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Paris Climate Conference, December 2015

The Paris Climate Conference, formally known as the 21st Conference of the Parties, or COP21 ended on December 12, 2015 with a 31 page signed agreement between 195 nations. Final agreement will occur in April after at least 55 countries have formally signed it.

There are several key aspects of the agreement: one is that it will be reviewed each 5 years and the commitments re-established at lower emissions levels than the original commitments made in October 2015 just before the conference. The agreement also has a financial side with promises of $100 billion per year in assistance to developing countries to adapt to climate change. There is also a strong emphasis on technology development as a key element to assist in meeting emissions goals.

The graph presents the key aspects of the emissions policies and pledges. The two scales are gigaton equivalent of CO2 annual emissions and the time scale.

The top set of lines reflects the current policies and actual emission projections under a business-as-usual scenario. The range simply reflects the amount of uncertainty in the estimates. Business-as-usual will result in a range of +3.3º to +3.8º C or approximately +6º F. This will result in very severe climate and weather consequences as well as significant ocean acidification and sea level rise. The Earth will become a very uncomfortable place to live for the majority of the inhabitants.

The middle set of lines on the graph represent the pledges made in October for the COP21 conference. They total approximately +2.6º C or nearly 5º F above the pre-industrial level. Remember, in 2009 the nations of the world indicated that +2º C was the danger level for civilization. This will be exceeded by a relatively wide margin. The result is a worsening climate that will make life much more difficult for our grandchildren.

The bottom curve is aspirational. The concept is that at each 5-year review period, countries will be able to take advantage of still unknown technology and policies to reduce further the world-wide emissions. This is the real hope of the island nations that are threatened by sea level rise.

So there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the current goals and promises, if achieved, will keep the Earth’s temperature to about +2.6º C increase, or another +1.5º C above today (we have already increased +1º C). While causing major problems for some, it will probably enable adaptation plans to work, especially in terms of resilience to violent storms and heat waves. Sea level rise will cause many problems as it will increase another 3-4 feet before the end of the century causing extensive displacement of persons.

The good/bad news is that to achieve these promises, significant changes need to be made in sources of energy. We have to stop burning coal, and have to leave most of the existing oil and gas reserves in the ground or develop technology to sequester CO2 emissions. There needs to be a significant increase in renewable power technologies including solar, wind, hydro and perhaps advanced nuclear and others to pick up he slack. The promises will not be easy to meet and there will be extensive push-back from the fossil fuel interests. But the basic message from Paris is that the fossil fuel industry is being “sunset.” This will occur sooner rather than later under the policy of tightening the emissions targets each 5 years – the process has begun.

The last aspect of the agreement is very interesting – the enforcement mechanism. Previous agreements were “top-down,” such as the Kyoto Treaty, with sanctions for missing targets. Delegates were very uneasy about signing on to such agreements for many reasons including the problems of getting agreement within their countries when the delegates went back home. The Paris agreement is “bottom-up.” Each country sets its own goals and polices to meet those goals. There is an agreed-upon transparency for each country. All countries have to submit regular inventories of their emissions. The reports will have to meet certain accounting standards and be subjected to “expert” review. There are no sanctions, only peer pressure and pressure from within each country. And of course the increasing pressure from the many adverse impacts of a warming climate and ocean.

All 195 countries acknowledge that the science is incontrovertible, climate change is caused by humans, it is bad and something must and can be done about it. The issues is how fast we can reduce our CO2 emissions, how fast we can replace fossil fuels, what adaptation plans are necessary and what mitigation schemes are practicable. The biggest impediment is the ability to provide renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels at the rate necessary to meet emission reduction targets.

In the U.S. the President’s Clean Power Plan, CPP, is a key ingredient of us being able to meet our goals. It is a combination of “top-down” dictates from EPA of individual goals of the states and a “bottom-up” implementation philosophy. The states have the options of four different approaches to be used individually or in combination to achieve the goal. For example a conservation program plus closing of coal-fired power plants. With the Supreme Court stay in providing plans to EPA as required by the CPP the states have the option to comply or not. A large number of states, including Virginia and some that are parties to the lawsuit to stop the CPP, are continuing with their own plans to meet the goals that have been established. Regardless of any ruling that comes out of the Supreme Court this summer, it appears that the U.S. may continue on track to meet its pledge at COP21. A bipartisan group of governors from 17 states, including Virginia, has pledged to accelerate their efforts to create a green economy in the US by boosting renewables, building better electricity grids and cutting emissions from transport. Surveys show the bulk of the citizens of this country are aware that climate change is real and needs to be addressed. Bud Ward in another piece in this newsletter discusses the impact of current events in more detail.

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