"New agreement is just words. We're still on a business-as-usual course."
- Jim Hansen
Today representatives of 195 nations approved an agreement that commits every country to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The full document, available here, recognizes that climate change "represents and urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies" and that "deep reductions in global [greenhouse gas] emissions will be required." The agreement seeks to hold the global average temperature "to well below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change."
In case you are wondering we are currently about 0.8ºC above pre-industrial levels [2015 is a full 1ºC above pre-industrial levels, although that's partly due to the intense El Nino], with additional warming already in the pipeline as the climate system has not yet fully adjusted to the rapid increase in greenhouse gas concentrations over the past few decades.
I've been asked a few times about my views on the Paris Agreement (and before this month, many times about Kyoto before it). I'm pretty much a political cynic and so my perspectives are similar to Jim Hansen's above. I am concerned about global warming, which reflects my scientific understanding but also personal values, and thus am glad to see the agreement recognize the pressing need to address greenhouse gas emissions. My political cynicism is such that I ultimately see agreements like this as something only diplomats could love. When the rubber hits the road tomorrow, we're still part of a global society in which the long-term greenhouse gas emissions trend is upward. There's some indication that global greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 will decline slightly from 2014, but we have to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by about 40% just to get back to 1990 levels.
|Source: Global Carbon Project|
At the same time, we need to nearly quadruple our global energy production to bring the developing world up to a reasonable standard of living.
It has been said that a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step, and an optimistic view of the Paris Agreement is that it makes the first step on that journey. However, we shouldn't lose sight of what ultimately needs to be done. Incremental improvements in efficiency and lifestyle changes such as riding bikes and driving hybrid cars are necessary are good, but they are not sufficient to meet the long term need for carbon neutrality. As Richard Smalley, the 1996 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry once wrote, we ultimately need "cheap, clean energy in vast amounts." In other words, innovation is needed to make a quantum leap in how we produce, distribute, and store energy.
That innovation needs to be priority one today (and unfortunately should have been a priority many years ago).