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Historic Paris Accord -- But More Action Needed

Posted by Catherine Thomasson, MD on December 14, 2015

Physicians for Social Responsibility and our representatives at the Paris COP-21 events join the global outpouring of support for the international climate agreement but sound a warning bell. It's vitally important to have this unanimously-approved, new agreement to reduce and eventually eliminate fossil fuel burning. It develops a mechanism of reporting and accountability and supports the developing world to leap immediately to new technologies. The warning, however, is that the pledges of carbon-cutting made by the signatory countries will not get us achieve enough and protect health, and that these are voluntary pledges. 

The Paris Agreement goal is finally set for "well-below" 2°C with an aspirational target of 1.5°C. The lower target appears necessary to save island nations and many coastal cities from sea level rise and the health effects that we already see. The aspirational target is important to the most impacted countries but it is critical to the health and welfare of all countries.

The final agreement also required pledges from each of the governments specifying their target cuts to global warming emissions between 2020 and 2030. These pledges (referred to as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions), including that of the U.S., have taken several years of hard lobbying to develop. Here in the U.S. these actions such as the Clean Power Plan are still being fought in court and in Congress. The agreement outlines a set of monitoring, verification, and reporting procedures about emissions which are essential to evaluate progress and hold countries accountable.

The wealthier countries that have contributed the most to climate change are obliged to provide funds and technology to help poorer countries lower their emissions and adapt to the consequences of climate change. These issues were addressed in the agreement, but more action will be needed on a global scale to protect those most impacted including children, the elderly and low income populations.

To those concerned deeply about climate change and its health impact, the most important work is holding our governments accountable to their pledges. We need to move governments, corporations, industry and the public to agree to even more ambitious emission reductions. These voluntary pledges only put us on a trajectory to reduce temperature rise from 8.1°C to 3.5°C by 2050. The new agreement did provide a commitment to review national pledges every five years, starting in 2020 with an interim report by the IPCC in 2018.

While historic, this week's agreement does not reduce emissions fast enough. It will require all of our efforts and more! Remember the Lancet Commission's exhortation: 1) Climate change is the greatest public health threat; 2) Eliminating fossil fuel burning provides a great opportunity to improve public health; 3) We have the technology, but need the political will to keep over 80% of known fossil fuels in the ground; and 4) The health community needs to be engaged! The health message provides the incentive for public and policymakers alike. Join us in making the U.S. pledge a reality. Sign up for PSR's Climate Health Action Alerts.

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