News•March 16, 2016
How the World Has Changed Since Paris Climate Pact
By John Upton
National leaders have yet to sign a new United Nations climate pact, but developments during the three months since the Paris Agreement was finalized have been feverish.
The fate of electricity rules underpinning U.S. commitments under the pact has been thrown into doubt, new data suggests China may have already hit its targets, and Europe has been embroiled in a debate over whether its climate commitments are sufficiently aggressive.
The recent developments suggest momentum is still building in many places toward a meaningful global solution to global warming. Meanwhile, searing new temperature records demonstrated the increasing urgency of the problem.
Credit: Miroslav Petrasko/Flickr
The Paris Agreement was notable for being high on ambition. It aims to keep warming “well below” 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial averages, and to “pursue efforts” to curb it to 1.5°C. But national pledges made under it fall well short of the actions needed to actually meet those ambitious targets.
Temperatures have risen 1°C since the 1800s. The national pledges that underpinned the pact would allow temperatures to blow well past the new targets in the decades ahead, afflicting humanity with ever-worsening heatwaves, floods and mosquito-borne epidemics.
Experts hope future rounds of U.N. climate negotiations will see nations ratchet up their pledges, helping them meet the temperature and clean energy targets established under the Paris Agreement, which at least 80 countries are expected to ratify on April 22.
Here’s a quick trip around the world, showing what’s changed since the Paris Agreement was finalized in mid-December.
The relatively good news overall is new data showing that annual rates of emissions of the world’s main greenhouse gas may be stabilizing, though not yet falling. One of the goals of the Paris Agreement is to pursue “rapid reductions” to yearly pollution output following a plateau.
Preliminary International Energy Agency figures published Wednesday showed 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution was released in 2015 — about the same amount that was released in 2014, which was similar to the amount from 2013.
Officials applauded the Paris climate pact in December.
“In the more than 40 years in which the IEA has been providing information on CO2 emissions, there have been only four periods in which emissions stood still or fell compared to the previous year,” the agency said. “Three of those – the early 1980s, 1992 and 2009 – were associated with global economic weakness. But the recent stall in emissions comes amid economic expansion.”
The bad news since December has been record-smashing global temperatures. Not only was 2015 the hottest on record, boosted by greenhouse gas pollution and warm phases in ocean cycles, but the first month of 2016 was the warmest January on record. A month after that, February was the most unusually warm month in 135 years of NASA records.
The past three months have been a wild ride for President Obama’s highest-profile — and most important — set of rules designed to help the nation meet its Paris pledge.
The U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan would impose limits on greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s heavily polluting power sector. The rules were crafted to bypass the Republican-controlled Congress, but they’re being challenged in court by conservative states and fossil fuel companies.
Last month, the Supreme Court surprised onlookers by ruling 5-4 to prevent the EPA from enforcing the rules until the legal dispute has been settled. Harvard University expert Robert Stavins described that as a signal that the court was “more likely than not” to eventually strike down the rules.
Less than a week later, the court’s most reliable vote against environmental regulations, Antonin Scalia, died in Texas, giving Obama an opportunity to nominate a justice who is likely to be more friendly to environmental rules. On Wednesday, he nominated Merrick Garland, a centrist appeals court judge, “daring Republican senators to refuse consideration of a jurist who is highly regarded throughout Washington,” the New York Times reported.
The fate of the Clean Power Plan won’t just be decided by the courts — it’s also at the heart of a schism between Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, with a general election scheduled for November. While Democrats have been doubling down on their support for the pro-climate rules, leading Republican candidates have been arguing they would threaten America’s economy.
Perhaps the strangest development since the Paris Agreement has been from China, which pledged in Paris to end the annual growth in its climate-changing pollution rates by 2030.
A team of scientists based in London recently concluded that China may have hit its 2030 target in 2014 — a full year before it formally made the pledge, raising pressures on the country to file a more meaningful climate target.
The global implications of meeting the goal early remains unclear, but they suggest that China, beset by an economic downturn as it switches aggressively to renewable energy to reduce deadly levels of air pollution, is doing more to alleviate its climate impacts than previously realized.
The EU was the first major economy in the world to begin seriously tackling climate change, but its forward-looking leadership has been waning in recent years. Some of its members appear to be suffering from climate action fatigue, even as leaders in other regions rally around newfound ambitions to tackle the problem.
European leaders have been fervently debating the bloc’s climate pledge since the Paris Agreement was struck, with some nations arguing — unsuccessfully, at least so far — that the group should be more aggressive in reducing its future pollution.
This week, Thomson Reuters Point Carbon released the results of an analysis that “call into question the credibility of EU’s plan to deliver on its contribution” to the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Indians have tiny individual impacts on global warming, but the developing country of 1.2 billion has collectively become one of the world’s biggest annual sources of greenhouse gas pollution.
Under the Paris Agreement, wealthy countries committed to helping developing ones switch to cleaner energy supplies to reduce their climate impacts. So far, India says it is still seeking international financing as it works to achieve its climate pledges, which include energy efficiency measures and ambitious solar energy plans.
Struggling to replace electricity from a fleet of nuclear power plants that were shuttered in the wake of the disastrous Fukushima meltdown five years ago, Japan’s government last month abandoned its opposition to the construction of new coal power plants. Coal energy is especially harmful to the climate, and the decision raised doubts over the nation’s commitment to meeting its climate pledges.
Shortly before the Paris talks, Canada’s conservative government was voted out in favor of Liberal Party Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has been moving quickly to reverse his nation’s recent history of resisting climate action.
Last week, during a visit to Washington, Trudeau helped announce a bilateral climate agreement with Obama that focuses on methane pollution and the aviation industry.
Trudeua and Obama announced a bilateral climate agreement at the White House last week.
Australia continues to resist taking meaningful action to slow global warming. The nation’s clean energy sector now employs 14,000 full-time workers, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported this week — down by more than a quarter from 2011, when the country was being run by its major left-leaning party.
Meanwhile, its national government announced plans in February to slash spending on climate research, threatening hundreds of federal climate research jobs, triggering international condemnation.
Following the Paris talks, the most senior official with the U.N.’s climate negotiations secretariat decided to drop the metaphorical mike and exit the stage.
After triumphantly shepherding teams of diplomats from nearly 200 countries toward a climate pact that at times seemed extremely unlikely, Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican who has held the job for nearly six years, announced that she will leave the job in the summer.
“The journey that lies ahead will require continued determination, ingenuity and, above all, our collective sense of humanity and purpose,” Figueres wrote in an open letter to U.N. members. “I know that together you will again rise to the task.”