Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Small Step Forward in Paris Climate Agreement

It is hard to get 200 nations to agree on anything, so the Paris climate agreement is a minimalist consensus document. It is a loose framework that points to just enough progress to keep the island nations on board — particularly nations that may be fully submerged as a result of climate change. It adopts both the unrealistic goal of keeping global temperature rise below 2 kelvins (compared to pre-industrial levels) and the impossible goal of keeping it below 1.5 kelvins. What it does not include is any practical way of reaching those goals.

No one should expect that the 2 kelvin goal can be reached within the next century. That would require, for example, that almost all of the fuel-burning vehicles and appliances being sold this year be scrapped years before they are ready to be retired and replaced with technology not based on fuel, and hardly anyone expects that to happen. To be clear about this, the Paris agreement does not reach nearly far enough to stop Greenland from melting or to keep global sea level rise below 8 meters over the coming centuries. Under the Paris agreement, the industrial world has not yet reached the midpoint of carbon emissions. Carbon emissions that have already occurred are thought to be probably enough to create a 2 kelvin warming effect, so implementing the Paris agreement is probably not enough by itself to keep global temperature increase below 4 kelvins.

The Paris agreement is nevertheless progress, a step in the right direction. These are some of the changes that might come about over the next 20 years or so as the Paris agreement is implemented:

  • The elimination of subsidies for fossil fuels and fuel-burning vehicles
  • Normalization of retirement funding so that official policy does not call for population increase to fund retirement programs
  • Reductions in subsidies for meat and milk
  • Improvements in buildings so that less fuel is used for heating
  • Phasing out of energy-inefficient legacy technology such as fluorescent lighting

Details of implementation are not in the agreement itself, but these details and others will emerge as nations try to meet their separate emissions goals.