Delivering on the Paris Climate Agreement: The Oxford 1.5 Degrees Conference Charts a Path

September 19, 2016 | 12:58 pm
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

This week I am heading to Oxford to attend a conference, 1.5 Degrees: Meeting the challenges of the Paris Agreement. This comes close on the heels of the recent ratification of the Paris Agreement by the US, China and Brazil. Clearly, the next phase of work focused on fulfilling the promise of Paris is in full swing, and I am excited to be part of it.

The long-term goals of the Paris Agreement

The 2015 Paris Agreement is a pivotal step in the long march to address climate change.  It highlights the urgent need to cut global heat-trapping emissions to limit some of the worst impacts of climate change. The long term goal, as articulated in the agreement, is to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” To get to this temperature goal, countries aim to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.

The challenge of meeting the Paris goals

Meeting those goals won’t be easy. At the Oxford Conference, participants will be wrestling with difficult questions, including how we got to the Paris temperature goals, whether it is still feasible to meet them, what scientific projections show for future climate impacts under different temperature scenarios, what types technology pathways are available to enable a global transition to a net zero global warming emissions world by mid-century, and what are the ethical challenges that societies confront as they tackle climate change?

The deliberations at the conference will provide valuable input to a 2018 special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), called for in the Paris Agreement. This special report will examine the impacts of an increase in the global average temperature by 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and mitigation pathways to meet that temperature goal. It will play an important role in motivating greater ambition for climate action from countries when they register their new emission reduction targets for the post-2020 time-frame.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is a co-sponsor of the conference, which is being hosted by the University of Oxford.

The goals of climate policy

Regardless of what one thinks of the feasibility of limiting the global average temperature increase to 2°C or 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, fundamentally the goals of ambitious climate policy have always been the same: to limit the temperature increase as much as possible by taking swift, robust actions to cut global warming emissions.

Because we are already committed to a certain amount of global warming due to past and current emissions, we also have to do our utmost to help prepare and protect communities from climate impacts, including from sea level rise, drought, extreme heat and heavy precipitation.

Risks, trade-offs and moral choices

Climate change raises profound moral and ethical questions. Solutions are available but because we have delayed action for so long, we are effectively in a world of trade-offs. For example, societies will have to grapple with the risk and cost trade-offs presented by various low-carbon technologies and make choices that best suit their specific circumstances, in line with a net zero world.

Similarly, we won’t be able to protect every inch of coastline from sea level rise—in fact many major coastal cities around the world already face a future of increased flooding and eventual inundation. Physical and financial limits will force us to make choices about what to save and what to abandon.

And embedded in all these choices are questions of equity and responsibility. Richer nations and more affluent people have contributed more to global emissions. Many less developed countries and poorer communities face a disproportionate burden of the impacts of climate change. Will those who bear a greater responsibility for emissions be willing to invest in policies and measures to aggressively cut them? And will we step up to provide the resources that frontline communities need to prepare and protect themselves?

What’s next for the Paris Agreement

As of today, 180 Parties have signed on to the Paris Agreement and 29 countries representing about 40 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions have ratified it. The Paris Agreement will enter into force when at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions have ratified the Agreement. There is considerable momentum toward entry into force with many more countries indicating that they expect to ratify in the next few months, such that the Agreement could enter into force before the end of this year (and perhaps even ahead of the next United Nations Climate Change meeting, COP22, in Marrakech in November).

It will take a year or two for countries to then agree on the details of implementing the Agreement, including deadlines for the next round of emission reduction targets for countries.

The Paris Agreement calls for a “facilitative dialogue” in 2018 to take stock of collective progress towards the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement and inform the next round of country emission reduction targets. The 2018 dialog will happen alongside the IPCC special report mentioned earlier, providing a pointed reference for countries to understand the implications of their emissions targets, as well as the need for and opportunities to go further. Many experts consider this to be the next big global climate policy choice point, akin to Paris.

Around that time, countries like the US that currently have 2025 emissions goals (called ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ or NDCs) should raise their ambition and also put forward their 2030 NDCs, and countries like China, India, Japan, and the EU that have 2030 NDCs are expected to sharpen their pencils and see if they can up their ambition too. Scaled-up climate finance must also be on the table, to help developing countries transition to low carbon energy and cope with climate impacts.

The Paris Agreement also builds in the expectation that countries will ratchet up ambitions every five years thereafter, via a regular global stocktaking exercise.

Opportunities for continued US leadership

The next US Administration has the responsibility to continue to demonstrate global climate leadership. The first order of business will be to ensure the US stays on track to meet its current 2025 emissions goal of 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels. That will require implementing policies beyond those currently on the books, such as regulations on methane emissions from existing oil and gas operations. By 2020, the U.S. can and should ratchet up the ambition of its 2025 NDC and also offer a 2030 target which is much stronger.

With dramatic declines in the costs of renewable energy like wind and solar already happening and projected to continue (see this IRENA report, for example), cutting emissions will be more and more cost-effective.  The public health and economic benefits alone make clean energy investments worthwhile, not to mention the climate advantages.

Continued efforts to advance global cooperation in finding solutions to climate change will also be critical. The current administration’s efforts at bilateral and multi-lateral engagement with other nations, including Canada, China, India and Brazil, have already borne fruit in significant ways.

The U.S. has indicated that it will communicate its long-term, mid-century emission reduction strategy by the end of this year. That can serve as a blueprint for future administrations as we seek to enact policies to reach net zero emissions by the middle of the century.

Fulfilling the promise of Paris

Fulfilling the promise of Paris will require concerted action by all nations, working together. Right alongside, pushing for greater ambition, is the global climate movement—a large, diverse community of scientists, economists, climate justice groups, labor groups, faith groups, businesses, activists, policymakers and many others.

At the Oxford conference (live-stream available here), we’ll be talking about all this and more. My colleagues Peter Frumhoff, Brenda Ekwurzel and I will report back in the weeks ahead. The eighth annual Climate Week NYC is also getting under way this week, and my colleague Alden Meyer will be attending and providing perspectives from there.