Explaining the Paris climate deal to young people

After over 20 years of negotiation, 195 countries reached a “universal, fair, dynamic and binding agreement” to “save the planet” by reducing carbon emissions to keep the rise of global average temperature “well below 2 degrees”. The mood was euphoric and some delegates were in tears after the three sleepless nights that helped conclude ParisClimat2015.

What does a target of well below 2 degrees mean? 

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In recent years, some have made fun of global warming saying that an extra 2 degrees in places like Moscow may not be a bad idea (especially in  wintertime). To better understand what this means we can think of the human body. At 36.7 degrees all is in order and you feel great. Bump it up by 2 degrees and you feel sick and can no longer function normally. The same applies to the climate. The rapid increase in world temperature that we have experienced in recent years has disrupted the climate, weakened ecosystems and is threatening many species.

The climate has always been changing. The real problem is that human-activity has accelerated the rate of change beyond the planet’s ability to adapt. 

For several years, world leaders and their negotiators had been focused on limiting global warming to 2 degrees – the so-called “safe” level below which dangerous climate change  would be avoided. But today already, after “only” 0.9 degrees of warming, we see a multiplication of weather-related disasters, an acceleration of glacier melt and sea-level rise that threatens small island states and coastal cities around the world.

As a result, the Canadian climate minister called for revising the target to 1.5 degrees, a level consistent with what leaders from the small island states and climate scientists had been asking. Staying “well below 2 degrees” is now the stated objective of the world community.

On track for 3 degrees and more

Despite the new and more ambitious target, the carbon reduction commitments of the various countries remain consistent with a warming of 3 degrees or more which implies a high risk of catastrophic climate change consequences.

A growing gap between science and policy 

Scientists have also been warning about the time lag between carbon emissions and the resulting temperature rise. This implies that on top of the 0.9 degrees of warming that we are already experiencing, there is an extra 0.6 degrees that is already pre-programmed for the future – Dr. Thomas Frölicher, researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has produced some interesting work in this area. This puts us on track for the 1.5 degree from the carbon that is already in the air today and means that we must stop entirely from releasing any new carbon as of now.

Timing is critical

Clearly this is an aspect that is not well understood by policy-makers who still see climate change as a slow, gradual and linear process. This is not supported by science and there is now a real risk of hitting tipping points that could accelerate climate disruptions with catastrophic consequences. This is why we must urgently translate this new target into meaningful policy, we have to transform business models and change behaviors – something that is far from achieved and which implies much deeper emission cuts and even to capture some of the carbon that was already emitted.

Common but differentiated responsibilities

All countries will have to participate in the carbon reductions and rich countries will help finance this transition in the developing world by contributing a minimum of $100 billion/year from 2020 – a figure that will be revised upwards in 2025. The good news is that recently emerged powerhouses including China and South Korea will chip in. It is also encouraging that countries like India will adopt a low-carbon path for their development, something that was far from achieved just a few days ago.

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Wind Energy Tree at COP21 in Paris

The end of the fossil fuel era

One clear message from the COP is  that the good days of the fossil fuel era are behind us, that subsidies to coal, oil and gas should be phased-out and that we will move towards a price on carbon pollution to speed-up the transition to a clean energy economy.

This is just the beginning

As Chinese President Xi Jinping said at the opening of COP21, this agreement is just the beginning of a long process. This  echoes warnings from British Climate Ambassador, Sir David King, that carbon reduction targets must be reviewed regularly to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon future. The negotiated agreement will come into force in 2020 and will be revised in 2025.

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