Key facts from and about the Paris Agreement, heading into the Global Climate Action Summit

August 25, 2018

Excerpt from The Guardian 15 Aug 2018

Let’s remind ourselves just what the Paris agreement is. Signed in 2015, it is the first truly universal agreement among nations to tackle climate change. It’s not perfect, but the agreement has boosted the momentum to clean up economies around the world.

In response to the Paris agreement and the falling cost of zero emissions technology, more and more countries, businesses and investors are implementing policies to drive the transition to cheap and clean renewable energy. In 2017 alone, around 70% of new power generation installed globally was renewable energy, with more solar PV capacity being added in 2017 than that of coal, gas and nuclear combined.

The treaty has a number of key elements. Firstly, the objective of the agreement is not only to keep global warming “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels, but also to “pursue efforts” to keep warming to 1.5°C. This means global emissions must fall to zero by around 2050 – earlier in developed countries.

Secondly, the agreement requires action from all countries and, unlike previous agreements, these actions and targets need to strengthen through time. There is no room for us to go backwards.

Thirdly, the Paris agreement also involves a system of transparency and accountability where countries’ actions are reviewed by other nations.

Now to correct some of the fairy tales that appear to have embedded themselves in parliament.

Fact: Countries are imposing penalties on their major emissions sources to meet Paris targets  

The London School of Economics and Political Science reports that there are 1,500 climate laws and policies globally. Just over 20 years ago when the Kyoto protocol was signed, there were only 72.  These policies include carbon pricing (countries representing 56% of global emissions are on track to be covered soon), renewable energy schemes (179 countries have renewable energy targets) and vehicle emissions standards(nearly 80% of new light duty vehicles sold globally are subject to some kind of emissions standard), to name a few.

Fact: Paris does apply to all countries and action is occurring

The Paris Agreement was endorsed by all countries in and shortly after the Paris agreement, even initial non-signers Syria and Nicaragua (which said the agreement needed to be stronger and more rapid).  The Paris agreement has been ratified by 179 countries to date including Australia, the US, China, the EU, India and all other major emitters. US president Donald Trump has stated that the US intends to leave the agreement, but legally they cannot formally withdraw until November 2020. Trump’s America is the only country in the world to say it will renege on its commitments to the international community.

Despite Trump’s efforts, with clean technology costs falling and concerted action from US states, polluting coal plants are continuing to close and renewable energy and gas are expected to dominate the future of the US power system.

Both China and India have committed to emissions targets under the Paris agreement. China has committed to lower the carbon intensity of its economy by 60 to 65% below 2005 levels by 2030. India committed to reduce the emissions intensity of its economy by 33-35% below 2005 level over the same period.

Backed by government policies such as renewable energy support, plans to retire old coal generators, carbon pricing and energy efficiency standards, both countries are on track to achieve these targets well in advance of 2030. For example, India is projected to meet its 2030 target to get 40% of its electricity generation from non-fossil fuel sources eight years early.

Fact: More, not less, needs to be done to meet Paris objectives

The world is currently not on track to achieve the objectives of the Paris agreement. Substantial progress has been made but more will need to be done by all countries to limit warming to well below 2oC.

Meeting the ambition outlined in the Paris agreement is challenging but achievable. We already have the technology necessary, but we will need to use it, and fast. The main barrier to reaping the benefits of the transition to clean energy and avoiding severe climate change impacts remains political will, and this is something we can all do something about.

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By Eric Holthaus, Aug 2018

Meanwhile, a team of international researchers released what looks like a blueprint for catastrophe. On our current path, they warned, humanity might push the planet into an entirely new, hellish equilibrium, unseen since before the emergence of our species millions of years ago.

This doomsday scenario, which they dubbed “hothouse Earth,” could render large swaths of our planet uninhabitable. Their conclusion: “Humanity is now facing the need for critical decisions and actions that could influence our future for centuries, if not millennia.”

“Humanity is now facing the need for critical decisions and actions that could influence our future for centuries, if not millennia.”

But that message got lost in the breathless media coverage over “hothouse Earth” — even though it’s the most important thing each one of us needs to hear at perhaps the most important turning point in our species’ history.

Yes, the prospect of runaway climate change is terrifying. But this dead world is not our destiny. It’s entirely avoidable. As the authors of the paper have argued in response to the coverage, implying otherwise is the same as giving up just as the fight gets tough.  Take a look at the leading sentences from some of the most widely-shared reports (and note the use of “will”):

CNN:  Scientists are warning that a domino effect will kick in if global temperatures rise more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, leading to “hothouse” conditions and higher sea levels, making some areas on Earth uninhabitable.

The Guardian: A domino-like cascade of melting ice, warming seas, shifting currents and dying forests could tilt the Earth into a “hothouse” state beyond which human efforts to reduce emissions will be increasingly futile.

This kind of framing is almost perfectly engineered to foster hopelessness. When coverage hinted at optimism, failure seemed built-in.

BBC:  Others are concerned that the authors’ faith in humanity to grasp the serious nature of the problem is misplaced. “Given the evidence of human history, this would seem a naive hope,” said Professor Chris Rapley, from University College London.

The paper paints a terrifying picture. It does a masterful job of compiling the evidence (some of which we’ve known for a long time) that our worst climate fears could come true and persist for millennia if Earth is just slightly more sensitive to greenhouse gases than we think.

But that doesn’t change what we already know: We need a world that’s carbon neutral as quickly as possible.

With every year we wait — and our emissions continue to climb — this challenge becomes more and more difficult.

Seeing this, and seeing the still massive headwinds of state-sanctioned climate denial and the corrupting influence of fossil fuel money, a cynic might say: It’s too hard. Let’s just learn to adapt.

Well, the authors say, it will be existentially difficult to adapt to a world with runaway permafrost melt, global forest die-offs, rapid sea level rise, and supercharged extreme weather. These aren’t just tipping points. The authors call them tipping cascades. That kind of world will make the current version of Earth look like paradise.

But the bottom line is, we have no choice but to press on through this fear. This is our actual planet we’re talking about, the only place in the entire universe capable of supporting life as we know it.

The next decade will almost surely decide our fate. That should empower us. It means every act has meaning; we have the chance to save the world as we know it every single day. In this scenario we now find ourselves in, radical, disruptive climate action is the only course of action that makes sense.

To their credit, climate scientists of all stripes, including the paper’s authors, have been pushing back hard on the media’s framing of this research.

In a tweet, Diana Liverman, a climate scientist and co-author of the paper called out the media directly:

“Clearly people aren’t reading the paper we wrote where our point is exactly that Hothouse Earth is not our destiny and that social system feedbacks are starting to move us to the Stable Earth. But media goes for worst case and makes it sound certain.”

Liverman and the other authors anticipated a defeatist response and published a multi-page document of possible solutions which, when combined with other research on the most important actions people can take, gives a blueprint for hope, not despair.

We need “a coordinated, deliberate effort by human societies to manage our relationship with the rest of the Earth System.”

In the paper, the authors sum this up into a single battle cry. To prevent a hothouse Earth, they say, we need “a coordinated, deliberate effort by human societies to manage our relationship with the rest of the Earth System.”

That sounds a lot like the message of a burgeoning global movement targeting the root causes of climate change. That scientists are increasingly comfortable with using language like this — not mincing words anymore — is nothing if not hopeful.

Building a world that works for everyone is exactly what we should refocus our efforts on doing when we read scientific studies that scare the hell out of us. As the researchers point out, there’s still time that we have to take advantage of. That’s why it’s so damn important to act boldly. Now.