By Nick Vacchio
Climate change. The phrase gets tossed around as often as a volleyball at your local beach. But whether you would like to accept it or not, that beach may not even exist at some point in your lifetime. Fortunately, representatives from 195 nations across the globe came together in December for a series of climate-related discussions in Paris, France. The two-week conference ended with the signing of the Paris Agreement, which hopes to pave the way towards a cleaner and more sustainable future. This stands alone as the first international climate-based treaty that requires every party to regularly disclose their emissions and execution efforts. It also ends the discrepancy between industrialized and developing nations by coercing them all to take the necessary steps to reduce their own carbon footprint both immediately and in the future. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon summarized this sentiment by proclaiming, “We must protect the planet that sustains us. For that we need all hands on deck,”. Yet, there remains much uncertainty and outrage over its potential consequences.
The UN Framework on Climate Change was founded in 1992 and is the global body in charge of making strides to combat a gradually shifting climate. The COP, or Conference of Parties, has taken place annually in cities across the globe every year since 1995. Each year’s conference has had its own distinct agenda in attempting to address growing international concern over a warming planet. Some have concentrated primarily on developed nations while others have focused on gathering wider participation from developing ones. Understandably, it is difficult to have almost 200 countries agree to work together on a subject as demanding as this. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 proved just that as key nations like the United States, China, India, and Brazil lacked a willingness to participate in accordance with the rest of the international community. Any agreement where some of the world’s largest polluters refuse to partake is one not likely to yield substantial results. But the 2015 Paris Climate Conference is unlike its predecessors for one pivotal reason: it is the first to actually result in a binding international climate agreement.
The global push for climate action has grown stronger since the COP began meeting 21 years ago and is a pivotal reason why the Paris Conference was more successful than its precursors. Activism has increased across the globe as citizens realize that corporate interests are detrimental to local environments and personal health. Pope Francis has also recognized this and taken up the cause in the fight against global warming. During his trip to the United States in late September, he gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on the dangers of unabashed capitalism, lust for commercial affluence, and how it poses a threat to humanity. In his native Spanish, he stated that this, “ecological crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, can threaten the very existence of the human species,”. His call for action helped to spur momentum that carried into the Paris Conference.
There was tremendous support heading into the Paris meetings with 11,000 environmental pledges made from 2,250 cities, 2,025 companies, 424 individual investors and 235 social organizations that covered 150 world regions. Further impetus came from CEOs, billionaires, governors, and thousands of common citizens who flocked from countries around the world to make sure leaders did everything in their power to reach an agreement that benefited them all. The heads of state clearly took notice as this year’s climate talks featured the largest presence of leaders to date with over 150 prime ministers and presidents in attendance on the conference’s opening day. Action had been demanded and progress was ready to be made.
And progress was certainly made, indeed. The pact centers on the global community’s goal to limit temperatures from rising above two degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, with a desire to keep temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees. Nations agreed to mandatory obligations that will allow them to choose their own domestic plans, known as NDC’s or “nationally determined contributions,” in keeping global temperatures below this two degree threshold. Countries are required to regularly report on how well their pursuits are going and are also obliged to release their emissions levels as well. Every five years, countries will be compelled to submit new national strategies, with the expectation that they will be stricter and more progressive than their previous ones. All of this will be funded with $100 billion per year until 2025 when a higher allowance will be put into protocol. There are still many details left uncertain, however.
The Paris Conference lasted a day longer than it was supposed to due to disagreements between the attending parties. Compromises were necessary as nations fought to protect their economic interests. For that reason, there are likely several components of the deal built on a fragile foundation. Most prominent of these potential issues is that future COPs lack a framework for key operational details in the implementation of its strategies. Industrialized nations are expected to play a larger role in reducing the levels of carbon that are released into the atmosphere. China plans to use a cap and trade system that rewards companies for reducing their pollution more quickly than their competitors. India will invest heavily in solar energy while the United States remains stagnate as the “leader of the free world,”. Additionally, the pact will not be in effect until it is ratified by enough parties, which could prove to be a challenge like it has in the past. Despite this, French President François Hollande was proud of what the agreement accomplished and stated, “In Paris, there have been many revolutions over the centuries. Today is the most beautiful and the most peaceful revolution that has just been accomplished – a revolution for climate change,”. While politicians, governments, and businesses were quick to celebrate the significance of this historic pact, climate activists in Paris were singing a different tune.
On the day the agreement was signed, thousands marched in the streets carrying signs with phrases like “Leave it in the Ground,” “State of Emergency,” and “No CO2lonialism.” George Barda, a resident of London, remarked that even with a temperature increase of one degree Celsius, there would be “hundreds of millions of people affected traumatically by droughts, floods, crop-destroying rains, typhoons, etcetera.” A Bolivian protester by the name Pablo Solón, echoed similar sentiments. He is skeptical that governments and corporations will take the necessary steps in order to keep temperatures below the allowed threshold. Conveying his frustration, Solón asserted that, “the two degrees Celsius is something that you just put in an article. The Paris Agreement is a death sentence for most of the people around the world,”. These activists do have a point. Domestic governments have yet to prove that they can work together on such a large scale. The Paris Agreement, like so many international pacts before it, might inevitably turn out to be a treaty that is more talk than action. This would be an enormous mistake as there are serious repercussions for the impact humans have left on the environment.
The majority of the global scientific community believes that if temperatures rise two degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels, we risk reaching a point where human impact on the environment becomes irreversible. Rising above this temperature would take the climate out of range from any previously recorded data spanning the course of several hundred thousand years. According to a study done by the United Nations Environmental Program Emissions Gap Report, carbon pollution across the globe needs to be dramatically reduced within the next decade in order to stay below the two degree limit. If carbon is not reduced, scientists have been able to predict what will soon happen.
Environmental inaction from the nations of the world will begin the transition towards an unfamiliar planet. Species across the globe will be exterminated and life will not return to its current state during the lifetime of any subsequent generation. If temperatures rise two degrees, mountains in the western hemisphere like the Rockies and Andes will experience glacial loss creating overwhelming water shortages for their relying communities. In Africa, 29 different nations are expected to experience crop failure and subsequent hunger. The Greenland ice sheet will continue to melt causing the seas to rise enough to make Miami and much of Manhattan completely vanish. Europe will experience devastating heat waves every other year like the one during 2003 which killed around 35,000 people. Carbon dioxide will continue to poison the ocean and increase the water’s acidity. By 2050, several species of plankton, urchins, and coral will no longer be able to exist thus decimating the entire oceanic food chain.
If the Paris Agreement does not accomplish what it hopes to do, the consequences may be quite traumatic. Humanity will slowly find themselves enveloped in an era unlike any experienced by prior generations. Facing gross environmental and economic challenges, it will be interesting to see how this pact and succeeding COPs turn out. The future is in our hands but with the way things have been going, it will not be for much longer.
Image By John Englart