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The Climate Conference: What did it mean?

Posted by Barbara Gottlieb on December 15, 2015
President Obama speaks at COP21
Photo by: UNFCC

COP21, the international climate conference in Paris, is ended; the tens of thousands of participants from around the globe have gone home. Now that the accord has been finalized, what have we gained?

The answer is mixed. Certainly, there were major breakthroughs:

1. An historic agreement. One hundred ninety-five nations – essentially the entire world – agreed to take concrete action to reduce greenhouse gases in order to protect us from the worst ravages of climate change. They – we – all of us have accepted the goal of keeping global temperature increases "well below" 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels, and embraced the aspirational target of staying below 1.5 degrees C., a level thought adequate to protect island nations and low-lying coastal cities from being devastated by sea level rise.

2. A common commitment. Each country was required to come to the conference having defined what it would do to reduce climate-damaging emissions. Thus, all countries, from the wealthy industrialized countries to developing ones, share in the responsibility for taking action, even though historically, their roles in creating the climate crisis varied greatly. 

3. A pledge to share (some of) the financial burden. The wealthy countries, which grew their economies by intensive burning of coal and oil, embraced several measures to provide developing countries with technology and financing for developing renewable energy. That allows the poorer countries to grow their economies while leapfrogging over dirty fossil fuels.

4. A shared vision. There is a widespread understanding that the age of fossil fuels must come to an end. Observers pointed out that the business community, including the oil, gas and coal companies, got a clear market signal that the future belongs to clean, carbon-free renewable energies and energy efficiency. 

5. Mechanisms for monitoring and improvement. The Paris agreement doesn't include a legal requirement for how or how much countries should cut their emissions (a concession to the reality that the U.S. Senate would not ratify any such provision). What it does require is that countries meet every five years, "ratcheting up" their emissions reductions targets on that same schedule. There is a specified accounting system for counting emissions, and requirements for monitoring and reporting.

That's the good news – and very news good it is, especially compared to the failures of other U.N. climate conferences like the 2009 Copenhagen Summit. Climate change is too serious to allow for failure.

But the Paris agreement is not a solution. It may not provide sufficient support to developing nations. It doesn't include enforcement mechanisms. 

And most importantly, it doesn't reduce climate change sufficiently. Scientists estimate that the accords will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by only about half of what is needed to keep us below a 2 degree Celsius world temperature increase. That is, COP21 alone falls frighteningly short of where we need to go. 

That means the real work begins now. Countries will have to take firm steps not only to meet but to exceed the established goal. Here at home, our next step needs to be robustly implementing the Clean Power Plan. That Plan directs each state to craft a plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from its electricity-generating sector. PSR members and chapters in 11 states are pushing for a quick-as-possible transition to carbon-free, nuclear-free power sources like solar and wind, complemented by energy efficiency to slash energy waste. 

The national office will be resourcing those efforts by producing informational slide shows, handouts, talking points and messaging guidance. PSR's health experts will have to effectively why the transition from fossil fuels to renewables is a win-win-win for health, the climate, and for jobs.

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