Paris Agreement Expected to Set Framework for Climate Change Progress

Published Nov 24, 2015

WASHINGTON (November 25, 2015)—Nations from around the world will convene for climate talks in Paris, France from November 30 through December 11. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the agreement reached at the 21st meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) must put in place a solid framework that nations can continue to build upon to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.

“There’s strong momentum for an agreement in Paris, and the current atmosphere is vastly different than it was six years ago in the run-up to Copenhagen,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at UCS who has been involved in international climate negotiations since they began in 1990. “Public awareness and concern about climate change impacts is mounting; energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions are increasingly competitive with fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas; leaders from developed and developing nations alike are demanding action; and the world’s two largest economies and carbon emitters—the U.S. and China—are working in cooperation on climate and energy policies. It’s almost certain that a climate agreement will be reached in Paris, but how effective it will be has yet to be determined.”

Over 150 countries representing about 90 percent of global warming emissions have put forward their so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)—nation-specific action plans submitted to the U.N. outlining how much the country will reduce their global warming emissions by in the 2020s. While this high level of participation is a tremendous success, the aggregate level of ambition in these pledges is not enough to get the world on a pathway to keep the increase in global temperature below the 2 degrees Celsius limit that world leaders agreed to previously.

“What is agreed to in Paris must be the floor, not the ceiling, in terms of global efforts to reduce carbon emissions,” said Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager at UCS. “Studies show there are still pathways for limiting the global average temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius, but it will require robust actions by nations, including help for developing countries from richer nations. The most important provisions needed in the Paris agreement are requirements for countries to globally ratchet up ambition to cut emissions to limit the pace and magnitude of climate change as much as possible, and to simultaneously prepare for the climate impacts that are already inevitable.”

According to UCS, the Paris climate agreement could adequately address this “ambition gap” by including the following:

  • A long-term goal that signals to investors, businesses and the public that the age of fossil fuels must come to an end to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
  • A five-year cycle for review and revision of INDCs, with the first review scheduled to take place by the end of this decade.
  • A clear roadmap for how the U.S. and other developed countries will ramp up financial and technology support to enable enhanced action by developing nations to limit their emissions and prepare for climate change.

“The bottom line is that while Paris presents a real opportunity, there will be lots of hard work in the years ahead as countries work to implement and build upon what is agreed to in Paris,” said Meyer.

Major Issues That Still Need to be Resolved in the Paris Agreement

One of the biggest crunch issues on the table in Paris is the issue of international finance. Six years ago in Copenhagen, developed countries pledged to ramp up public and private climate financing to $100 billion per year by 2020 to assist developing nations both in making their transition to a clean energy economy and dealing with the mounting impacts of climate change. While developing countries have been unified in their demand that the agreement in Paris include a commitment to further increase climate finance after 2020, the U.S. and other developed countries have been resisting such a commitment. This issue will likely only be resolved in the last few hours of the negotiations in Paris.

Another tough issue is loss and damage—helping countries on the front lines of climate change that are already experiencing impacts like sea-level rise and drought. Disagreement on how to address this issue nearly caused the collapse of negotiations at COP18 in Doha in 2012, and was only partially resolved at the next climate summit in Warsaw in 2013. The Alliance of Small Island States and other vulnerable countries want language establishing loss and damage as a core provision of the agreement. However, developed countries—especially the U.S.—are concerned about such language potentially creating a basis for liability for the damage caused by their past emissions. As with finance, a compromise on this issue will need to occur and will mostly likely materialize at the end of the negotiations.  

Around the World, Here at Home, People Already Feeling Impacts of Climate Change

It has been 23 years since the nations of the world agreed at the Rio Earth Summit to take actions to limit the impacts of human-induced climate change. Back then the dangerous impacts seemed off in the future, with risks likely to fall on future generations, not ours. However, this assumption was not true then, and clearly is not today, as climate change-induced impacts are increasingly evident across the world.

A warming planet increases the severity of extreme precipitation events, so in states from Massachusetts to Texas, for example, the heaviest rain or snow storms of the year are more severe. Although there have been punishing droughts in California previously, evidence points to the current drought as hotter than in times past. The high temperatures severely reduce soil moisture, increasing the risks to agriculture and making heat waves more likely. We have even seen rare climatic events, such as the tropical storm in the eastern Pacific that morphed into a Category 5 hurricane overnight as it vacuumed up massive amounts of heat from some of the warmest ocean temperatures ever recorded.

“One of the most insidious myths we’ve bought into is that we have to be a certain type of person to care about climate change,” said Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center and associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Texas Tech University, who will be attending COP21 as part of the UCS delegation. “The reality is that if we’re a human living on this planet, we have every reason to care because climate change exacerbates the risks we already face today. Our health, our welfare, our livelihood, the economy, national security, and even the stability of nations such as Syria, they’re all affected by climate change.” 

