COP 21: What It Does—And Doesn't—Accomplish

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COP 21: What It Does—And Doesn't—Accomplish

A protester holds a banner on Dec. 9 during the COP21 summit.  (Photo: public domain)

The deadline for coming up with an agreement at COP 21 has been extended until Saturday.  But the penultimate draft of the agreement has been published, and we now know the basics of what will emerge.

There are some positive things coming out of the meeting, but it’s important to understand what it does—and doesn’t—accomplish in terms of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

On the plus side the High Ambition Coalition picked up steam as the conference came to a close.  This is a group of nations who are advocating a stringent reporting regime to measure the extent to which countries are meeting their pledges, as well as limiting warming to no more than 1.5 C.  Led by the island nations, as the Meeting progressed, Canada, the US, the EU, and other developed nations came together joined the coalition. On Friday, Brazil joined the group. While the final wording on the overall goal is still being hammered out, the agreement recognizes 1.5 C as a safer target in several areas.

The bad news?  1.5 C is nothing more than aspirational.  Here’s why.

We can only emit about 200 billion more tonnes of carbon dioxide to have even a 66% chance of staying below 1.5 C.  Since we are emitting about 40 billion tonnes per year (about 44 billion US tons), we will blow through the budget by 2020, the year in which the Paris agreements are to start being implemented.  In other words, that ship will have sailed before the Agreement is in effect.

Now, about that 66% probability.  A core precept of risk analysis and risk management is that dangers which are irreversible, widespread and consequential demand very high safety margins. Nothing could be more consequential than the destruction of the climate we evolved in, and it’s irreversible in all but geologic time. 

Given this, a goal built on something approaching a 100% probability of safeguarding the climate would make more sense.  Hell, even 90% seems ... well … foolhardy.  But the fact is, whether we choose a target of 1.5 C or 2 C, the target for a 90% margin of safety is gone.  So we’re now reduced to playing Russian roulette with our future—but because we’ve delayed action for so long, we’ve got bullets in two chambers, instead on one.  

The only way a target of 1.5 C has any meaning whatsoever at this point, is if we commit to extracting massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere—something we have no idea how to do, and something we have not committed to doing.

Claims that the agreements coming out of Paris are “binding” are misleading.

What’s binding are the pledges submitted as part of each participating country’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, or INDC.  So far, 180 countries have submitted pledges. However, there is no mechanism that makes achieving these pledges binding. That’s about as meaningful as “Of course I’ll still love you in the morning.”

As mentioned earlier, the high ambition coalition is advocating reporting progress toward achieving goals, and this kind of transparency—in theory—can make countries take those goals more seriously, but at this point, any action is purely voluntary, and there are not sanctions for failing to act. 

The agreement will NOT hold warming to 2 C, or even 2.7 degrees C.

Even assuming every country meets its pledges, if countries do not agree to greater cuts after those being made in Paris, the world will likely warm by 3.5 C or more—perhaps as high as 4.6 C, which is more than 8 degrees F. 

This is nothing less than catastrophic. 

But even this devastating outcome ignores a mighty big elephant in the global living room.

Scientists know that we are at or near thresholds which have/will trigger feedbacks that will cause even more warming.  For example, just 3 of these known feedbacks, by themselves, would add about 2.5 C more warming on top of the 3.5 resulting from the Paris agreements, bringing total warming to 6 C or nearly 11 F.  At this point, we’re really talking about a different planet, not simply a warmed up Earth.

And there are no fewer than 12 feedbacks that could amplify warming, so even this could be an understatement. 

What COP 21 Accomplished: Probably the best thing to come out of the Meeting was the establishment of a framework in which the majority of the world came together and reached agreements to cut back on carbon, and both developed and developing nations recognized a shared responsibility to act. 

Differentiation, which addresses how developed and developing nations share responsibility and costs for mitigating and adapting to climate change, remains a sticking point.  But even here there’s been progress, in that both the developed and developing world recognized they must ultimately act together to meet this challenge.  And India, the world’s fourth largest emitter, has indicated it would consider a cap to its emissions if it received financial support adequate to speed a transition to a no-carbon all renewable energy system.

So while there is much work to be done, this Agreement will provide a foundation to build on, and a framework for future progress.

What it did not: In terms of outcomes, there’s an enormous—and disastrous—gap between what was agreed to, and what was needed. 

This gap is all the more dangerous in that the carbon budgets used to establish permissible emissions of GHGs have essentially—and all but surreptitiously—rewritten how much risk we are willing to impose on future generations. 

The reason we’re doing it, is precisely because we failed to act in the past, and using lower margins of safety make it appear as though we have more time to act than we do. Suggesting that a 66% likelihood of actually meeting our goals is acceptable is a form of intergenerational terrorism at worst, an act of intergenerational immorality at best. 

It’s as if we were looking into the eyes of our grandchildren and asking them to endure outlandish risks so that we might follow a slightly less disruptive path.

In essence, by playing with the margins of safety we are willing to accept, we are obscuring the urgency of acting now—right now—by increasing the risk we’re willing to pass on to our children and their children.  This is inexcusable, and it is the greatest failure of the entire COP process.

John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, an eco-thriller and book one of a trilogy centered on global warming. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Jose Mercury News and other major newspapers. Atcheson’s book reviews are featured on

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