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Landmark Agreement on Climate
Is Reached in Paris to Cap Warming


By Fred Pearce

12 Dec 2015


Climate negotiators meeting here in Paris have achieved a deal that could change the world. Conference chair and French foreign minister Laurent Fabius crowed that he had presided over a "historical turning point." Even when the hype has died down, that may turn out to be true. Even climate scientists who on Friday had sharply criticized an earlier draft of the text were convinced.

The Paris Agreement commits the world to capping global warming to "well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C." To achieve that, it requires the world to "reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible" and

Getty Images
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon flanked by other leaders at the Paris conference on Saturday.
"to undertake rapid reductions thereafter, in accordance with best available science."

The intention is to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero "in the second half of this century." That is, any emissions would have to be balanced by uptake by nature or some future technology for soaking up greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

"This agreement is a turning point," said Johan Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center and architect of the science that looks at "planetary boundaries" within which society may safely work.

The day before the final deal was done, climate scientists here had ripped into a penultimate draft, saying its temperature aspirations were admirable, but were made meaningless because they were not matched by mechanisms for reaching them. "Diplomats understand the economics, but not the science," said Kevin Anderson, of Manchester University, England.

But in the final hours, science was added to the agreement to put some numbers on reaching the aspirations. It did not bridge the gap between aspirations and pledges, but it shone a light on the gap that had to be filled and offered some opportunities for when it might be narrowed.

The final version noted that the emissions pledges from the 184 nations that form the heart of this agreement would lead to global emissions of 55 gigatons of greenhouse gases in 2030. But that, it said, fell far short of the reduction to 40 gigatons a year needed for limiting warming to two degrees. It added that the even lower levels of emissions necessary to secure 1.5 degrees had yet to be determined.

The agreement also sets up a U.N. scientific stock-taking of progress on the goals, to be completed in 2018, which is the same time as receipt of a report it has commissioned from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the "emissions pathways" needed to meet 1.5.

"The new text is clearer in scientific terms than what we had before," said Joeri Rogelj of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenberg, Austria. "Importantly, the benchmarks in terms of global peaking and global emissions reductions are consistent with the 1.5 degree and two degree temperature targets."

The agreement may be consistent with science, but scientists here remain wary about what is actually achievable. In particular, the difference between halting warming at two degrees or 1.5 may sound relatively small. But 1.5 degrees is twice as hard because only half as much carbon can be emitted from now on – around 500 gigatons. That is around ten years' emissions at current rates.

Achieving that is simply beyond the realms of possibility, most researchers that Yale Environment 360 spoke to here believe. Even to achieve a 50-50 chance of that goal would require annual year-on-year emissions cuts of 15 percent or more, said Anderson.

While the IPCC has been asked to look again at its analysis of what it would take to achieve 1.5 degrees, the panel actually reported on that in its most recent scientific review last year, said Rogelj. It concluded then that 1.5 degrees would almost certainly involve initially overshooting the emissions target, followed by finding ways to extract greenhouse gases from the air.

The most likely method of achieving these "negative emissions" would be burning biomass in power stations and capturing and burying the resulting emissions. New crops grown in place of the burned biomass would then soak up CO2 from the air.

John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said that overshoot "could be tolerated" by the planet, without triggering any likely climatic tipping points, provided it were only for a few decades. But whether the aim was two degrees, or an overshoot and return to 1.5, every nation should aim to hit zero emissions by 2050, he said.

That should include emissions from aviation and shipping, which are inexplicably left out of the Paris agreement, said Anderson. Such gaps make many scientists still cautious about the "historic" agreement. But they have a second problem, the "bottom-up" process of arriving at emissions targets, and the difficulty of making them compatible with [desired outcomes].

Scientists insist that the best way to achieve a low-carbon world is by setting a temperature target, then assessing how much greenhouse gas can be emitted to stay within that target, and finally sharing out the emissions that can be allowed. But policymakers here said this "top-down" science-based approach failed in Copenhagen six years ago.

The Paris approach has instead assembled voluntary targets from individual nations, in the hope that these commitments will unlock investments that ratchet up ambition on reducing emissions and eventually achieve the low-carbon world that all sides want.

The policymakers believe their approach, whatever its scientific pitfalls, will be vindicated. This is "the first time in history at which virtually every country has committed to restraining its emissions of greenhouse gases. That alone marks this summit down as a very significant moment,” said Richard Black, director of the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit.

