COP21- Anticipations

The COP21 meeting is over, as is my student’s final exam, 60% of which depended on an evaluation of the conference. What’s next for my students and the world at large? My class material for next semester will answer the former. I am the decider :(. It will be much more difficult to predict the global follow-up.

My class will cover both basic science and anthropogenic climate change. Students will gain the skills to evaluate issues in a quantitative way and will try to figure out how they can contribute to mitigation efforts. We will focus on global attempts to follow up on the resolutions of COP21. I will mirror that investigation here.

This agreement has the full potential to eclipse the expired Kyoto Protocol. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, for the first time, almost every country in the world is part of the agreement. Most of the developed countries have committed to reduction of emissions, while most of the fast-growing developing countries have committed to early peaks in emissions. That said, greenhouse gas emissions have been treated as tightly coupled with development.

The IPAT identity, which governs almost all research scenarios for climate change (see the November 26, 2012 blog), states that carbon dioxide emissions are proportional to five factors. The first two are the most important socioeconomic parameters: population growth and growth of GDP/person. The last three factors are energy terms, including efficiency of energy use (Energy/GDP), the percentage of fossil fuels used to produce the energy (Fossil/GDP), and the kind of fossil fuel that is being used (coal, oil, or natural gas). The thinking has always been that the enormous difference in the wealth per person between developed and developing countries spurs developing countries to do everything in their power to grow. The global GDP per person will continue to increase. Indeed, that growth in GDP is the leading contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. The population also continues to grow globally, although at a considerably reduced rate compared to the GDP. The essence of the global energy transition is to facilitate economic growth through a shift of energy sources away from fossil fuels. 2014 was the first recorded year in which there was a (small) decline in emissions of greenhouse gases while the global economy kept growing. The COP21 mission fits perfectly with the goal of achieving emissions declines simultaneously with growing economies.

COP21 also achieved a key agreement to help developing countries finance both mitigation – via the shift of their energy sources away from fossil fuels – and adaptation to the consequences of climate change that are already taking place.

The COP21 agreement includes three key articles that specifically address these issues:

COP21 Article 2

  1. This Agreement, in enhancing the implementation of the Convention, including its objective, aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, including by:

(a) Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change;

(b) Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production;

(c) Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.

  1. This Agreement will be implemented to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.

Article 4

  1. In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.
  2. Each Party shall prepare, communicate and maintain successive nationally determined contributions that it intends to achieve. Parties shall pursue domestic mitigation measures with the aim of achieving the objectives of such contributions.
  3. Each Party’s successive nationally determined contribution will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition, reflecting its common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.

Article 14

  1. The Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement shall periodically take stock of the implementation of this Agreement to assess the collective progress towards achieving the purpose of this Agreement and its long-term goals (referred to as the “global stocktake”). It shall do so in a comprehensive and facilitative manner, considering mitigation, adaptation and the means of implementation and support, and in the light of equity and the best available science.
  2. The Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement shall undertake its first global stocktake in 2023 and every five years thereafter unless otherwise decided by the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement.

Article 2 states the objective – get the temperature to stabilize below 2oC above pre-Industrial Revolution levels (the period we mark as the start of anthropogenic contribution to climate change via greenhouse gas emissions). Any evaluation of the commitments from the UNFCCC will lead to a much higher temperature increase (around 3oC) toward the end of the century. Article 14 rectifies that apparent contradiction. The UNFCCC will periodically take stock of the implementation of this agreement to assess the collective progress. The parties have agreed that depending on the results of the analysis, they will recommit periodically – with each recommitment more demanding than its predecessor. This is as sure a way to progress as one can dream. The first assessment will take place in 2023 and repeated assessments and recommitments will occur in intervals of five years.

How can we monitor our progress until 2023 and what will I do with my class?

For the moment, I don’t plan to look much into our government’s actions, per se, nor at the global political events that will directly follow this accord. Next year we will have presidential elections here in the US. The Republican Party has already declared vociferously that should it win the presidency, it will ignore any and all commitments that President Obama made with regards to the climate and emissions. It is certain that if the US ignores its commitments, most of the other major polluters will follow suit; we will all openly march into the impending disaster with open eyes. To use Pope Francis’ description (which matched mine from three years earlier) – we will commit a global suicide. To accommodate the US, the final resolution was structured not to be an independent international treaty (so as to avoid the necessary senate approval). Nevertheless, it was designed to be compulsory – not voluntary. This trick was accomplished by presenting key elements of the resolution as an extension of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit – the Rio Declaration. More specifically, it comes as part of the UN Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Most lawyers believe that the drafting was such that that it can withstand any scrutiny by the US Supreme Court. It will not, however, withstand a Republican president chosen from the present group of candidates. Regardless, the original Rio Convention doesn’t have serious enforcing powers to penalize countries that do not abide by their commitments. Such is the structure of our global governance that the only serious global enforcing power belongs to the Security Council of the UN, where the US (together with China, Russia, France and England) has veto power. People argue – with some justification – that global public opinion will serve as a strong restorative force to prevent any country from declining to abide by its commitments. In this case, I think that the oft-mentioned NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) argument will turn out to be the deciding force behind whether or not countries stand behind their commitments in the COP21 agreement or renege, and thus negate the content of the resolution.

This sort of top-down methodology is tricky to focus on. I found the bottom-up approach to be a much more promising and educational terrain, although I will certainly continue to look into the former, as well as its political ramifications.

The bottom-up approach will follow issues such as:

  • What is missing from the agreement
  • Business commitments
  • Subsidies for fossil fuels
  • Movement of money
  • R&D and Bill Gates
  • Adaptation – human intervention through the water cycle to compensate for human intervention through the energy cycle.

Stay tuned.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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