COP21 Climate Summit

Though China is highest in emissions total, the U.S.' leads per capita [WP]

What's happening?

This past Saturday, December 12, 195 nations adopted an agreement to curb global warming. The deal marks the end of the highly publicized (and protested, and praised) Paris Climate Conference.

 

The central goal of the new deal is simple: keep the global average temperature under 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. 2 degrees has been considered the approximate definition of "dangerous warming" since the 1990's, but remains controversial (as we'll see). The planet has already warmed about 1 degree since pre-industrial times.

Why is this important?

The Paris deal is both historically linked and unique.

 

This conference is part of a series of summits beginning in the early 1990's. Called the "COP21," this is the 21st yearly Conference of the Parties to another global environmental treaty negotiated in 1992— the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It is also the 11th yearly meeting of the countries party to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which added emissions reduction targets to the original agreement (but which the U.S. Senate never ratified.)

 

But the Paris deal is different from its predecessors. Previous deals have failed because countries like the U.S. have refused legally binding restrictions. This agreement takes a different tactic. Nations voluntarily submit plans to help curb global warming and are required only to report on their progress and set new goals every 5 years. In other words, the deal is using transparency as its enforcement mechanism. In that spirit, here are all the nations' plans

 

One more important note: setting new, more ambitious goals is crucial to even meet the deal's own goal of under 2 degrees. UN analysts say the current pledges are on track for just under 3 degrees as they stand today.

Debate it!

Does the COP21 deal go far enough to curb global warming? 

Yes:

This is the first universal climate deal. It can't solve global warming alone, but the agreement takes significant steps towards a vital goal.

 

The deal reasonably balances the needs of climate-vulnerable countries (like the Alliance of Small Island States) and the concerns of top emitters (like the U.S., China, India, and E.U.). Though the cap is 2°C, language in Article 2 establishes the aspirational goal of 1.5°C and recognizes the importance of significantly lowering emissions over time.

 

The COP21 is only a first step, but it provides mechanisms for all countries to work together towards slowing emissions—and transparency in doing so. The approach is a conceptual breakthrough that has allowed involvement on the issue at an unprecedented level. In fact, because even binding treaties are so difficult to enforce, it is possible more success will come from an agreement based on voluntary commitments like these. 

 

The most important element of the deal is not the number of its goal or its mechanism of enforcement. For the first time, every country has pledged to contribute to curbing global warming. That is a significant and worthwhile step.

No: 

Though well-meaning, the COP21 falls short both in its goal and how it proposes to achieve it.

 

Less than 2°C warming is a political idea, not scientific one. In fact, scientists agree we will likely see significant damage long before then—including rapid sea level rise, global food shortages, and the decay of coral reefs. 2°C may not sound like much, but remember: the world only averaged only about 4°C to 7°C cooler during the last ice age.

 

This overly simplistic goal ignores an even more alarming reality: we are not on track to stay below even 2°C. Based on the nations' current pledges, the world is on course for 3 °C warming by the end of the century. That number is widely agreed to have dire effects. In theory, countries will set more ambitious goals every five years—but that brings us to the issue of enforcement.

 

The deal is voluntary. While it is true that this approach led to more involvement and acceptance, the mechanisms that are supposed to enforce this deal are wildly inadequate. The U.S. argued for an outside agency (similar to the reporting agency for nuclear technology). But after pushback from China and India, no mention of any agency appears in the agreement. 

Learn more...

  1. The text of the agreement itself—and the New York Times' breakdown
  2. President Obama's statement on the deal
  3. The New Yorker's explanation of what the deal means for vulnerable nations
  4. The UN's in-depth analysis of how humans are influencing the climate—or the summary overview