People experiencing climate impacts have found new allies within the religious community. Faith leaders in the United States and around the world are connecting the dots on the importance of acting on climate. The Pope’s encyclical, for example, laid out in unmistakable terms the attitudes the world’s more than 2 billion Christians should have towards climate change and the moral implications it poses. Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu leaders are likewise identifying the links between the core values of their faith and the need for a strong response to the threats posed by climate change. These unique voices have the potential to fundamentally alter the climate debate, by connecting our heads—including decades of scientific facts and policy considerations—to our hearts. 

How the U.S. Clean Power Plan Can Contribute to Domestic, International Goals

A transition away from coal toward cleaner energy sources is already underway in the United States and around the world. The Clean Power Plan, which places the first-ever limits on power plant carbon pollution in the U.S., aims to accelerate this transition by requiring an aggregate reduction of 32 percent in carbon emissions from power plants by 2030, by incentivizing great use of cost-effective alternatives such as wind, solar, hydropower and energy efficiency. This plan, along with improved fuel efficiency in the transportation sector, is the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s strategy to meet the U.S. pledge in its INDC of a 26-28 percent reduction in emissions below 2005 levels by 2025.

The Clean Power Plan also includes the option for states to participate in multi-state trading programs that will allow them to work together to find the least expensive way to cut carbon pollution. This program draws upon the success of trading programs already operating in the U.S., such as California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32) or the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative—a nine-state “cap and trade” program that will cut carbon pollution in those Northeast states by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 while funding energy efficiency programs that cut consumers’ electric bills. 

According to an August 2015 analysis by UCS titled States of Progress, the majority of U.S. states have already made commitments that will put them on the path to meet or exceed their Clean Power Plan goals.

“The Clean Power Plan is here to stay,” said Ken Kimmell, president of UCS. “Congress doesn’t have the votes to repeal it, and a new president would have to go through a lengthy regulatory process to undo it if he or she decided to. In the years it would take to complete such a regulatory repeal, many states and utilities will already have moved forward with their implementation plans. Add to that the fact that about 70 percent of the American public supports the Clean Power Plan, and the longer it stays on the books, the more support it will gain as the public experiences its many benefits.”

What is Needed from the Next U.S. President

Over the past few years, President Obama and his team have moved the U.S. into a position of world leadership on combating climate change. To maintain this leadership, it is essential that the next president builds on the framework established in Paris and places our nation on a firm path toward a clean energy economy.

According to Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at UCS, the next president should vigorously implement the Clean Power Plan and fuel economy standards, pursue an economy-wide price on carbon, press Congress to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, expand international partnerships for deployment of clean energy technologies, and increase assistance to vulnerable communities both in the U.S. and abroad as they prepare for unavoidable climate impacts.

“Opponents of climate action in Congress are already trying to undo the progress we’ve made to reduce carbon emissions,” said Frumhoff. “Just last week the Senate voted on a resolution to undermine the Clean Power Plan. This is why having a president who demands more from Congress and stands up to fossil fuel special interests is so crucial.”

How Emission Reductions from the Land Can Help Nations Meet Their Goals

Emissions from agriculture, forestry and other land-use activities currently account for about one-fourth of total global warming emissions. The Paris agreement needs to encourage climate mitigation from this sector if we want to solve the problem of climate change.

“A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made it clear that to avoid dangerous climate change we need not only to drastically reduce fossil fuel emissions, but also actually take carbon emissions out of the atmosphere,” said Doug Boucher, director of the Tropical Forests and Climate Initiative at UCS. “The land sector is the only practical way to do this, which is why climate action in that sector is so critical.”

“Activities like deforestation create vast emissions by wasting a resource that is globally precious, so we need a game-changer that will make standing forests valuable to communities worldwide,” said Jason Funk, senior climate scientist at UCS. “Often the practices that can be used to better manage our lands will also make them more resilient to climate impacts, help reduce carbon emissions, and improve local livelihoods. Paris could be remembered as the pivotal moment when countries agree to cultivate climate-conscious landscapes of the future, urgently and cooperatively.”

The current Paris agreement draft encourages countries to take stronger action in the land use sector, but greater progress in this area will depend on what countries decide on ramping up financial and technology support for developing nations.

UCS has analyzed the potential of the land sector to help close the “emissions gap”—the difference between the reductions in global warming pollution that are needed to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius and the reductions countries have pledged to make. Click here to view the report, Halfway There, as well as three white papers that analyze the INDCs from eight countries that make up 57 percent of all land sector emissions.

UCS experts will post regular blogs on a variety of subject during COP21. Click here to see the latest insights and analysis from UCS experts on COP21.