Caution is required here. The national pledges made in Paris are not binding in international law. And, even if fully implemented, they will not deliver two degrees, let alone 1.5. Philippe Benoit, of the International Energy Agency, said on Thursday that the pledges would likely stabilize global emissions at close to current level until 2030, confirming the trend over the past two years. But real reductions are essential in that time. At best, the pledges put the world on a path to 2.7 degrees of warming.

To rectify that, campaigners here in Paris pushed hard for the inclusion of a regular review process every five years that would oblige nations to improve their pledges, beginning before the agreement enters full force in 2020. They achieved a partial success with an agreement that the stocktaking of the science of climate change "shall inform Parties in updating and enhancing... their actions."

But the real game, many believe, is to unleash the forces of capitalism in the name of fighting climate change and achieving a low-carbon economy. It could eventually make national targets and policing them almost irrelevant. Many here believe the agreement has done that. "It sends a very powerful signal to the world's markets," said Michael Jacobs, of the New Climate Economy, a think tank.

What mattered was to create the political certainty behind a move to a low-carbon future that would "unlock trillions of dollars" from private investors, said Edward Cameron, of Business for Sustainable Development. "We want to be able to go back and tell companies that the world has changed, that we are creating a whole new global economy."

How has this moment of apparent triumph for the long campaign to secure a strong global deal on climate change been achieved?

This deal arose out of the chaos of Copenhagen in 2009, where the last efforts at a top-down scientifically based deal on limiting emissions failed. The following year, at the next climate conference in Cancun, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, and others showed up with unilateral promises on emissions. This trickle became a flood in Paris when 184 nations delivered their voluntary pledges, which form the heart of the new agreement.

Arguably the moment that sealed success here came in Washington 13 months ago when President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed their own joint emissions pledges. The world's two largest emitters, whose deadlock poisoned the atmosphere in Copenhagen, became climate collaborators.

But in the end, a deal has to be negotiated. The French turned out to be good at the task – much better, Fabius even felt able to boast at the end, than his counterparts in Copenhagen six years before. In the final hours here, the deal came down to three things: transparency, differentiation, and finance.

On transparency, rich nations wanted the ability to independently verify claims made by developing nations on their emissions and compliance with their pledges. Here too negotiators claimed victory.

Differentiation is U.N.-speak for the obligation of the rich world to fund green energy systems and help adaptation to climate change in the developing world. Developed nations asked for and won text suggesting that rich developing nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Singapore, might like to join in. But the developed nations' obligation to provide $100 billion a year in climate finance for such projects, whether from the public purse or private sector, also remained intact. In fact this was strengthened at the last, with a stipulation of a review to raise the funding levels in 2025.

It was notable here, however, that the normally organized block of developing nations became fractured. Some, such as India, stuck by the traditional demand for the right to be able to industrialize their economies in the way the rich world did in the past. This they called "climate justice."

But nations feeling especially vulnerable to climate change – whether small atoll states facing sea-level rise, African nations fearful of worsening droughts, or the Philippines recovering from typhoon Haiyan – demanded "climate justice" in the form of a 1.5 degree target. The incompatibility of these two positions has become increasingly obvious.

It was perhaps shifts in the technological landscape that did most to allow a deal, however. Cutting emissions has become a lot easier as prices for renewable energy fall. Investment in low-carbon technologies is booming around the world. The diplomatic wrangling over sharing the burden of fighting climate change is being usurped by a new narrative about seizing the chance to take a lead in a low-carbon world. Even India is investing in renewables as fast as it can.

In that sense, the Paris agreement may be responding to the new world rather than creating it. Nonetheless, it will certainly accelerate the process, and raise the ambition of environmental campaigners. "This deal puts the fossil fuel industry on the wrong side of history," claimed Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International here on Saturday. It will also excite a flurry of R&D into negative emissions technologies, curbing non-CO2 sources of warming such as methane and soot, and even geoengineering.

Barack Obama came here two weeks ago and famously told Pacific island leaders demanding a 1.5 degree target that he too was "an island boy." He understood their plight. He delivered on the deal. But rhetoric and aspiration won't save the Pacific islands. Only zero emissions can do that. And that is precisely what Paris agreed.

Fred Pearce, a freelance author and journalist based in the U.K., is on assignment in Paris for Yale Environment 360 and has been reporting regularly throughout the climate conference.




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