Climate Change Editors' Vox

Perspectives on COP21

Climate change is a well-defined, global problem that nations are finally acknowledging.


Le Bourget, France, is likely to go down in the annals in the history of global climate change. On Saturday night, 195 nations taking part in the COP21 (the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties) in this suburb of Paris signed up to a legally binding agreement to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees C, with 1.5 degrees referred to explicitly as the preferred target. The success of the agreement is being tied to President Obama’s enactment, last year, of the USA’s first climate change policy, a set of exacting new regulations designed to slash greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s coal-fired power plants. This was closely followed by China’s President Xi Jinping enacting similarly minded policies in China’s heavily polluting coal plants.

But perhaps the most rigorous and welcoming part of the pact is the legal requirement that each nation, rich or poor, is part of the deal, and that each nation is required to meet every five years to ratchet up their emission reduction plans, and—here’s the kicker—starting in 2023, each nation has to report on how they are doing. It is hoped that this international peer pressure, the naming and shaming, will lead to an enforcement of emission targets. Inevitably, there are devilish details to resolve, but it seems that the thorniest of these, such as legally binding financing and a transparent review process (this one a red-line issue for the US), are considered surmountable by the larger carbon contributors.

The success of COP21 agreement will be seen in future national energy policies. Will we see the return of incentives to encourage the development and wider uptake of alternative energy sources, more efficient energy usage, and technologies to capture and store carbon emissions from dirty coal powered plants. Recent government actions in at least one western developed country seem to be going the opposite way. The UK has recently pulled support for CCS development and has sanctioned the continued use beyond 2020 of coal-powered plants that were intended to be offline by then. But perhaps the Paris deal will change these things. It is hoped, too, that the deal could be taken as an incentive to global financial and energy markets, steering investments toward non-fossil fuel energy sources.

However, it is important to remember—to understand—that climate change by itself is only part of the problem. The problem, of course, is actually the need to sustain a habitable planet. It is highly likely that the same sorts of environmental issues would be hitting us square in the face even without climate change. Climate change is certainly exacerbating some of these issues, notably the potential for widespread and unstoppable rises in sea-level. But the economic costs associated with extensive flooding and (to some extent) droughts are with us largely as a function of our increasing population and the concomitant needs of space to live and play, and of resources to feed us and keep us in relative comfort. Floods are increasingly costly not, in all likelihood, because of climate change, but because we have engineered the hydrologic landscape in ways that lead to larger and more damaging floods. Much of our agricultural economy is based on a perceived record of Holocene climate that turns out to be far more variable than we realized. And so long periods of drought are part of our history, regardless of modern climate change. There is a pressing, urgent need to far better understand exactly how our natural and anthropogenic environment responds to the various weather it might be exposed to, but also to the ways in which we change land-use or land-management. And there is a need to quantify how one decision in one place will affect the response and behavior somewhere else. Climate change is a well-defined, global problem that nations are finally acknowledging. Keeping a habitable planet is a messy, “wicked” global problem that we must not neglect.

—Michael Ellis, Editor, Earth’s Future; email: [email protected]