and cold waves less intense everywhere. By the end of this century, what have been once-in-20-year extreme heat days (one-day events) are projected to occur every two or three years over most of the nation.
Sea levels will rise 1-4 feet by 2100. Global sea level has risen by about 8 inches since reliable record keeping began in 1880. It is projected to rise another 1 to 4 feet by 2100. This is the result of added water from melting land ice and the expansion of seawater as it warms. In the next several decades, storm surges and high tides could combine with sea level rise and land subsidence to further increase flooding in many of these regions. The Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice free in summer before mid-century.
In Montana, wildfires, insect outbreaks, and tree die-offs can be expected. Extreme heat, heavy downpours and flooding will affect infrastructure, health, agriculture, forestry, and water quality.
Reason for optimism
There is a great deal of optimism for progress at this year’s climate talks. There are several reasons for this.
- The US and China, the two top carbon emitters in the world, reached a historic agreement on climate change this year. A key provision of the agreement is the two countries’ “commitment to a successful climate agreement in Paris” and “the importance of formulating and making available mid-century strategies for the transition to low-carbon economies, mindful of the below 2 degree C global temperature goal.”
- We’re running out of time. In addition to rapid temperature increases, the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the largest in human history at 400 parts per million.
- The framework for an agreement is different than it has been in the past. the new agreement will not be imposed centrally by the UN. Countries will decide for themselves what they are able to do in terms of curbing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing their investment in renewable energy.
What commitments have countries already made?
161 countries have submitted climate pledges in advance of Paris. While these commitments by themselves will not hold global warming under two degrees. According to the United Nations, these commitments would hold temperature increase to 2.7° – 3.7° by the year 2100.
But an agreement framework that provides for regular review and specific timelines can move us down the road to strict regulation in the future.
These are commitments made by the leading economies in the world going into the conference:
President Obama’s Clean Power Plan is the largest commitment ever by the United States. This plan, introduced by executive order last August, cuts significant amounts of power plant carbon pollution while advancing clean energy innovation, development and deployment, and laying the foundation for the long-term strategy needed to tackle the threat of climate change. In Montana, for example, the Clean Power Plan would reduce power plant emissions from approximately 18 million tons of CO2 in 2012 to just over 11 million tons in 2030. However, the plan still faces legal and political challenges in the US.
The EU has submitted a plan for a binding, European-wide target of reducing greenhouse gases by at least 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Negotiating such a plan across the 28 countries in the union is a substantial accomplishment.
China and the US made a historic agreement to emissions control prior to Paris, with China committing to peak its emissions by 2030 and scale up deployment of renewable energy. China also pledged to reduce its emissions per unit of GDP by 60 to 65% below 2005 levels by 2030.
Brazil has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 37% below 2005 levels by 2025 and 43% by 2030.
Russia has proposed cutting emissions by 30% below 1990 levels by 2030.
Costa Rica has made one of the most impressive commitments going into Paris: 100% reliance on renewable energy by 2030, carbon neutrality by 2085, and per capita emissions to net negative levels by 2100.
This oil rich country has, for the first time, indicated a willingness to diversify it’s economy and reduce its emissions, but has offered no specific plan.
Pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60% from business as usual, a substantial commitment.
How American politics affects COP21
According to a poll released today by the New York Times, two-thirds of Americans support the United States joining a binding international agreement to curb growth of greenhouse gas emissions, but a slim majority of Republicans remain opposed, the poll found. Sixty-three percent of Americans — including a bare majority of Republicans — said they would support domestic policy limiting carbon emissions from power plants. Seventy-five percent of Americans polled said that global warming was already having a serious environmental impact or would in the future. Nine in 10 Democrats agreed, compared with 58 percent of Republicans.
Public support is shifting in favor of climate action, but you shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of getting action in Washington. Last week Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote an op ed in the Washington Post in which he said,
“It would obviously be irresponsible for an outgoing president to purport to sign the American people up to international commitments based on a domestic energy plan that is likely illegal, that half the states have sued to halt, that Congress has voted to reject and that his successor could do away with in a few months’ time….
“What his power plan will do is unfairly punish Americans who can least afford it. It could result in the elimination of as many as a quarter of a million U.S. jobs. It could raise energy costs in more than 40 states, with double-digit increases in states such as my home state of Kentucky.
“Predictably, the president’s attack on the middle class — one that won’t even meaningfully affect global carbon emissions — has received loud applause from wealthy left-wingers who just want to pat themselves on the back for “doing something.” Lost jobs or higher energy bills may be a mere trifle for some on the left, but it’s a different story for a senior citizen on a fixed income or for a working mom who struggles paycheck to paycheck.”
In Montana, NorthWestern Energy has sued to block the Clean Power Plan, predicting that it will do significant permanent damage to Montana’s economy, including shutting down all four of the Colstrip electrical generators by 2022, eliminating the coal mine that supports them, and building expensive replacements for all of them.
But the claims of Mitch McConnell, NorthWestern Energy and other litigants against the Clean Power Plan should be taken with a several large grains of salt. They seek to maintain the status quo, but according to Thomas Power, professor emeritus in the Economics Department at the University of Montana, these claims have little merit:
“Instead of analyzing the broad array of ways that Montana can meet its obligation to reduce carbon pollution under the Clean Power Plan and contribute to the development of a Montana plan, NWE has simply taken to shouting hysterically that the sky is falling and that the only way to avoid economic catastrophe in Montana is to abandon efforts to stabilize our climate.
“The flexibility allowed under the Clean Power Plan, and a realistic review of the electricity infrastructure in place in Montana, clearly indicate that that just is not so.”
A need for urgency
We need to feel great urgency about COP 21. Success will not get us where we need to be, but failure to reach an agreement that will include regular assessments of progress and a framework for future cuts will be a disaster.
This morning President Obama spoke in Paris and affirmed the need for action. “I come here personally as the leader of the world’s biggest economy and second biggest emitter to say that America not only acknowledges its role in climate change but embraces doing something about it,” he said this morning.
Update December 12:
Delegates reach historic climate agreement in Paris