How to Grade the Upcoming Paris Climate Summit

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The upcoming climate summit in Paris – like the 20 previous UN conferences on the subject – will evoke hopes for a grand deal to achieve the widely shared goal of limiting average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) – a somewhat arbitrary but widely shared estimate of when risks become unacceptable.

Such action seems long overdue. The National Academy of Sciences issued its first consensus warning of a likely doubling of atmospheric CO2; a resulting 3 degrees Celsius in average global temperature; and adverse effects on coastal communities, water, and agriculture by the 21st century way back in the Carter administration.

Scientists continued to refine their understanding of the climate change, but this general scientific understanding of the problem was adopted internationally by a 1992 climate summit in Rio de Janeiro that called for the developed nations to return their emissions of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels, as a prelude to sharp reductions later. The U.S. Senate ratified the agreement in a unanimous vote.

Despite general worldwide agreement on the basic science and some political progress at international summits, actual reductions in emissions since Rio remain disappointing. The United States, for instance, has reversed momentum and is now cutting its emissions but has not yet returned them to 1990 levels.

The slow response to the climate change science has eliminated many opportunities to phase in low-carbon equipment on the most economical schedule, i.e. when stock is turned at the end of its normal life. The skeptics who want to delay action to avoid harm to the economy have had it wrong. It would have been better to start earlier to allow adapting behaviors and equipment to reduce our carbon footprint to be more gradual.

Despite the need for much stronger action, the grand deal will not, and cannot, result from the talks in Paris. This reality may reduce the breathless drama of the negotiations, but does not mean we are doomed to failure.

A major barrier to a big binding agreement is the U.S. Senate, where a two-thirds vote is needed to ratify any treaty. It has been clear since the 1998 Hagel-Byrd amendment that no president had the votes to in the Senate to get U.S. approval for a meaningful treaty on climate change. The current make-up of the Senate and House makes it necessary to cobble to together a wide variety of half measures.

Another obstacle is the timeframe for seeing actual effects on temperature from climate actions. Because of the unusual characteristic of carbon dioxide pollution – it stays in the atmosphere for more than a century – even dramatic cuts in emissions have very time-lagged impacts on accumulations and therefore on slowing global warming. Again, the skeptics use this reality as an argument for delay, whereas it’s actually an important reason for early action.

Equally important, most national and international goals being discussed have target dates in 2025 or 2030 and fall far short of what can be accomplished by 2050. Thus, any action based on intermediate goals will fail to show anywhere near the progress needed.

Intermediate goals need to be tough. Oil exporting countries need to phase out oil subsidies that encourage waste. The United States needs to make its auto efficiency standards more closely mirror actual on-road performance, expand the deployment of renewable energy, and encourage willing states to surpass the goals of the Clean Power Plan. Brazil needs to protect the Amazon Basin. China needs to build enough nuclear plants to bring down costs for itself and other. Advanced nations need to devote a lot more resources to advanced energy science. All nations needed to be more aggressive about curbing emissions of “other gases,” such as the flaring of methane from North Dakota to Nigeria. Much of the above and the countless other needed initiatives can be accomplished with technologies currently available.

Most importantly, intermediate goals need to set the stage for more ambitious goals for the second quarter of the 21st century. We cannot know with precision what technologies will be available then, but it is likely our options will be much greater than they are now. Improved capture of solar energy combined with cheaper and more flexible storage (e.g., batteries) can advance well beyond existing capabilities and provide clean power that is very low carbon, inexpensive, and less intermittent than current versions.

At present, the option to guarantee sufficient progress by 2050 – as for instance with an escalating revenue-neutral carbon tax – is not available. But the world can put in place policies that give us a chance to do so as public awareness of the problem and technology options increase in the coming decades.

Each climate summit should not be looked at as the time to “solve” the climate problem. Rather, meetings like Paris should be viewed as steps that must add to efforts already in place and can collectively establish a foundation for bolder action down the road.

Until the political climate changes, the atmosphere will remain in jeopardy.

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