An Insider’s Guide to COP21

“COP21” is shorthand for “Conference of the Parties 21,” which tells you absolutely nothing. You could call it the “2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference,” but that gives you little more than a vague outline of what it is. In truth, COP21 is a fairly simple concept and can be explained like so: Countries from all over the world are going to meet up in Paris at the end of this month and try to decide the best way to keep the world from getting any hotter.

Logo for COP21. (Image via UNFCCC)

Logo for COP21. (Image via UNFCCC)

When you put it that way, it doesn’t sound so bad. In fact, the delegates are only going to try and keep the planet from warming more than two degrees by the end of this century. The best and brightest policymakers from the United Nations and all they have to worry about is two lousy degrees in 85 years? Piece of cake, right?

Sure, if the cake was made of terrifying consequences.

Why Two Degrees Makes All the Difference

What would happen if the world got just two degrees warmer? Doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? Walk outside when it’s 24℃ (75℉) and it won’t feel much different than when it’s 22℃ (71.6℉). But the problem with that analogy is that it’s extremely localized. Two degrees really doesn’t make much of a difference when you’re standing on your front doorstep. That’s the kind of weather that happens every day. But what if the warming wasn’t localized? What if it was everywhere?

Think about this: The surface area of your average doorstep is less than one square meter. The surface area of the Earth is 510 billion times bigger than that. So what would it take to warm the whole planet 2℃? A lot more heat than any Earthling would enjoy.

Sunset. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Sunset. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Here’s the really scary part: Humans have never lived on a planet that’s two degrees warmer than it was before the Industrial Revolution. According to NASA’s Earth Observatory, the planet is about 0.8℃ warmer now than it was in 1880. Some variation in the planet’s temperature is natural over time, but two-thirds of that increase has taken place in just the last 40 years. Why is that?

Well, ever since we started burning fossil fuels like coal and oil, we’ve added more carbon into Earth’s atmosphere than it would naturally receive, such as from wildfires and the occasional volcanic eruption. And when there’s more carbon in the atmosphere, the atmosphere traps more thermal energy from the sun. In other words, the more gas we pump into the atmosphere, the hotter we make the planet. It takes a lot of pumping to warm the planet, but we’ve been doing it for a long time.

And here’s the thing about the planet: It is a very complicated machine. Warm a living room by two degrees and it’s relatively unchanged, warm a 510 billion square meter sphere teeming with oceans, weather systems and ecosystems by two degrees and the impact is almost incalculable. There are, however, a few things we can expect:

Also, according to a recent study, climate change is terrible for your sex life, but that’s none of my business.

Image: Flickr

Image: Flickr

How can two degrees of warming cause so much damage? Because it’s doubling down on the laundry list of disasters we’ve already experienced with less than one degree of warming. Remember, the global average temperature has risen 0.8℃ since records began in 1880. As NASA explains, the amount of energy required to do that can literally change the face of the Earth. “A one-degree global change is significant because it takes a vast amount of heat to warm all the oceans, atmosphere, and land by that much,” the agency writes. “In the past, a one- to two-degree drop was all it took to plunge the Earth into the Little Ice Age. A five-degree drop was enough to bury a large part of North America under a towering mass of ice 20,000 years ago.”

That’s what happened when the temperature dropped. We have no conception of how bad things will get if it rises. “If we start warming the planet way beyond what humans have ever experienced, God knows what will wait for us,” Carlo Jaeger, the chair of the Global Climate Forum, told CNN in May.

And that, in a nutshell, is why COP21 matters.

Will China’s Increased Emissions Prove a Problem at COP21?

As I’ve indicated above, humanity has a problem, and that problem is carbon emissions. I mentioned that the majority of global warming has occurred in the past 40 years, and that’s in large part due to the fact that carbon emissions have increased markedly since 1975. Between then and now there are only a handful of years where carbon emissions didn’t grow with the world economy, and that was usually because those years occurred during economic downturns.

