How the Paris Climate Deal Happened and Why It Matters

One month after the terror attacks that traumatized Paris, the city has produced a climate agreement that is being hailed as a massive expression of hope. On Monday the U.K. Guardian dubbed the Paris Agreement, “the world’s greatest diplomatic success.” Distant observers may be tempted to discount such effusive language as hyperbole, yet there are reasons to be optimistic that last weekend’s climate deal finally sets the world on course towards decisive mutual action against global climate change.

The birthing process clearly sets Paris apart from earlier efforts at global climate action, such as the Kyoto Protocol crafted in 1997. Only last-minute intervention by then U.S. Vice President Al Gore clinched a deal at Kyoto, and its impact faded as first the United States and then other major producers of greenhouse gases declined to ratify the treaty or dropped out.

High-level diplomacy to secure a Paris deal, in contrast, began building in earnest last year with a bilateral climate agreement between U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s Xi Jinping—representing the largest climate polluters and, respectively, the developed and developing worlds. Global buy-in grew over the following 12 months as one nation after another anted in with their own emissions reduction plans. “Heading into Paris, more than 180 countries producing more than 90 percent of global emissions had submitted [pledges], a much broader response than many had anticipated,” according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES).

Broad political backing was then decisively reaffirmed on day one of the two-week talks, which 150 world leaders attended in the largest single-day gathering ever of heads of state. Their presence empowered negotiators to move beyond entrenched positions according to the Guardian’s deal-making narrative. Angela Merkel secured a personal pledge from Vladimir Putin that major oil and gas exporter Russia would not block a deal. Obama huddled with Xi Jinping and Indian president Narendra Modi, as well as with leaders of some of the least developed and thus most vulnerable of the 196 nations present.

Developing high-level trust helped overcome the toughest disagreements, according to The Guardian, after a “coalition of high ambition” formed in the final days between less-developed countries and some big developed countries, including Canada. The latter, often seen as a deal-blocker at earlier climate talks, came to Paris with new marching order after October elections in which Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau defeated the Conservative Party led by the Albertan oil and gas supporter Stephen Harper.

Ultimately every nation counted because any one could have squelched the consensus-based negotiations. As Guardian correspondent Fiona Harvey writes, “most modern diplomacy carries on in small, self-selected groups dominated by richer countries—the G7, the G20, the OECD, Opec.” The annual UN climate talks are, “one of the last remaining forums in the world where every country, however small, is represented on the same basis and has equal say with the biggest economies.”

A second major distinction for the Paris Agreement—and one that secured support from small island nations—is that this climate deal is pegged to scientifically-defined climate targets. Whereas the Kyoto Protocol’s emissions reduction goals reflected political viability, the central stated purpose of the Paris Agreement is to “hold global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 C.”

Both targets derive from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Holding warming to 2 C is the scientific body’s consensus threshold for avoiding “catastrophic” impacts, which it says will require complete elimination of carbon emissions in the second half of the 21st Century. Faster action is required to meet the more stringent 1.5 C limit, which is the maximum warming allowable if small island nations are to be saved from sea level rise.

Prior to the Paris meeting few players were talking seriously about the 1.5 C limit, and rapidly-industrializing and coal-dependent China and India held out against its inclusion until the meeting’s final days. They ultimately accepted it in exchange for other provisions, such as a guarantee that developed countries will provide $100 billion per year to help developing countries comply with the deal and adapt to climate change. As Prime Minister Modi puts it: “Climate justice won.”

World leaders agreed to these science-based criteria for success knowing full well that they were not yet capable of hitting the targets. The pre-Paris action plans their nations submitted were estimated to put the world on a path for a temperature rise of 2.7 C or greater.

However, the deal includes antidotes to this apparent “reality gap,” creating mechanisms for assessing national action plans, verifying progress towards achieving them, and regularly increasing their ambition. These pathways for future emissions reductions are the number one source of post-Paris optimism for Jennifer Morgan, global director for the climate program at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization.

Instead of defining legally-binding reductions for a set period as the Kyoto Protocol had—and thus setting the Paris Agreement on a path to similarly circumscribed impact—the Paris Agreement requires nations to set their own plans for emissions reductions. But it also demands that they update and tighten their plans regularly, and calls for transparent mechanisms for reporting and verifying progress.

