After the Paris Agreement: The Work Begins

by Ray Grigg

Remember the December 12, 2015, Paris Agreement on global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the flush of euphoria when 195 nations negotiated a strategy for addressing climate change? Well, the time has come to review the agreement and contemplate what it means.

The first thing to understand about the Paris Agreement is that it contains no legally binding requirement to reduce GHG emissions. Any reductions are “aspirational”, essentially pledges of intentions — what nations aspire to do. The only binding part of the Agreement is a mandatory reporting of emissions to the United Nations every 5 years. And any nation can opt out of the Agreement in 3 years, with a year of notification.

In this respect, the Paris Agreement is different from the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 — it set mandatory targets which were generally not met. This time the leverage is the growing seriousness of a warming planet and peer pressure. The mandatory reporting will reveal what countries are doing, how hard they are trying, and whether they are willing to risk the censure of the international community if their efforts are not adequate. The previous approach did not work; maybe this one will.

The objective is to hold the global average temperature increase below 2°C from pre-industrial levels, and to strive toward a rise of only 1.5°C. This requires a reality check.

The five years between 2011 and 2015 were the hottest on the planet since records began in 1880. Last year, 2015, was the hottest of those years, with October its hottest month. For the first time, the average global temperature increase reached 1.04°C. And sadly, because of the lag between GHG concentrations in the atmosphere and temperature responses, the possibility of keeping the temperature increase at 1.5°C is now remote. Indeed, we are now half way to the 2°C target with GHG emissions still high, fossil fuels still our primary energy source, and entrenched infrastructure still spewing carbon dioxide. With considerable effort, we may be able to keep the temperature increase below 3°C, a possibility with devastating implications. (Aside from widespread global weather damage, southern China is already suffering $1 billion in annual damage from rising sea levels. As for global food production, 3 of the 5 major crops will suffer yield reductions of 10%, 25% and 40% as temperature increases reach 1°C, 2°C and 3°C, respectively.)

What does this mean with respect to the Paris Agreement? It means that the responsibility for action to reduce GHG emissions has shifted to every nation, city, community and individual. It means that a proportional stigma of guilt is now attached to every enterprise that mines, extracts, produces or emits GHGs. It means that British Columbia’s LNG ambitions must be reconsidered on moral and ethical grounds. So, too, must any coal mining, oil extraction, fracking or pipeline project.

It also means that the upcoming meeting of Canada’s prime minister with the provinces’ premiers on a national GHG strategy is the perfect opportunity to implement policies that co-ordinate with global objectives.

It means that if anything is going to be done to arrest global climate change, then we — each one of us — must help to build a hopeful alternative. So let the work begin.