Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Paris Agreement

"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).  


  1. I'm pessimistic about keeping warming under 2C, which is the agreement's goal, however I completely disagree with Hansen's quote, which is very representative of his doom and gloom attitude that does not motivate change in people unless properly balanced with some optimism (why change if we are screwed anyway?). This agreement is a great sign that the majority of the world views global warming as a problem that needs to be addressed. Even in the US, this is now the viewpoint of 2/3 of the public. China has changed their tone because of their horrific air quality and numerous major corporations are now implementing plans to go carbon neutral. In terms of bringing poor people up to a higher standard of living, this is assuming that this will happen, which it won't if history is any indication, but if we are to bring people out of poverty, why not have renewable energy technology further developed and cheapened to do so? That the energy infrastructure is not completely fossil fuel based in poor countries can be seen as an opportunity. So despite my pessimism, I see that things are changing. Not as fast as is needed, but these are important steps, and I haven't lost hope. The task now is to convince people that this is one of the most important issues of our time, not to be buried down on the list of priorities.

  2. I would have preferred the politicians to give me a 0C warming. That would make the glaciers advance to where they were in the 18th century. The Timpanogos would recover its glacier, Christmas would be white and perhaps I wouldn't spend so much time looking at the weather websites and hoping for the foorescats to show me the "correct" seasonal weather, which they seldom do.

    However, it´s not just that people in the developing world want to keep improving their livelihoods. Another problem is that the values inside the latest IPCC climate sensibility 'likely' range differ by a factor of 3. With this uncertainty level, watching the politicians talk about controlling the future warming to fractions of a degree is quite comical.

  3. Without hope, there is apathy. This is a "hopeful first step" that can have a large impact on society, hopefully... :)