Delegates of 195 nations, including the U.S., on Dec. 12 reached a landmark deal at the Paris COP21 conference that commits the world to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in an effort to combat the effects of climate change.
Though scientists have said global temperature increases need to kept below 2 degrees C to avoid the worst effects, the deal will not manage this on its own. The currently announced reductions will get the world about halfway there, experts say, assuming major nations such as the U.S. and China meet their commitments. The stated intent is to ultimately limit the increase to 1.5 degrees C through future efforts.
Thanks to political opposition in the U.S., however much of the COP21 deal is voluntary. Delegates were hamstrung by opposition in Congress, meaning that the U.S. delegation could not commit the nation to specific timetables, emissions cuts, or financial aid to developing countries, as such a deal would need to be submitted to the Senate for ratification, where it would certainly fail.
COP21: Hybrid Obligations
Consequently, while the deal promises aid ($100 billion per year) to help developing countries move toward renewable energy and deal with the effects of climate change, it does not commit to specific amounts, and the aid provision is contained in the preamble rather than the body of the agreement. Where that money will come from is also not stated.
What the deal commits participating nations to is monitoring and reporting on the progress of their voluntary plans and updating them every five years. The intent is that nations will not wish to be seen as international pariahs, and that future commitments will bring the world greater reductions in order to meet the 2-degree-C target.
Though public praise of the deal in Paris was effusive, behind closed doors delegates lamented that opposition from climate change skeptics in the U.S. thwarted a more ambitious agreement, according to media reports.
In the U.S. reaction fell along predictable lines.
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said, ““The Paris agreement is a turning point for humanity. For the first time in history, the global community agreed to action that sets the foundation to help prevent the worst consequences of the climate crisis while embracing the opportunity to exponentially grow our clean energy economy.”
Renewable energy industry figures also welcomed it. Julia Hamm, President and CEO of the Solar Electric Power Association, said, “The historic climate agreement reached in Paris on Dec. 12 presents tremendous opportunities and challenges to all stakeholders across the U.S. energy sector to build on our country’s leadership role in the global response to climate change. Certainly, solar and other distributed energy technologies will be central to reaching U.S. climate goals going forward, as will utility knowledge and expertise, and cross-industry cooperation and collaboration.”
Climate change skeptics naturally attacked it as politically motivated and scientifically unsound. James Taylor, vice president and senior fellow for environment and energy policy at The Heartland Institute, said, “The final draft of the proposed ‘Paris Agreement’ gives disastrous primacy to politics, political correctness, and international wealth transfers at the expense of sound science. This proposed Agreement should be dead on arrival if submitted to the United States Senate.”
On that point, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a prominent critic of climate change science and the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, blasted the agreement for failing to contain meaningful legally binding provisions, which would of course have required Senate ratification. “Senate leadership has already been outspoken in its positions that the United States is not legally bound to any agreement setting emissions targets or any financial commitment to it without approval by Congress,” he said.
Clean Power Plan Support
From a practical standpoint, the COP21 deal provides additional support for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which is the primary vehicle for the U.S. to meet its commitments. The U.S. pledge at COP21 was to reduce GHG emissions by 26% by 2025. The CPP aims to reduce GHG emissions in the power sector by 32% by 2030, though it alone will not do everything.
While the CPP faces stiff opposition from Republicans in Congress as well as GOP candidates for president, and a legal challenge that could derail it, the U.S. will now not be able to rescind it without going back on its COP21 commitments, something that—supporters hope, at least—would result in substantial international criticism. Whether that will serve as a deterrent to reversing it remains to be seen.
—Thomas W. Overton, JD is a POWER associate editor (@thomas_overton, @POWERmagazine).