United Nations

Environmental Disaster Averted?

The United Nations Climate Conference that just concluded in Paris has been categorized by such descriptive terms as “modest,” “positive,”  “landmark” and “historic.” The accord may be a combination of all of these adjectives since there were both accomplishments and shortcomings. 

photo courtesy UN.org

photo courtesy UN.org

A collective sigh of relief emanated from Paris when the 196 governmental officials overcame several insurmountable differences and agreed to an unprecedented global agreement to confront climate change. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who deserves immense credit for moving the discussion on climate change over the past nine years, said that this was the first “truly universal agreement” that applied to all countries. Ban also suggested that had this agreement failed there was no “Plan B.” This was the last chance.

The historic accord, known as the Paris Agreement, includes emissions-reducing commitments from individual countries and promises to help poorer nations adapt to the damaging effects of a warming world. Participants also agreed on measures to revise, strengthen, and scrutinize countries' contributions in the future. One major achievement is that the accord limits average global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial temperatures and encourages reaching a limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), if possible. 

This 1.5 target becomes even more crucial since recent scientific data show that several negative physical phenomena are accelerating more rapidly than previously expected, such as desertification, more frequent and devastating storms, melting glaciers, rising seas, increasing temperatures, disrupted food chains and diminishing water supplies, and chaotic weather patterns.

One of the deal's most notable successes is a commitment to produce a global review of climate progress by 2018 and to have the countries return to the negotiating table by 2020 to present climate targets that indicate how they have exceeded their current targets.

The deal also promises to hold all the countries accountable to the same standard of transparency in measuring and reporting their greenhouse gas emissions. Every country should play by the same rules and use the same standardized indicators. The missing ingredient not included is how to sanction or punish countries that do not comply.

The agreement establishes an unprecedented international legal basis for addressing climate issues. Within the agreement, most countries laid out their own plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change impacts. The individual plans are not legally binding, however, the core agreement is.

One clear winner is the clean energy industry because developing and developed countries plan to increase their investments in wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources. 

To help seal the deal, a highly-influential group of billionaire investors, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, promised to invest heavily in clean energy research. Also, developed countries are committed to accelerate the transfer of clean technologies to developing countries.

Although the agreement is a major step forward, it's not the magic prescription to solve climate change. Several parts of the deal left some environmental groups disgruntled, especially with respect to financing for clean energy technology and climate change adaptation.

A major issue would be whether there would be compensation paid to countries that suffer irreparable damage from climate change but have done virtually nothing to cause it. 

The deal also specifies that nothing will hold countries with the biggest historical contribution to climate change—most notably the United States—legally or financially liable for climate-change-related damages in vulnerable countries. 

Developed countries are required to raise at least $100 billion annually in order to assist developing countries. Although the deal sets a minimum floor of $100 billion for climate change assistance to vulnerable countries and requires that number to be raised by 2025, it doesn't specify a new higher target and does not commit any country, including the United States, to any particular share of that.

Also, there is no specific timeline for peaking and reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

The agreement, put together at the 21st Conference of Parties, or COP 21, doesn't mandate exactly how much each country must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Rather, it sets up a bottom-up system in which each country sets its own goal, which is called a "nationally determined contribution." Then, each country demonstrates how it plans to reach that objective.

Although the text has been agreed upon, much more must done before the agreement goes into effect.

The agreement was adopted by "consensus" during the meeting of government ministers. Individual countries now must ratify or approve the agreement in their respective countries. The agreement will not enter into force until 55 countries have ratified it, and those nations must account for 55% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

One sceptic, James Hanson, a former NASA scientist who is often touted as the father of global awareness of climate change, said the conference was a “fraud.” According to Hanson, the only way to reverse the over-dependence on cheap fossil fuels is to apply a fee of $15.00 per ton of carbon use, and the fee would increase each year.

Many critics contend that the world needs to move aggressively off of all fossil fuels and become a fossil fuel-free planet. Given that the oil, coal and gas interests have an estimated $16 trillion of resources in the ground, they will, undoubtedly, continue to fight this suggestion by hiring faux scientists to create doubt in the public’s minds and funnel large campaign contributions to Members of Congress who will concoct counterproductive legislation to protect the industry.

One of the most glaring issues that gets little or no attention is that of overpopulation and the link with climate change. In 1950, the world population was 2.5 billion; today, the UN predicts 9.3 billion by 2050. 

Burgeoning populations put more pressure on finite resources and damage a fragile environment through agricultural overgrazing, desertification and water pollution to mention a few.  

Climate change and overpopulation, which are inextricably linked, may be the two greatest challenges in the 21st Century. Economic systems that need additional consumers, workers and contributors, as well as groups with traditional cultural and religious values, derail this vital discussion.

Anecdotally, one need only to look at the shroud of smog choking people in Beijing, clogged traffic jams in Bangkok and Manila, aquifers in the US that are drying up, and a country like Bangladesh that will lose 25% of its land mass to rising seas by mid-century, to realize that immediate action is required. 

Although the Paris Accord is, arguably, the most significant environmental agreement ever adopted, the counties of the world need to intensify their global warming initiatives. The UN can provide the organizational and technical framework to achieve success; however, the individual states and players have to develop the plans, make the commitments and implement them. Planet Earth’s Titanic is rapidly approaching the iceberg. 

Cover photo courtesy USDA

Bill Miller, is the accredited Washington International journalist covering the UN and is the Producer/Moderator of “Global Connections Television"(www.globalconnectionstelevision.com)”