Western countries that spent the last hundred years industrializing now have the science and the technology to transition to renewable energies, but countries like China and India have only begun to catch up and are frequently using coal to do it.

Two photos taken in the same location in Beijing in August 2005. The photograph on the left was taken after it had rained for two days. The right photograph shows smog covering Beijing in what would otherwise be a sunny day.

Two photos taken in the same location in Beijing in August 2005. The photograph on the left was taken after it had rained for two days. The right photograph shows smog covering Beijing in what would otherwise be a sunny day. (Photo Credit: Bobak / WikiMedia Commons)

This has led to one of the largest controversies in the pre-COP21 negotiations, whether or not developing countries should be held to the same emission reduction standard as developed countries. (There’s also the uncomfortable reality that the United States may not be able to agree to anything at all, but I covered that headache last week.) So even though all countries agree that climate change is a problem that needs a solution, how that solution breaks down is still unknown.

Earlier this year, the US and China agreed to a joint plan to respectively reduce and cap their carbon emissions by 2030. This was major news, as the two countries emit about 45 percent of the planet’s total carbon. The historic deal was nine months in the making and symbolized a positive step towards the conference in Paris. Unfortunately, a recent study revealed that China is burning about 17 percent more coal per year than the government previously admitted.

To get some insight into how this finding will affect the COP21 negotiations, I spoke to Planet Expert Michael Mann. Dr. Mann serves as the Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State, as well as the director of its Earth System Science Center. He was a Lead Author on the Observed Climate Variability and Change chapter of IPCC’s Third Scientific Assessment Report and is perhaps best known for his book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars.

Dr. Michael Mann. Photo courtesy of Dr. Mann.

Dr. Michael Mann. Photo courtesy of Dr. Mann.

While acknowledging the new emissions figures from China, Mann pointed out that the nation is also rapidly committing to pollution-reduction policies.

“[I]t is true estimates of China’s historical coal-related carbon emissions have been revised upward,” Mann wrote in an email to Planet Experts, “it is also true that during the past few years they have reduced coal burning even faster than they had committed, meaning that their emissions will likely peak earlier than anticipated. Moreover, they are spending far more on renewable energy than we are, and they are well ahead of us in terms of climate policy (they are implementing a national cap-and-trade system; we’re nowhere near doing that right now).

“So in reality, in China we saw cause for hope, rather than pessimism, about prospects for reducing global carbon emissions.”

Is It Already Too Late to Reduce Emissions?

When the “hockey stick graph” appeared about a decade and a half ago, Dr. Mann and his colleagues were publicly slandered by conservative pundits and Big Oil reps who refused to believe in the link between fossil fuels and temperature rise. (As Dr. Mann recently pointed out, we’ve since learned that Exxon had solid evidence that fossil fuel development affects climate as early as the 1970s and chose to bury the science in a decades-long misinformation campaign.) Since that time, carbon levels in the Northern Hemisphere have reached 400 parts per million, an unprecedented saturation in recorded history.

Greenhouse gas emissions from a factory in China. (Source: Flickr)

Greenhouse gas emissions from a factory in China. (Source: Flickr)

With so much carbon in the atmosphere – and no way to suck it out – it will require a concentrated, global effort to keep emissions low as the world transitions to clean, renewable energies. The UN is trying to keep 2℃ as the benchmark for the century, even though the world would be much better off keeping warming below that threshold. As an IPCC contributor, Dr. Mann has seen policymakers become more committed to this goal over time.

“We have already seen significant commitments from the leading emitters—the U.S., China, and now India,” said Mann. “The commitments from various nations going into Paris are already enough to get us half way down (3.5C warming) from ‘business as usual’ warming of 5C to the target of 2C stabilization. It is not out of the question that negotiations in Paris could get us yet another half way there.”

Realistically, said Mann, “it is unlikely that we’ll achieve an agreement in Paris that achieves 2C stabilization,” but that goal could be reached in subsequent conferences.

What’s the Doomsday Scenario?

