The Paris climate agreement, hammered out at last December's COP21 talks and signed Friday by close to 170 nations, is alternately being hailed as "a turning point for humanity" and denounced as "a dangerous distraction."
There's no doubt that the deal "is the capstone of years and years of hard work," as Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) president Ken Kimmell put it on Thursday.
"The formal signing of the Paris Agreement could be the next nail in the coffin of the fossil fuel industry."
—May Boeve, 350.org
And the magnitude of the ceremonial signing in New York—attended by countries ranging from tiny Palau to major polluters like the U.S. and China—"confirms there's strong global will to act urgently to limit the dire impacts of climate change, by shifting away from fossil fuels toward clean renewable energy and efficiency technologies," said Kimmell's colleague, UCS director of strategy and policy Alden Meyer.
But Sara Shaw, climate justice and energy coordinator at Friends of the Earth International (FOEI), said the ceremony was merely the "global elite's theater," lacking "substance on implementation and ambition."
Requiring, as it does, countries to set their own targets for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in an effort to keep global warming below 2°C, "The formal signing of the Paris Agreement could be the next nail in the coffin of the fossil fuel industry," said 350.org executive director May Boeve, "if governments actually follow through on their commitments."
That's a big "if."
The centerpiece of Obama's climate agenda — the Clean Power Plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants — is in limbo as the Supreme Court weighs a challenge from states and industries that say the Environmental Protection Agency lacks the legal authority to carry out the plan. Even if it survives, scientists say much more needs to be done to meet emissions reductions stipulated in the Paris agreement — reducing greenhouse gas emissions from 26% to 28% below their 2005 levels by 2025.
And even if governments fulfill their emissions-reduction pledges, many experts say that won't be enough to prevent climate disaster.
"From a scientific perspective, the numbers just don’t add up. The countries historically responsible for the bulk of climate change are coming up far short of their fair share of cuts in greenhouse gas emissions."
—Jagoda Munic, Friends of the Earth International
A new analysis released this week by Climate Interactive and MIT's Sloan business school called for "deeper, earlier emissions cuts," warning that "full implementation of the current pledges would result in expected warming by 2100 of 3.5°C (6.3°F)"—far beyond the consensus threshold of 2°C. This supports a similar warning put forth last year by a wide-ranging coalition of civil society groups, which said the COP21 pledges put forward by countries add up to warming of around 3°C, and possibly higher.
Indeed, said Jagoda Munic, FOEI chairperson, "From a scientific perspective, the numbers just don’t add up. The countries historically responsible for the bulk of climate change are coming up far short of their fair share of cuts in greenhouse gas emissions."
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In a statement, the Women's Global Call for Climate Justice said on Friday that "while the agreement in Paris may represent a starting point for collective action...the terms are unclear and unjust, the ambition is too low, and the rights of people and the planet have not been secured." The group is holding an Earth Day rally outside the UN to draw attention to how women and frontline communities are impacted by climate change.
Another group, Climate Mobilization, is holding a "die-in" in New York on Friday "to underscore the true impact of the Paris agreement: runaway climate change, state failure, and the deaths of billions."
Citing the significant "unfinished business left from Paris," Oxfam International executive director Winnie Byanyima on Friday said the provisions in the deal "are not enough to avoid a pathway towards a 3°C world and does not ensure the provision of adequate funding to ensure millions of vulnerable people can prepare for and respond to increasing climate chaos."
In fact, she noted, "If all of today's public climate adaptation finance were to be divided among the world's 1.5 billion smallholder farmers in developing counties, they would get around $3 each a year to cope with climate change."
In order to curtail dangerous climate change, according to FOEI:
- We need a just, global energy transformation, including blocking dirty energy projects, improving energy efficiency, tackling energy access issues and moving to community-owned renewable energy.
- We need finance from developed to developing countries to help them move away from dirty energy.
- We need countries to cut emissions at source, and not hide behind carbon markets, REDD and other false solutions.
To do so will require a paradigm shift, said Nnimmo Bassey, director of the HOME (Health of Mother Earth) Foundation.
"The Paris Agreement locks in fossil fuels and, to underscore corporate capture of the negotiations, the word 'fossil' is not as much as mentioned in the document."
—Nnimmo Bassey, Health of Mother Earth Foundation
"The Paris Agreement locks in fossil fuels and, to underscore corporate capture of the negotiations, the word 'fossil' is not as much as mentioned in the document," he pointed out. "It is shocking that although the burning of fossil fuels is known to be a major contributor to global warming, climate negotiations engage in platitudes rather than going to the core of the problem."
"Scientists tell us that burning of fossil fuels would have to end by 2030 if there would be a chance of keeping temperature increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels," Bassey continued. "The signal we get from the silence on the fossils factor is that oil and coal companies can continue to extract profit while burning the planet."
Signing is the first of a two-step process for countries to formally join the agreement—the next is ratification. The deal will come into force on the 30th day after the date on which at least 55 parties, representing at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gases, complete this process.
In the the U.S., Secretary of State John Kerry signed the agreement Friday, and then President Barack Obama will ratify it before he leaves office in December, a senior U.S. official told CBS News in a conference call this week.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that 15 countries would formally join the agreement immediately on Friday, many of them small island developing states—which the World Resources Institute notes "are poised to suffer the worst impacts of climate change even though they contributed the least to causing the problem."