Three years and six goals to meet targets in the Paris Climate Agreement

A grouping of climate change experts has published six goals that must be achieved by 2020 in order to meet the targets set out in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

In a letter published in the journal Nature, the authors and co-signatories – represented by eminent scientists, business leaders, economists and NGO representatives – declared we must “overcome the risks of climate change” and “act boldly together”.

To meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the experts identified six key goals to be met by 2020:

  1. Renewable energy should make up 30 per cent of global electricity supply and no coal-fired power plants should be commissioned
  2. Three per cent of building and infrastructure stock should come from near-zero or zero-emission buildings each year
  3. Electric vehicles should make up 15 per cent of annual car sales, as well as a 20 per cent reduction in aviation emissions and 20 per cent increase in efficiency of heavy duty vehicles
  4. Policies should be enacted to shift land use from deforestation to reforestation and traditional agriculture to sustainable approaches. In doing so these lands would switch from being carbon sources to carbons sinks by 2030
  5. Carbon-intensive heavy industry should have plans in place to increase efficiency and be on a path to halve emissions by 2050
  6. $1 trillion dollars should be set aside annually for climate action initiatives

The authors choice of 2020 is significant for two reasons.

Firstly, with current global CO2 emissions at a staggering 41 gigatonnes per year, the goals of the Paris Agreement become essentially unattainable if emissions continue at this scale by 2020.

Secondly, 2020  marks the year when a country can formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement, as President Trump has already announced that the US will do.

Although the authors recognise that their goals are “idealistic at best [and] unrealistic at worst” and that the “political winds are blustery”, they remain optimistic.

“We are in the age of exponential transformation and think that such a focus will unleash ingenuity,” the letter reads.

For the first time in history there is almost unanimous international agreement that the risks associated with climate change are too great to ignore and that we must work urgently and collectively.

In many cases, solutions already exist and the transition to low-carbon technology is well underway in many sectors.

The global expansion of wind and solar energy will continue and the global sales of electric vehicles appear to be on the cusp of a rapid global expansion.

The past three years mark the first time that global emissions have stagnated while global GDP has grown, indicating that measures already adopted are beginning to have an effect.

While the recent G20 summit highlights the political and civil tension that exists at present, one clear positive outcome from the weekend’s meeting was the reaffirmed commitment to the Paris Agreement by the world’s most powerful economies bar the United States.

Although the G20 summit has further isolated the US, optimists will focus on the continuation of the US renewable energy transition and emissions reduction and a continued commitment by states, cities, companies and citizens despite the best efforts of the current administration.

In a recent interview, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson – a signatory of the letter in Nature – struck a positive note in relation to the US stance: “What President Trump has done is put climate on the American agenda in a way that it was never there before, and provoked a dynamic response from communities, business, civil society, philanthropy.”

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on July 10th, 2017.

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Trump’s climate decision dangerous for the US and the world

President Trump tweeted late on Wednesday evening that be will be announcing his decision on whether or not the US will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement today at 8PM Irish time.

Unfortunately, and as expected, he announced his decision to withdraw the US from the Agreement which aims to limit global average temperature to within 2°C above pre-industrial levels and combat the unavoidable impacts on people and the Earth.

Under Obama, the US had committed to reducing carbon emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2025.  Now, the US will join only 2 other countries – Nicaragua and Syria – as non-participants in the global deal.

So from a procedural point of view how will the US’s withdrawal proceed? And more importantly, what are the most likely consequences for the US and the world?

Two withdrawal options

Article 28 of the Agreement allows countries to withdraw from the third year after the Agreement entered into force, which would be November 2019 for the US. The withdrawal would also not take effect for another year. So the earliest the US withdrawal would be effective is November 2020.

The other scenario is that the US withdraws from the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which necessarily means withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. This could be effective in one year.

Consequences of US withdrawal

One of the worse possible consequences of the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is that it could discourage other nations from taking further steps to limit their own emissions, thereby hindering efforts to reduce global emissions. The US withdrawal could also cause diplomatic strain and damage relationships with other countries.

Todd Stern, former US special envoy on climate change under Obama, puts it bluntly in a recent article in the Atlantic stating that “the President’s exit from Paris would be read as a kind of ‘drop dead’ to the rest of the world”.

Withdrawal could also result in the US being left behind in the low-carbon energy transformation. This transition is already underway and China and Europe would likely take primary roles.

China currently accounts for almost 50% of the world’s new solar energy capacity and the US risks falling behind and losing valuable US jobs in the wind and solar energy sectors. The economic importance of committing to the Paris Agreement is recognised by many US industries and companies.

Sixty-nine of 500 US Fortune 500 companies, including Walmart, ExxonMobil, and Chevron, have stated their support for the Paris Agreement. Over 1000 US companies have signed the Business Backs Low-Carbon USA statement urging the US to stay in the Agreement.  Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, has said he will withdraw for White House advisory councils if President Trumps withdraws.

In an interview in Business Insider UK John Sterman, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management and senior advisor at Climate Interactive said that it is “not far-fetched to imagine a scenario where China…implements a carbon tax on all goods exported from the US”.

Further down the road, the US government could also leave itself open to expensive lawsuits taken by victims of climate change, on the basis that the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement causes damage and requires compensation.

Carry on Regardless

Many US States and the some of the largest US cities will continue to tackle climate change and transform their energy portfolio regardless of what President Trump decides.

In December 2016, I attended the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco – the largest meeting on Earth and space sciences in the world. The Governor of California, Jerry Brown, gave a keynote speech and in it he responded to Trumps threat to stop satellite collection of climate data by saying “California will launch its own damn satellites”.

Many US states have invested heavily in clean energy technologies and are proceeding with their energy transformation. Wind and solar energy made up two-thirds of new electric energy capacity in the US last year.

Twelve US cities, representing 25 per cent of the US population, are part of the global C40 Climate Leadership Group.

Will the pressure change Trump’s mind?

With pressure piling from global leaders, environmental charities, scientists, Big Business, Democrats, Republicans and even family members, will Trump rethink his decision to enact one of his pre-election promises?

Ultimately, whether the US are in or out of the Paris Agreement, the new US administration will likely continue making damaging changes to US science, environmental and natural heritage policy.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on June 1st 2017.