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Does Paris Climate Deal Provide Enough Nails to Seal Fossil Fuel Industry's Coffin?

More than 150 nations set to sign COP21 climate agreement on Friday, but many questions remain

"The fossil fuel industry is pushing our climate to the brink faster than anyone expected," says May Boeve of (Photo: Joe Brusky/flickr/cc)

More than 150 nations, including the U.S. and China, are expected to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change on Friday—Earth Day—marking a huge step in the fight against global warming and the next phase for a growing and vibrant climate movement.

The magnitude of the single-day signing "clearly demonstrates the degree of support internationally for moving forward on climate," said David Waskow, the director of the international climate initiative at the global research organziation World Resources Institute.

The deal aims to keep any further warming "well below" 2°C by working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.

With that in mind, the COP21 agreement "could be the next nail in the coffin of the fossil fuel industry" says executive director May Boeve, "if governments actually follow through on their commitments."

That's the big question, of course—to what extent, and at what speed, governments will actually adhere to the pledges laid out in the Paris Agreement.

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And even if they go whole hog, that won't be good enough, according to a new analysis from Climate Interactive and MIT's Sloan business school. That analysis shows that full implementation of the current pledges would result in expected warming by 2100 of 3.5°C (6.3°F)—far past the consensus threshold. To limit warming to no more than 2°C, "deeper, earlier emissions cuts are needed," the groups say in their Climate Scoreboard.

That, in turn, would "catastrophic to the ecosystem of the world, including the ice culture of the Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic," said Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, which on Wednesday joined other grassroots groups in releasing a report (pdf) that denounces the COP21 deal as a "dangerous distraction."


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Fortunately, the Paris Agreement provides a mechanism for the nations of the world to increase their commitments and submit stronger pledges by 2020.

"It is like driving to an important meeting," said Andrew Jones of Climate Interactive. "You could get there safely if you leave now. Or you could wait, drive too fast, and risk a horrible accident. If we improve the Paris pledges now, we can limit warming below two degrees. If we wait and only ratchet up pledges post-2030, then we’d have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a reckless and costly rate, scrapping much more of the existing fossil energy infrastructure before the end of its practical life."

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Indeed, the Washington Post wrote on Wednesday, "a drumbeat of grim scientific findings has underscored that staving off the worst consequences of global warming may take far more aggressive actions" than those laid out in the climate accord. 

Pointing to everything from record-breaking temperatures to rising seas, WaPo journalists Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis said the Paris deal is "only a start to what must be a more aggressive effort to mitigate the worst effects of climate change."

Boeve, of 350, agrees, though she sees an alternate route to making change. "The fossil fuel industry is pushing our climate to the brink faster than anyone expected," she says, "as record temperatures are proving, along with extreme weather related events. We are all at risk from a warming planet, so we are left with no choice but to scale up nonviolent direct action."

"As the transition from dirty energy to clean and efficient energy systems grows stronger and faster," she says, "communities and private citizens around the world will continue to hold decision makers accountable to their promises, and to science."

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