Coverage of the 2015 Paris climate talks
from The Christian Science Monitor
In December, diplomats from nearly 200 countries meet in Paris to finalize an international climate agreement. The aim is to limit greenhouse-gas emissions – and the warming those emissions cause – to within a safe range. Decades of global talks have struggled to produce meaningful, unified climate action, but there are reasons to believe this time will be different. Ultimately, what happens in and after Paris – a city still reeling from a violent terrorist act – will shape life on Earth in the 21st century.
If you're new to the topic, start with our Paris background briefing, and explore our map of national climate pledges. From there you can read the Monitor's best pre-Paris energy and climate stories and check out recaps of our Path-to-Paris events. For the latest updates, news, and observations, keep tabs on our Paris notebook. You can also sign up below to get e-mail updates from Monitor energy editor David Unger, who will be in Paris covering the talks. Questions? Comments? E-mail David at ungerd [at] csmonitor.com and follow him on Twitter @dungerdunger.
Latest Paris news and quick dispatches on energy and climate
Dec. 19, 2015 • BOSTON
In a plane, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean (Author photo)
Two days after the Paris climate summit, I sat in an Airbus A330 and watched a tanker pump fuel into the plane. After all the visions of a post-carbon future, there in plain sight was the present reality of our dependence on fossil fuels.
This is a longstanding paradox: Climate summits demand large quantities of the very energy sources they aim to curtail. Tens of thousands of participants fly from all corners of the world, leaving streams of heat-trapping emissions in their wake. Organizers have yet to tally COP21’s exact carbon footprint, but they estimate that the construction and dismantling of the site – along with local travel of attendees – will amount to 21,000 tons of CO2 equivalent.
Critics often use this to disparage global climate efforts, but participants understand the contradiction. “I’m not Alice in Wonderland,” UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres told the New Yorker earlier this year. “You and I are sitting here, in this gorgeous apartment, enjoying this fantastic privilege, because of fossil fuels.” It’s why COP21 attendees were given the opportunity to offset their climate impact, and summit organizers tick off multiple efforts to minimize emissions at the site itself. Ultimately, though, the idea is that you have to burn carbon to save carbon.
Diagram of a turbofan engine (NASA)
There on the tarmac, waiting to fly back home, the enormity of the challenge ahead was clear. The Paris Agreement requires that we “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.” In other words, every plane, car, train, ship, building, and power plant will have to be emissions-free. Either that, or we’ll have to rapidly scale up technology that captures and stores emissions from those and other sources.
What exactly will that look like? In a handful of decades, will I sit in a plane and watch as some ultra-dense, corn-based fuel is pumped into my jet? Or will batteries be compact enough to send a commercial airliner across the Atlantic Ocean? Might we have nuclear-powered planes like the uranium-fueled submarines we’ve already had for decades? Perhaps some yet unknowable energy technology will answer these and other questions.
In 1927, Charles Lindbergh made the very first solo flight across the Atlantic. He landed at Le Bourget Field, adjacent to the site of this year’s climate talks. It took 33 hours to travel from Long Island, cramped in a 220-horsepower, single-engine plane loaded with 400 gallons of gasoline. The historic flight demonstrated the possibilities of air travel and helped to launch the sprawling industry we take for granted today.
“I was astonished at the effect my successful landing in France had on the nations of the world,” Mr. Lindbergh would later write. “To me, it was like a match lighting a bonfire.”
Could Lindbergh have ever imagined the Airbus A330? Could he ever have pictured the ease with which we cross oceans today?
Charles Lindbergh (Library of Congress)
Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg probably come closest to being Charles Lindberghs of the 21st century. The two pilots are the brains behind the Solar Impulse, an experimental aircraft that runs only on the power of the sun. Earlier this year, they failed to complete the first flight around world without any fuel, after battery issues grounded their aircraft. Even Mr. Piccard and Mr. Borschberg admit their solar-powered plane is unlikely to revolutionize air travel. It takes too many solar panels to match the thrust created by 37,000 gallons of kerosene. Instead, their intent is to show off what renewable energy is capable of.
Still, who knows? If the world fulfills the promise of the Paris Agreement, something other than heavily-processed oil will have to power our planes. Say what you will about fossil fuels, they are very good at moving humans from point A to point B. That’s what makes them so very hard to shake.
In a March interview with CNBC, Piccard recalled his earlier experience circumventing the globe in a hot air balloon fueled by propane gas. When the balloon finally landed, he said, it had only 40 kilograms of liquid propane out of the 3.7 tonnes it started with.
“At this moment, I really understood what it means to be dependent on fossil energy, and I made the promise that the next time I would fly around the world it would be with no fuel at all, to be able to be free to fly forever,” he told CNBC. “Actually this is how Solar Impulse was born, the idea really is to fly day and night with no fuel with an unlimited perpetual endurance.”
Solar Impulse (AP)
– David J. Unger
Dec. 18, 2015 • BOSTON
Evolution of an article
Only the final version of the Paris agreement ultimately counts, but how that final version took shape reveals a lot. Looking at the process behind the product sheds light on what kinds of conversations took place in closed-doors negotiations. What options were put on the table, which remained, and which were left on the proverbial cutting room floor?