Not to be morbid, but there is a chance that the negotiations could completely fall apart in Paris. True, the delegates could acknowledge the fact that the island nation of Kiribati will likely be gone in the next 30 years and say, “enough’s enough, people before profit, #KeepItInTheGround, etc.,” but it’s prudent not to hold one’s breath. What if the US won’t commit to a treaty? What if developing countries feel like they’re not getting a fair shake?

cop211Even if all these worst-case scenarios come to pass, COP21 is not the point of no return, as far as climate policy goes. “In reality, COP21 isn’t the end-all of global climate policy,” said Dr. Mann. “It’s just the next step in an ongoing process that will continue to play out in the years ahead. We won’t solve the problem entirely in Paris, but there is reason to think that we can make substantial progress that we’ll be able to build upon in subsequent conferences.”

And while Mann acknowledged that Congress is unlikely to side with Obama on climate policy, the world is not so keen to ignore reality. “We are making progress,” said Mann. “Outright climate change denial is becoming increasingly marginalized as people see the impacts of climate change with their own two eyes. The greatest threat we face is no longer from science deniers, who are largely dismissed by the adults at the table. The greatest threat we face now is from defeatism and cynicism, from those who dismiss the possibility of stabilizing warming below dangerous levels, based on similarly intellectually bankrupt reasoning. We must not allow those voices to achieve the self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and doom. That is the greatest danger at this point.”

Ken Berlin, the President of the Climate Reality Project, told Planet Experts something very similar at their recent seminar in Miami: Urgency is key. “People have to make this a critical issue and take action now,” said Berlin. “The really critical message is, if you believe in this then you’ve got to get involved, you’ve got to tell your representatives that you want action on climate change. They’ve got to know that you, Joe or Jane Smith, want action on climate change.”

While expressing little confidence in Congressional Republicans and right wing interests like the Koch brothers and the Scaife Foundations, Dr. Mann said there’s a lot to be hopeful for at the federal and local level.

“That includes the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, which requires substantial reductions in carbon emissions from power generation (the largest single contributor) and the EPA’s stricter fuel efficiency standards (transportation being the second largest contributor),” he wrote. “Combined with the efforts at the municipal and state level (30 percent of the U.S. population resides in states that are now part of regional carbon-pricing consortia, including the west coast states and the New England states), our representatives can sit at the table in Paris with other heads of state, confident that we have done our part to work towards a solution.”

For a handy visual of how carbon fills the atmosphere and what steps can be taken to reduce emissions, check out the infographic below, created by The World Resources Institute. (Click on the image to embiggen.)

What Is the Carbon Budget?

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2 Responses

  1. Radical Rodent says:

    Humans have never lived on a planet that’s two degrees warmer than it was before the Industrial Revolution.

    Well, that is contrary to a lot of data that I have seen: the Mediaeval Warm Period has long been acknowledged to be warmer than the present; the Roman Warm Period even warmer, and the Minoan Warm period warmer still. Now, with the world having warmed some 1.5K since before the Industrial Revolution, you imply that we have only 0.5K to go before… what? Disaster? Catastrophe? All the points of fear you tell us to expect are highly unlikely – you are just engaged in fear-mongering.

    • I’m sorry you feel that way, Radical, but this is what the science is telling us. Unfortunately, not knowing the difference between “fear mongering” and reporting patterns, facts and data is what’s caused us to drag this problem out for so long. And what the data tell us is that the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere has not been higher than 400 ppm in at least 800,000 years. From what I’ve read of the Roman Warm Period, climate is estimated to have been around what it was at 2,000 AD. I can’t speak to the Minoan. And while climate variation is normal in geologic and historical terms, the warming that we’re seeing in the current era is being exacerbated by anthropocene (human) means. Fully 97.1 percent of climate scientists attest to this, which to us seems pretty far from fear-mongering. Planet Experts definitely recommends reading more on the subject, and we have plenty of articles from both our staff and our experts that explain it in more detail.

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