Government leaders from around the world have convened today to begin a week-long conference on climate change. The goal is to create a new international agreement to put a cap on carbon emissions, encourage clean energy projects, and generally come to a consensus on how to steer the planet away from certain destruction. Countries with clean energy policies in place, like the United States and Britain, are expected to put pressure on other world leaders to adopt strategies to avoid reaching the crucial 2 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures that would constitute irreversible damage. The summit, formally known as the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), marks the first time in decades that an international agreement on climate change will be drawn up. So, what would success look like? Read on for our take.
The climate talks in Paris, which will run November 30 through December 11, will hold the attention of climate scientists, environmentalists, and the energy industry elite, as everyone waits to hear specific commitments from each represented nation. Leading up to the conference, each of the 175 participating nations was asked to submit an Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which is essentially a statement promising what goals each country is willing to adopt. Only the countries responsible for over 80 percent of emissions were required to submit an INDC prior to the talks. The filing deadline was March 30, 2015, and although most nations submitted late, the Climate Action Tracker reports that 148 submissions have been received as of November 24. This represents commitments from nations responsible for around 93 percent of global emissions in 2010 and 94 percent of the global population.
Many agencies and organizations working for a cleaner environment and a reduction in GHG emissions worldwide have issued statements calling for swift action, stringent restrictions, and global cooperation. Most proponents of drastic cuts to carbon emissions feel strongly that the biggest burden for positive change falls on the world’s most developed countries (think the U.S. and U.K.) along with the biggest polluters on the planet (that’s China and India).
Here’s five things the Paris climate deal must do to slow global warming:
1. A plan for 2020 and beyond
The over-arching goal for the climate conference is to create a global agreement addressing environmental goals beyond the year 2020, which is when current international commitments on greenhouse gas regulations run out. At minimum, world leaders are expected to devise goals and strategies for the decade after that, and potentially more. Environmental activists had originally planned a public march for November 29 to demonstrate support for aggressive climate-saving strategies, but that event was canceled after the violent attacks that took place throughout the city on November 13. A second rally, planned for December 12 (the day after the conference concludes) has also been canceled due to security concerns. Axing the public action won’t silence the people, though, and on Sunday, Paris’ Place de la Republique—the planned site for the canceled rally—was filled with hundreds of pairs of empty shoes, representing many of the people who would have turned out to show their support for a cleaner world.
Even the most hopeful observers of the Paris climate talks still agree on one thing. No matter how unanimous the new agreement is, it won’t be enough to save the world. But, it will represent a big step forward in slowing the rate of global warming, cutting the global temperature increase from 8 degrees to 6 degrees Fahrenheit. Both scenarios surpass the planet’s tolerance, but it’s possible that future agreements could curb emissions even more and curtail what is currently the inevitable.
2. Global emissions cuts
The Paris climate talks will likely result in a new agreement, similar in fashion to the Kyoto Protocol treaty, signed in 1997. Kyoto called for global emissions reductions of about 5 percent, compared with 1990 levels, to be accomplished during the first commitment period, which ended in 2012. Developing countries, including China (now the world’s biggest polluter) were excluded from those restrictions and actually allowed to grow their emissions in the name of economic prosperity. Now, three years after the goal, it’s become clear that the unchecked growth is problematic. China outlined its national goals for reducing GHG emissions in its INDC, claiming that it will bring emissions down 60 to 65 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
The trouble with any agreement that comes out of the Paris talks is that it will not be legally binding. No matter what promises are made in the next two weeks, the United Nations won’t be able to admonish those countries who stray from the agreement. Of course, other world leaders are never without recourse when it comes to being disappointed by the actions of others, so most conference participants are hopeful that the commitments made will be seen through.
3. Caps on fossil fuel usage
While Kyoto specifically allowed for the virtually unlimited increase of emissions in certain developing countries, times have changed. With global temperatures increasing on a trajectory toward certain doom, it’s necessary for the product of this UN conference to face the climate crisis head on. Reducing dependence on fossil fuels—largely by shutting down coal power plants (like the UK promises to do in 10 years) and reducing dependence on oil—is a clear method for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and many nations are already making strides in this department.
New coal power plants are currently planned for India and China, where government leaders claim cleaner alternatives are too expensive. China already set future goals for reducing coal, especially in Beijing where air pollution has become a public health disaster, but it was also recently revealed that the nation has been burning on average 17 percent more coal each year than previously reported, demonstrating gaping flaws in oversight and accountability.
The world’s worst polluters get the most attention for making cuts, but they aren’t the only ones. Environmental protection groups, renewable energy industry leaders, and even billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are calling on President Obama to further reduce the United States’ consumption of coal and oil.
4. Boosting clean energy projects
It’s common sense that reducing fossil fuels will leave nations in need of new sources of energy. Technological advances in clean energy—particularly where solar power is concerned—have led to more affordable options than ever before. However, retrofitting a nation’s power grid to renewable sources is no small task, even in a small country.
This is a pretty good example of where Kyoto went wrong, because nations like China, India, and Mexico were permitted to continue growing carbon emissions unchecked and now those same countries face an even greater challenge in converting even a portion of their infrastructure to renewables because they already have a ‘working’ energy infrastructure in place. To this end, India’s prime minister has already leaned on UK officials to request financial support for its climate change plan, and certainly other nations could do much more with economic assistance from richer nations.
For an illustration of the difference in approaches to infrastructure development, one need look no further than the Kasese district in Uganda, which aims for 100 percent clean energy. There, the renewable energy infrastructure is affordable because the area does not already have a massive dependence on fossil fuels. In short, there is no ‘dirty’ equipment or pollution-spewing power plant to halt, tear down, or retrofit.
5. Tools for measuring progress
Past international summits on climate change—Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Kyoto in 1997, Copenhagen in 2009—have all paved the way for Paris to become the ultimate turning point in the battle to save the planet. But, they all have something else in common. Those agreements failed. They fell short for a variety of reasons, but mostly because they lacked a framework for tracking progress toward goals, and didn’t prescribe follow up conferences. If world leaders are to devise a successful global strategy for reversing climate change, the new agreement must require commitments at predetermined intervals as well as provisions for reporting each nation’s performance.
Without all of these parts working in concert, the Paris talks will go down in history as just another sad chapter in the disorganized human struggle to control the damage we’ve caused to our one and only planet.