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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Paris Shapes Future Action
distributed 1/15/16 - ©2016

This is the second of two Eco-Justice Notes dealing with last month's climate agreement from Paris. Read last week's affirmation, "There is an agreement".

At 7:26 PM on Saturday, December 12, 2015, the Paris Agreement was adopted by consensus from 196 nations. But the delegates to the COP21 climate negotiations, after two weeks of hard work, still had more to say. A summary of the proceedings says, "Many noted that while the Agreement is not perfect, it is necessary."

A representative from the European Union, using an apparently common phrase, said, "Today we can celebrate but tomorrow we have to act", and emphasized "we all have to translate this agreement to concrete actions." The representative from Maldives said "history will not judge us from what we did today, but what we do from this day forward."

The Paris Agreement is an amazing accomplishment reflecting a global consensus that climate change must be addressed, but it is vague and insufficiently strong to bring about its own goals. It is indeed true that what happens in the coming months and years, building on the agreement and going far beyond it, will be decisive.

Today, I'll look at a few of the key elements of the agreement that will shape those future actions.

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The language of the agreement commits the nations of the world to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, with an aspirational goal of keeping below 1.5 degrees. But the actual pledges for emission reductions that have been offered from those countries still set the world on a track to 2.7 to 3.5 degrees of warming.

Those pledges -- known as INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution) -- are non-binding estimates from most of the nations expressing their expectations for what they can do to reduce emissions and/or expand carbon sinks (such as by reducing deforestation). Numerous commentators have said that, because these pledges are non-binding, many nations were willing to put forth more challenging numbers. Constructive peer pressure encouraged parties to match the ambitions of other nations, and to challenge themselves toward serious steps.

If the INDCs presented in Paris were the last word, the agreement would not be worth celebrating. But another aspect, a "ratchet mechanism", will hold nations accountable for their INDC pledges, and make the promises even stronger in years to come. Every five years, the nations must report on their progress to date, and submit new INDCs which are required to be more ambitious than the previous one.

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Money was a big issue in the negotiations. How much will the rich nations provide to help less developed nations with new technologies, mitigation, and adaptation? The Green Climate Fund (described in a Notes last October) needs $100 billion per year by 2020 to be able to fund the needs of poor and heavily impacted nations.

In Paris, pledges were increased from several of the developed countries, but not enough to meet the expected budget. Secretary Kerry promised that the US would double its adaptation aid from $400 million to $800 million over five years -- a figure which is tiny in the context of the US government's annual budget, but which is also at risk in the Congress which may not allocate any money at all.

These funds, like the INDCs, are pledges, not mandatory allocations. They come mostly from the developed countries, but some of the richer developing nations are also chipping in. Indeed, China committed $3.1 billion to climate finance between now and 2020 -- slightly more than the U.S. commitment of $3 billion.

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A tantalizing but vague part of the agreement calls for the world to "achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century." That is a very large window -- the balance could come as early as 2051 (which would be very hopeful), or as late as 2099 (which would be far too late).

A balance between emissions and sinks means only that levels of atmospheric CO2 would stabilize. A balance means that vegetation, soils (and even oceans) are able to absorb the emissions from continued use of fossil fuels. Technologies for "carbon capture and sequestration" would also allow continued use of fossil fuels by capturing emissions. In the technical jargon, this is considered "net-zero carbon emissions." That is a very different thing than "zero emissions" where the world turns away from all use of fossil fuels.

To get to that balance, the currently rising CO2 emissions need to level off and decline. Scientists say global carbon emissions will need to peak in the next decade to ensure dangerous levels of warming are not locked into the atmosphere. The Paris text is not that specific, but aims for peaking "as soon as possible" -- which is hardly a precise target.

As with all of the UN climate negotiations for more than two decades, all of the focus is on emissions. Nothing is said about the extraction or combustion of fossil fuels. (See a Notes from last April for a discussion of this dynamic.) If a way can be found to zero out emissions, or to balance those emissions with sinks, then the goals of the agreement can be met.

Realistically, getting to net-zero emissions will probably require that lots of fossil fuels will need to be left in the ground. But that is not required by the agreement, or even suggested.

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The Paris Agreement makes it clear that many things must be done to address the urgent crisis of climate chaos. The reality of climate change is presumed, and the need for action by all nations is accepted. The agreement blocks out areas of action -- with ever-more-demanding INDCs, and funding for mitigation and adaptation -- and sets targets for acceptable temperature rise (1.5 to 2 degrees) and net-zero emissions. All of those are good.

But as the delegates said, "we have to translate this agreement to concrete actions." Governments at all levels -- national, state and local for the US -- will need to implement policies that move toward these pledges and goals. Dramatically higher levels of funding must come from the nations that can afford to contribute. Businesses will need to get their practices in line with these goals, not only in the energy sector, but also in agriculture and construction. Individuals and communities will need to shift behaviors and expectations as part of this transition.

All of which means that we have an enormous amount of work ahead of us. As citizens and activists, we must hold our governments accountable for the promises, and push them to take ever stronger steps -- and to do so very quickly. The Paris Agreement was possible because of strong public pressure from around the world, and we cannot stop with our demands.

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BREAKING NEWS: I celebrate today's news that the Obama administration has announced a moratorium on new coal leasing on US public lands until it reviews the impacts this program has on our planet. The review will look at the price charged for coal leases, and whether the costs of coal on public health and the climate are taken into account.

This step (which I called for at a federal hearing last August -- along with many other speakers!) is the sort of strong action that is needed to meet the Paris goals. I urge you to support Mr. Obama on the moratorium.

I have drawn on a number of sources today. I lift up four as the most helpful:


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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