A Global Push to Save the Planet
Scientists have mostly stopped arguing about whether humans are warming the planet. Last year was again the hottest on record, and the globe is on track to exceed the 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) temperature gain that the United Nations aims to prevent. There’s also a consensus that people are ill-prepared for the impact. That spurred the world’s nations to take their boldest step yet to stem climate change, agreeing to a historic pact in 2015 to limit fossil-fuel pollution. Now comes the hard part: an overhaul of energy policies and a huge investment of money. Plus overcoming potential opposition to the effort from U.S. President Donald Trump.
The accord forged in Paris came in force in November, bringing the U.S., China and more than 190 other nations into a UN-sponsored plan to cut the emissions that trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. During his election campaign, Trump questioned the science of climate change, while vowing to pull the U.S. from the deal and cancel related payments to the UN. But in an interview as president-elect, Trump said he would "keep an open mind" about the climate change accord. His Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former chief of oil giant Exxon Mobil, said during a confirmation hearing that the U.S. should stay "at the table" in the global response to climate change. The Paris agreement has been hailed as the first universal deal because the previous one, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, was never ratified by the U.S. and didn't set binding targets for China and India, now among the biggest polluters. This time, nations came forward with voluntary commitments. China has agreed that its emissions will peak in about 2030 and the U.S. pledged to cut greenhouse gases by 26-28 percent in the two decades ending in 2025. The targets aren't legally binding in the same way as Kyoto, though countries must measure and report their progress. Even if all the pledges are met, the globe is expected to warm by as much as 3.4 degrees Celsius this century. That's alarmed the countries most vulnerable to warming, including island states imperiled by rising seas.
UN climate talks have been fractious over the years. The last push for a global deal in Copenhagen in 2009 dissolved in finger-pointing over who should do what to combat global warming. Developing countries insist that their priority is to take people out of poverty as quickly as possible, and tapping fossil energy is often the cheapest way to do so. They said it was up to the developed world to act first and help fund efforts in poorer nations. Over the last decade, governments began imposing costs on polluters that reflect the broader harm to society, either by levying taxes or by adopting various cap-and-trade systems for emissions permits such as those in the European Union and California.
In the years leading up to the Paris agreement, companies and homeowners were installing more solar panels, switching to energy-efficient lighting and taking other steps as technologies improved and the cost of renewable energy tumbled. Rising consumer awareness and political pressure were fueled by an expanding body of research that predicts global warming will take a growing toll on the globe's economies, food production, fresh water supplies and human health. Yet the arguments that crippled the Kyoto Protocol have hardly changed. There’s a vociferous army of global-warming skeptics who lobby politicians, and they have been energized by Trump's election. Some scientists and business leaders who acknowledge the risk recoil at the cost of halting climate change or disagree on the best way to act. The Paris agreement could require $13.5 trillion of spending through 2030, according to the International Energy Agency, with another $3 trillion needed to get the planet onto a 2-degree pathway. To meet its terms, governments will have to offer incentives for clean energy, scale back support for fossil fuels like oil, make emissions more costly and reduce deforestation. Industrialized nations have promised to assist developing ones by providing finance and technology, delivering $100 billion a year from 2020 through 2025.
The Reference Shelf
- A Q&A on how Trump's climate denial was catalyzing the world and an article examining the implications of his election on efforts to fight global warming.
- The text of the Paris agreement.
- Graphics and data on climate change from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
- The pope’s encyclical on climate change.
- The International Energy Agency’s June 2015 report on climate change.
- United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports.
- Bloomberg Markets article on the efforts of Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund manager, to highlight the risks of climate change.
First published Nov. 11, 2013
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Leah Harrison at email@example.com