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‘Five years, that’s all we’ve got’: a prognosis of the Paris Agreement (Commentary)

Xcel Energy's Sherburne County (Sherco) Generating Station near Becker, Minnesota.

  • In the 2015 climate talks, 196 nations agreed to try to keep warming under a 2-degree Celsius rise to mitigate global warming.
  • The U.N. projects that more radical decarbonization will need to start around 2030, with annual 10% reductions in CO2 emissions.
  • But researchers found that waiting until 2030 will not be enough to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius, and that the Paris Agreement will give the world five extra years before needing to move to more drastic measures.

January and February this year have been the hottest months ever in recorded history. While monthly anomalies do not necessarily point to enduring changes in climate, the hot months seem to be a fitting follow up to “an historic agreement to combat climate change” concluded in Paris in December 2015. One cannot help but wonder: What exactly did the Paris Agreement achieve? Although we are tempted to simply point to David Bowie’s lyrics “Five years, that’s all we’ve got,” the Paris accord may have set some useful processes in motion, even if too late.

All 196 parties agreed to try to keep warming under a 2-degree Celsius rise, which requires that we move quickly away from fossil fuels to other clean forms of energy. At the rate we are emitting as a world, (30 billion metric tons annually of CO2), we will simply not make that goal. Only some kind of a miracle will allow us to make this shift—and this must happen quickly. Just how much time did Paris buy us?

Five years, that’s all we’ve got.

Our latest analysis concludes that Paris buys us an extra five years, before we need to start radical global decarbonization, an event that we term “the miracle.” Given the tremendous momentum of fossil fuel use throughout the global economy, gradual reductions, along the lines that the U.S. has achieved in recent years through a soft economy and a startling transition from coal to less-carbon-emitting natural gas (1-2% annual reductions), will simply not be enough.   Make no mistake, a miracle is needed. The U.N. already projects that such a radical decarbonization will happen around 2030—with standard issue U.N. graphs that feature rising emissions up to a point around 2030, after which global greenhouse gas emissions drop off precipitously.

To quantify that precipitous drop, we decided to model a highly optimistic 10% annual global decline in CO2 emissions every year from the onset of rapid global reductions through the end of the century. This implies a halving of emissions every 7 years, a stretch goal that exceeds anything that any nation currently even envisions, let alone will achieve. The closest to this goal is an E.U. commitment to reduce emissions at an annual rate of 8.8% from 2030 to 2050.

A coal-fired power plant near Becker, Minnesota in the U.S. Photo by Tony Webster via Wikimedia Commons (CC 2.0).

In analyzing the timing of the miracle, we found that if the world waits until the U.N.’s projected miraculous year of 2030, 10% annual CO2 reductions will not be enough – we will blow through the 2 degree threshold with ease. We need to have the miracle arrive sooner. We calculate that without the Paris Agreement, the 10% cuts would need to start in 2021. With pledges in Paris, if all major emitters start taking action immediately, keep to their pledges, and succeed in that effort, we estimate that the necessary miracle start date is pushed ahead about 5 years to 2026. Those five years give additional time for research and development to enable the world to find its way to that decarbonization miracle.

That’s what the numbers tell us. Did the world get something more from Paris beyond buying us a little time? Yes, while the 2-degree goal looks highly likely to be exceeded, Paris did at least bring the majority of the earth’s greenhouse gas emitters to the table. From this perspective, the Paris Agreement, though an elaborate dance to bring all major carbon emitting countries to accountability, did so in a gentler manner than the top-down precedent set by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

That effort simply exempted the developing world, including China, now the world’s largest emitter by far (roughly double the U.S. and three times that of India). At the time the Kyoto Protocol was signed, no one dreamed China would become an emissions giant, growing its economy at an unprecedented rate for the next 20 years. Such unprecedented growth by China, India and other developing nations underscores the necessity to curb emissions from any country that is emitting too much—whether developed or not.

The U.S., in turn, refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol because it forced participants to make binding commitments. Kyoto, once in force, only covered 14 percent of current emissions. The Paris Agreement skillfully by-passed objections from both sides – the developed and developing nations – by asking countries to pledge voluntary contributions in emissions reductions. Paris covers most of the world’s emissions, so, at least now all the big boys are in the game.

Paris also brings to our attention another point: regardless of per capita GDP, once nations begin to emit a certain level, they should be admitted to a “carbon club” where they are expected to place more stringent curbs on emissions and be held accountable. Paris was a way to bring the two biggest emitters to the table–by making the targets “intentions” instead of binding commitments. Now the global community needs to watch closely and hold the top nations of the “carbon club” to their pledges.

Paris then marked an important diplomatic success, and, if the pledges are honored, it will buy the world a little time – to hope for a miracle. And, it is still the only song all nations are collectively singing.


Anukriti Hittle is a Visiting Scholar at the East-West Center for 2015-2016, specializing in climate change policy and analysis. Alexander Hittle is a lecturer at University of Hawai‘i-Manoa. This opinion is based on a working paper by the authors.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors, and do not represent or reflect the views of Mongabay.

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