Article 2 of the Paris Agreement provides a useful case study. In this section, authors of the Paris Agreement attempt to define its very raison d’être. What is the purpose of this text? Why does this agreement even need to exist? This slideshow shows how even this basic question gave negotiators plenty to debate.
–David J. Unger
Dec. 12, 2015 • LE BOURGET, FRANCE
Adoption of the Paris Agreement
French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius (C), President-designate of COP21 and Christiana Figueres (L), Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, react during the final plenary session at Le Bourget, France. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)
At roughly 7:26 pm Paris time – after a quibble over “shall” vs. “should” language in the text – French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius quickly gaveled through the adoption of the Paris Agreement.
You can read the final text here: Paris Agreement
You can read the full CSMonitor.com story here: Rich and poor nations agree to first-ever global climate deal
– David J. Unger
Tracking climate pledges across the globe
Source: CAIT Climate Data Explorer (World Resources Institute)
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What you need to know about the Paris climate talks
Negotiators from 195 countries are set to meet in the Paris suburb of Le Bourget for two weeks, beginning Nov. 30, to wrap up a new, historic pact to limit global warming. A heavy handed, top-down approach hasn’t worked. Now, countries are pinning their hopes on an amped-up, “Stone Soup” approach.
What makes this agreement historic?
For the first time, nearly all countries are committing to some level of action. On the question of participation, this erodes the historical divide between developed and developing countries. To get there, however, negotiators jettisoned specific greenhouse-gas emissions targets imposed in a binding treaty. Those targets have been replaced by an overall goal countries have accepted: to hold global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. Each country determines how much it can contribute to curbing emissions – mainly through cuts or a reduction in the growth rate of emissions – that collectively put the world on the 2-degree path.
The commitments countries are offering now would be reached by 2030, and in some cases 2025. They represent the first step in a process that would lead to periodic reviews and intensification of these efforts until atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse-gases, mainly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuel, are stabilized at a level that holds warming to 2 degrees C.
What do the commitments look like?
More than 150 countries have submitted “intended nationally determined commitments” (INDCs), according to Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. These countries represent about 90 percent of global emissions. The commitments vary in ambition. Each country sets it own baseline against which it gauges progress. And some commitments are contingent on receiving financial help.
China has pledged to slow the growth in its CO2 emissions so that they peak around 2030. That includes a pledge to increase the share of electricity generated by renewable and nuclear sources to 20 percent by 2030. The US has pledged to cut carbon emissions to at least 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Others, such as Ethiopia or Guatemala, use “business as usual” projections as their baselines and hold part or all of their emission pledges contingent on receiving aid to pay for green-energy technologies and for adaptation.
What impact will these have on emissions/climate?
By various estimates these commitments represent a move in the right direction compared with business as usual. But if they all are fully implemented and nothing more is done in the interim, they will have placed the planet on a path to around 3 degrees C by 2030 rather than 2 degrees. The draft agreement recognizes this, however. It envisions regular reviews aimed at gauging progress and intensifying efforts. If the reviews are set up at five-year intervals, as many expect, the first likely would come in 2020.
What gives people hope that it will work?
Climate-policy specialists cite several factors. One of the most important is a change in attitude about dealing with climate change. With time, countries have become more aware of how global warming is affecting them. At the same time, strategies that once seemed burdensome are increasingly seen as economic opportunities, notes Taryn Fransen, a climate-policy specialist with World Resources Institute in Washington who leads an international collaboration tracking the INDCs and efforts to fulfill them. And renewable technologies are taking hold faster than many had predicted and that many economic models are reflecting.
Still, that growth still may not be enough, others argue. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has noted that to hold warming to 2 degrees by 2100, countries will need another arrow in their quivers: the use of bioenergy combined with trapping the CO2 emissions and sequestering that carbon underground. Both are controversial and for now, neither is available on a scale that would meet the climate need.
What are the remaining hurdles to the agreement?
One critical element is money: How much aid will be forthcoming for developing countries and what sore of compensation might there be for loss and damage? The US, for instance, is working to ensure that the agreement had no language that implies open-ended liability on the part of developed countries for the damage global warming inflicts on developing countries. That issue may await the final week of the talks to get sorted out, notes Alden Meyer, with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.
And developing countries still have doubts about the credibility of past commitments from rich countries to increase access to financing for climate-related projects. Rich nations pledged $100 billion by 2020. Even when that is met, questions remain about what follows. Developing countries are looking for language that shows aid will continue and increase, even if the specifics aren’t set.
Another issue is the gap between the commitments and emissions reductions needed to put the planet on the 2-degree path and how that will be addressed. Some sort of review process will come out of the talks, Mr. Meyer says. “But how they are couched and how effective they will be, and whether they really create an opening to stand back and look a this again in four or five years – that’s a question.”
“These are the issues that will go late into the last night” during the talks, he adds.
Top photo: A passerby walks in front of posters for the forthcoming climate summit in Paris. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters/File)