COP21: The Paris Agreement

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

Dear Friends,

The agreement reached today in Paris is certainly a landmark, in that 196 countries have agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, to provide information documenting progress towards meeting these commitments, and to make progressively more ambitious emissions reductions commitments every 5 years.

The good news: Nothing like this has happened before. (Have 196 countries ever agreed to anything?) The bad news: the Paris commitments are largely non-binding, and even if implemented fully are no where near sufficient to prevent very damaging climate change. In other words, this is only a start.

Highlights of the Agreement

The core of the deal is agreement to implement the emissions-reduction pledges that each country made in the run-up to the Paris meeting. In the jargon these are known as Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions (INDCs). In the year or two before the meeting, 185 countries submitted INDCs (pledges) to the United Nations.

Countries agree to make new, more ambitious, commitments (i.e. to revise their INDCs) every 5 years.

These commitments are voluntary.

Countries agree to submit information documenting their progress in meeting their emissions reductions commitments. There is to be funding for capacity-building to help countries measure their emissions (more on this later). Unlike the emissions-reductions commitments themselves, these reporting requirements are mandatory.

In addition, funding will be provided to help countries to implement emissions reductions measures, and to adapt to climate changes that do occur.

The agreement mentions the desirability of keeping global warming to 1.5ºC, a more stringent goal than the previously-cited target of 2ºC. The agreement does not provide the means to achieve either goal, however.

Funding for preserving forests through the so-called REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) mechanism is to be provided, through the Green Climate Fund. This is a critical step, as deforestation and forest degradation contribute up to 30% of global CO2 emissions.

My Interpretation

The emissions reductions commitments (INDCs) agreed to in Paris are certainly not enough to limit global warming to a safe level. We knew that going into the conference. For one thing, the INDCs cover only the period between now and 2030; what happens after that is critical and is completely unconstrained at this point. That’s why the commitment to ratchet up the INDCs every 5 years is so important.

It is difficult to assess the importance of the agreement’s language about the desirability of keeping global warming to 1.5ºC (instead of 2ºC). Certainly 1.5º is a much better goal; it is becoming increasingly clear that 2º would result in some very bad outcomes, like the eventual complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet and an associated rise in sea level of more than 20 feet. That said, the language about temperature targets is entirely aspirational; what the agreement commits countries to is their INDCs, which are only a first step in limiting climate change. It can’t hurt to go on record supporting the 1.5º goal, but much more work will be required to meet it.

I don’t think it matters much that the emissions reductions pledges are non-binding. The fact is, there’s no way to enforce any binding agreement. (The Kyoto Protocol was supposedly binding, and countries like Canada that decided they didn’t like it simply withdrew.) It’s actually worse than that: not only is there no enforcement mechanism, in many cases there is no good way to independently verify countries’ reported emissions. Since what we have is largely an honor system anyway, making the commitments “binding” would not have much substantive effect and would have made reaching an agreement much more difficult. To be fair, the agreement does call for “technical expert review” of submitted emissions data, but it’s not clear how effective these reviews will be.

Independent verification of emissions is clearly an area where we need to make scientific progress. Thanks to pioneering work at the WHRC and elsewhere, forest-sector emissions can be estimated with reasonable accuracy from space, which is important because many developing countries emit primarily via deforestation. But fossil-fuel emissions are self-reported based primarily on economic information. China’s recent upward revision of their recent emissions highlights the weakness of this system.

A cynic could argue that the entire agreement—being largely non-binding and unverifiable—is completely meaningless, but I don’t buy that. Real progress in addressing climate change is finally being made, and I think it will continue. The question is, will it be too little, too late? Only time will tell.

What this means for WHRC

First, the language about REDD+, especially financing through the Green Climate Fund, seems like a massive step forward in protecting forests. After all, the idea of restoring the biosphere through forest conservation speaks to the very core of the Woods Hole Research Center. Not only that, but this language represents the realization of years of hard work by lots of folks at the WHRC and elsewhere.

Further, both the Paris Accord’s requirement for “technical expert review” and its commitment for financing developing countries to build the capacity to measure their own emissions, presents the Center with potentially huge opportunities. Since many of these countries emit mainly from the land sector, we have the skills and experience to play a large role in implementing parts of this historic agreement. Without hesitation, we are ready to take on the challenge.

With thanks, as always, for your support.