Archive for December, 2015

The Paris Agreement: A New Hope

It was a long time in coming, and marks as much the beginning of hard work as the conclusion, but the climate deal reached in Paris is an amazing advance that far exceeded my expectations and those of many of my climate science colleagues.

The last major attempt at a global agreement on climate change, 6 years ago in Copenhagen, was basically disastrous. It left many in the climate community believing that a global accord was impossible, and the only path would be unilateral and bilateral action among the larger countries. But it was hard to see how any such strategies could have enough of an impact to stave off the expected waves of deaths, displacement, and hardships that scientists see coming.

Yet last week in Paris, 195 countries remarkably agreed to a stringent temperature target, and additionally that all countries must act to reduce emissions, and rich countries must provide money to help the poor ones. Under the agreement, each country provides its own target for emissions cuts and plans for how to achieve it, but all countries’ plans must be reviewed every 5 years against the temperature target.

Compared to six years ago, the Paris agreement is a triumph of French diplomacy where Danish diplomacy failed, a testament to Obama’s 2nd-term commitment to the climate where his 1st-term commitment faltered, a consequence of the Chinese people choking on far more smog, a response to six more years of heat waves, droughts, storms and blights, and a credit to all the leaders who signed on.

Since the mechanisms to reduce emissions are left up to the individual countries, the hard political and economic work of implementing the plan must now be fought country-by-country. In the U.S. especially, continued political pressure is essential. An anti-environment president could derail the entire plan. More than that, we’ve got to push climate policies and clean energy technologies far harder than we are now.

The implications of the temperature target challenge the imagination. To seriously meet it, fossil fuels that oil companies already have plans to exploit will have to stay in the ground. Coal plants that have just been built will have to be shuttered in less than half their useful life, or else expensively retrofit. Gasoline cars will disappear in the span of a single generation. Entire sectors will have to be cleaned up for which we have almost no solutions today, like air travel and livestock.

Nobody said saving the planet was easy. But getting 195 countries to agree on anything is a miracle. And now we have an agreement that should give us a lot more hope for the planet’s future.

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