Under a new climate deal, all countries will plan to limit carbon emissions. That’s … – Vox

Posted: Sunday, December 14, 2014
  1. Under a new UN deal on climate change agreed to in Peru, every single country has agreed to submit a plan next year for limiting the growth of their greenhouse-gas emissions.
  2. This is a first. Past climate deals only targeted the emissions of wealthier nations and exempted fast-growing countries like China and India.
  3. But there are big caveats. The plans will be voluntary — countries can promise to cut as much or as little as they want. And there’s no rigorous outside review. (The US wanted one, but it was opposed by China.)
  4. Experts also say this deal isn’t enough to prevent significant global warming: the world is still on pace for temperature increases of 3°C (5.4°F) or more by 2100. And there’s plenty of disagreement about how to deal with the consequences of that — such as drastic sea-level rise.

What the new UN climate deal does (and doesn’t do)


Lima Climate Action High Level Session, taken December 11, 2014. (Ministerio del Ambiente/Flickr)
Lima Climate Action High Level Session, taken December 11, 2014. (Ministerio del Ambiente/Flickr)

Lima Climate Action High Level Session, taken December 11, 2014. (Ministerio del Ambiente/Flickr)

At this year’s UN climate conference in Lima, Peru, representatives from 196 countries agreed to a deal that would eventually commit every nation to slow the growth of its greenhouse-gas emissions.

The US, China, and Europe have already vowed to limit emissions

Over the next six months, each nation is required to submit a plan for how it will constrain future emissions. These plans will form the basis of a major new climate accord to be signed in Paris at the end of 2015 and will take effect by 2020.

The actual content of each country’s plan on emissions is entirely voluntary, though in principle countries have agreed to do more than they’re already doing. Some governments have already made broad promises:

  • The Obama administration has pledged that US greenhouse-gas emissions will be 26 to 28 percent lower in 2025 than they were in 2005.
  • The European Union plans to reduce its emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
  • China also intends to stop its emissions from rising past 2030 or so — and plans to ramp up its share of renewable energy.

You’ll notice that not all pledges are equal. This is partly by design. As part of the US-China deal struck before this conference, the United States promised to cut its emissions now, whereas China’s emissions wouldn’t peak until 2030. The logic here was that China is poorer and should get more leeway to grow.

This principle was enshrined in the new UN deal, which notes that national pledges should take into account “different national circumstances.” A country like India — where 300 million people still lack electricity — shouldn’t have to cut as much as Germany. Countries are merely encouraged to explain how their pledges are both “fair” and “ambitious.”

Even so, this deal is a conceptual break from the past. The last big climate deal — the 1997 Kyoto Protocol — required only wealthy nations to cut their emissions. Developing countries like China and India were exempt entirely.

The Lima deal still has a lot of question marks


The coal fueled Fiddlers Ferry power station emits vapour into the night sky on November 16, 2009 in Warrington, United Kingdom. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
The coal fueled Fiddlers Ferry power station emits vapour into the night sky on November 16, 2009 in Warrington, United Kingdom. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The coal fueled Fiddlers Ferry power station emits vapour into the night sky on November 16, 2009 in Warrington, United Kingdom. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

There’s still a lot that is very hazy about this climate agreement. For one, these national pledges are unlikely to prove legally binding in any way. That’s something that Europe has pushed for but was opposed by the Obama administration — since there is no way Congress will ratify a formal climate treaty.

China opposed a rigorous outside review of countries’ climate plans

What’s more, during the Lima conference, the United States insisted on a rigorous review of all national pledges after they were submitted. But this was strongly opposed by countries like China.

Instead, the deal simply says that countries “may include” detailed information on how they intend to cut emissions. (Or they may not!) And, in November 2015, the UN intends to tally up all the different national pledges and explain how they will affect future global warming. But there’s very little monitoring and verification at this point.

The agreement also encourages all countries to think about how to help poorer nations adapt to the impacts of global warming, like sea-level rise or . The US and Europe opposed any provisions that would require wealthier nations to pay for “loss and damages” caused by global warming, though they’ve agreed to some voluntary aid here.

Under a separate agreement, nations pledged to raise $100 billion per year from public and private sources to help poorer countries adjust. It is still unclear where this money will come from, however.

The deal likely isn’t enough to stop global warming


A file photo shows the sun shining on the outback landscape June 7, 2005 near Marree, Australia. (Ian Waldie/Getty Images)
A file photo shows the sun shining on the outback landscape June 7, 2005 near Marree, Australia. (Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

A file photo shows the sun shining on the outback landscape June 7, 2005 near Marree, Australia. (Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

Back in 2009, the world’s nations agreed on how to define “dangerous” global warming. Basically, they said, we shouldn’t let global average temperatures rise more than 2°C (or 3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels. Otherwise, the risks from rising temperatures, extreme weather, and sea-level rise would be too great. (Here’s a more in-depth look at the 2°C target.)

‘We’re still on a course leading to tragedy’

Right now, the world’s still not on pace to meet goal. One recent analysis by MIT researchers looked at what was realistic to expect from countries in terms of emissions pledges. (This was based on “national communications, discussions with observers of conditions in various countries, and — by necessity — a good deal of guesswork.”) Their conclusion? The 2015 pledges would fall well short of the cuts needed to stay below 2°C of global warming.

At the conference in Lima, Secretary of State John Kerry put it bluntly: “We’re still on a course leading to tragedy.”

Other onlookers have been somewhat more sanguine, however. Even if the latest talks won’t be enough to meet that 2°C goal, they note, building forward momentum on climate action is worthwhile in its own right. Over at Dot Earth, Andrew Revkin has made the case that this newer, “softer” approach to climate negotiations may prove more effective than previous approaches.

In an August essay, Michael Liebreich, head of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, noted that conditions are now more favorable for climate action than they have been in the past. Many low-carbon energy sources — like wind, solar, and electric cars — are advancing faster than expected. (Others, however, like nuclear power and carbon capture for coal plants, have stalled out.) Clean-energy financing has grown to more than $250 billion per year. And countries are no longer battling a major financial crisis.

If trends like these continue, countries can at least build on their progress in cutting emissions.

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