COP21 in review: A scientific viewpoint

The deal reached in last December’s climate conference in Paris was in many ways unprecedented diplomatic and political ground. The levels of compromise and agreement shown by such a large number of countries worldwide has rarely been seen on a global scale, and merits huge praise for everybody involved. Consequently, the general consensus has been that Paris was a success, especially considering how disastrous the Copenhagen conference was in 2009. However, it is less clear, or commonly discussed in the media, how successful the deal was from a scientific point of view. Put simply – does the deal match the severity of the issue at hand?

It is rarely pleasant or constructive to be negative about something that has quite rightly gained a lot of praise and been the source for much hope in the effort against climate change. However, when reviewing the deal made in Paris in the context of science, it is very difficult to be quite so upbeat. There are positive aspects of the deal of course, in particular the $100 billion a year by 2020 for climate financing for developing countries. This money is to be provided by developed nations, and it will be available to help developing countries mitigate the effects of climate change and also invest in sustainable technologies and economies.

Like much of the Paris agreement, this clause will not come into full functioning until 2020 and this is a problem throughout the Paris agreement. The adoption of the Paris deal will not take place until 2020 because of the political process it is required to undergo, but this timeframe simply does not match the severity of the action that is required to effectively combat climate change. Another problem with the Paris deal is some of the language used in the agreement is, at best, wooly:

“To keep global temperatures “well below” 2.0°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial times and “endeavour to limit” them even more, to 1.5°C”

“To limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the same levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally, beginning at some point between 2050 and 2100”

“To review each country’s contribution to cutting emissions every five years so they scale up to the challenge

These are three of the main components of the Paris deal so why is the language quite so vague? Most likely it is because producing clear legislation that, in some cases is legally binding, for dates that are often decades into the future is extremely difficult. In addition, getting all the attending parties to support these pledges will have most probably required a significant watering down of the language used to stem any concerns of the agreement being at detriment to governments or economies. However, this justification is political, not scientific, and one cannot escape from that scientifically the Paris deal is inept, and that whilst it is important for science to mould itself to be compatible with political processes, these political processes have to accommodate and recognise the severity of the situation at hand.

One major area of concern is the new 1.5°C global temperature rise target (relative to pre-industrial global temperatures). Global average temperatures are already almost past the 1°C increase level, so to suggest a 1.5°C limit, particularly given the lack of immediate action likely is extremely unrealistic. Data sourced from Climate Action Tracker suggests that the pledges made in Paris will reduce warming to around 2.7°C by 2100, and even this figure may not be the limit of warming seen. There are several reasons for this, primarily being that there is a lag time between peak greenhouse gas emissions and peak global temperatures. Explanation of this lag time can be found in detail here on the IPCC’s (UN’s climate panel) website, but it centres around the dynamic way in which the Earth’s climate functions. Changes in the Earth’s climate are not linear and are rarely single. If one system or branch of climate experiences a change, there will inevitably be knock-on effects that may increase that change.

For example, the melting of sea ice in the Arctic can further warm the climate because less of the Artic ocean is a bright white colour from ice coverage, meaning less solar radiation is reflected back to space. Instead the solar radiation is absorbed by the darker ocean and incorporated into the climate system. This process is commonly known as a climate feedback loop and they are a key component of Earth’s climate. Further problems with the 1.5°C arise when one considers the resonance time of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Whilst there is continued debate around the exact length of time that certain greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere, it is clear that once emitted several greenhouse gases will remain in the atmosphere for a prolonged number of years, increasing the severity of lag time between peak greenhouse gas emissions and peak global temperatures.

In a letter to the Independent newspaper last month, a group of academics argued that the deal in Paris was in many ways a setback for the fight against climate change, and that it provided false hope on the issue. They too acknowledged that the deal was a significant diplomatic achievement, but suggested that scientifically it had pushed the world closer to being forced to employ controversial geo-engineering techniques that manipulate the climate system to mitigate climate change. More can be learnt about these geo-engineering methods via the article, and whilst I don’t fully agree with their level of negativity towards the agreement, it is a worrying verdict and one that points towards expensive and artificial mitigation techniques.

Like I mentioned at the start, it is never nice to be so negative about such an important issue that diplomatically went pretty well and should still be seen as an achievement. If anything, I think Paris has demonstrated the very different timescales that politics and Earth Science’s operate on. Politics is renowned for focusing upon short term progress because of it’s inherent nature, whereas Earth Science’s operate on massive geological timescales that have lag times and knock-on effects that are difficult to foresee as a politician or diplomat. Unfortunately the depressing truth remains realistically the Paris deal really was nothing more than inadequate if one considers the message science is telling us.

Going forward? There needs to be a greater scientific influence in the political spectrum, particularly on this issue, but there also needs to be a wider consideration of the problem at hand. The challenge we face is not just about climate. It centers around the unsustainability and inefficiency of our lifestyles and civilisations, particularly in the developed world. In their letter to the Independent, the group of academics highlighted the problem with what many people probably expected for the Paris conference:

“What people wanted to hear was that an agreement had been reached on climate change that would save the world while leaving lifestyles and aspirations unchanged.”

As previously mentioned, science has to get better at applying itself to a political environment, but on this issue the ball is now firmly in the political side of the court. Politicians and diplomats have to respond to the clear messages about climate change. The ‘argument’ on the matter is done and anyone who suggests otherwise is defying common sense. It is true that scientists can do a better job of translating the problems of climate change to the public, but for effective and rapid change to happen governments need to lead the way. Paris may not have produced the severity of change needed, but hopefully it can be a starting point.

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Chris Holdsworth 8 Articles
My writing interests spawn from my studies in Earth Sciences. The natural world fascinates and amazes me, but engaging and involving others in science is my greatest passion because of the ever-growing need for interest and understanding of the natural world.

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