By 2020 and every five years thereafter, wrote Morgan in a blog post early this week, countries will submit more ambitious action plans. There will also be a five-year global review of collective progress. The numbers will be both transparent, and verifiable. “Universal and harmonized accounting, reporting and verification requirements will hold all countries accountable,” according to Morgan.

Elliot Diringer, C2ES’ executive vice president, agrees: “This cycle of commitment—tell us what you’ll do, show us you’re doing it, tell us what you’ll do next—will strengthen confidence that all countries are doing their fair share. And that will make it easier for each to do more.”

One final reason to believe that the Paris Agreement is worth more than its papier: the reaction of global stock markets, where coal firms sank and renewable stocks surged on Monday in response to the deal.“The transition to clean energy will take place on a long and bumpy road, but investors appear to be taking the transition seriously,” noted oilprice.com yesterday.

Reuters cited several analysts whose views captured the market assessment, including a note from London-based financial services firm Barclays that summed up the deal thusly: “We think the Paris agreement represents a strong outcome and will therefore help boost the long-term fundamentals of the capital-goods and low-carbon power-generation sectors while weakening the long-term fundamentals of fossil-fuel industries.”

Even Greenpeace—the environmental movement’s most respectable outsiders—took a moment to be (semi) hopeful in a statement by Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International: “It sometimes seems that the countries of the UN can unite on nothing, but nearly 200 countries have come together and agreed a deal. Today, the human race has joined in a common cause… The deal alone won’t dig us out of the hole that we’re in, but it makes the sides less steep.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Paris Climate Talks Facing Growing Carbon Emissions and Credibility Gaps

Credit: Peter Fairley

EN GARDE! Paris treaty pledges are still too rich, and contain some iffy ingredients

Three weeks before the start of the Paris climate talks, negotiators working to craft an international agreement to curb rising global greenhouse gas emissions are staring into a wide gulf between what countries are willing to do and what they need to do. Most countries have stepped up with pledges to meaningfully cut carbon emissions or to at least slow the growth of emission totals between 2020 and 2030. However, national commitments for the Paris talks still fall short of what’s needed to prevent the average global temperature in 2100 from being any more than 2 degrees Celsius warmer than at the start of this century—the international community’s consensus benchmark for climate impact.

Worse still, the national pledges employ a hodgepodge of accounting methods that include some significant loopholes that ignore important emissions such as leaking methane from U.S. oil and gas production and underreported coal emissions from China. How the promised emissions reductions will be verified post-Paris is “a big debate right now and it makes a massive difference in the numbers,” says Jennifer Morgan, global director for the climate program at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization. Continue reading

Solar Power Towers Aren’t the Avian Annihilators Once Thought

Solar power towers have had a reputation as alleged avian vaporizers since preliminary reports emerged in 2014 of birds being burned in mid-air as they flew through the intense photonic flux at California’s Ivanpah solar thermal plant. Their reputation was muddied even more during tests early this year at SolarReserve’s Crescent Dunes power tower in Nevada; the solar thermal plant just recently began producing power. California public radio station KCET reported that as many as 150 birds were killed during one six-hour test in January.

It is obviously upsetting to imagine birds ignited in the name of renewable energy. (KCET reporter Chris Clarke, who has tracked the issue since BrightSource Energy began building Ivanpah in the Mojave Desert, described burning birds as “beyond the pale” in a recent article suggesting that power towers may be finished in California.)

But, upsetting as any killing of birds is, avian mortality is a downside common to many modern human creations—including buildings, highways, and powerlines. The best data on bird mortality at Ivanpah, macabre as it might be, shows the death rate to be small and likely of little ecological significance.

Meanwhile, operational adjustments at both Ivanpah and Crescent Dunes are pushing avian impacts even further below levels that could threaten local bird populations. “The data does support a low level of avian mortalities and hopefully, through adaptive management and deterrence, it will go even lower,” says Magdalena Rodriguez, a senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Continue reading

Startup Time for Fukushima’s Frozen Wall. Here’s Why it Should Work.

Readying refrigeration lines at Fukushima to create a 30-meter-deep frozen barrier against groundwater

Readying refrigeration lines to create a 30-meter-deep frozen barrier against groundwater

Japan’s TEPCO is about to flip the switch on the infamous ‘ice wall’ intended to divert flowing groundwater around its crippled reactors at Fukushima and thus help stem the contamination of fresh groundwater at the site. The widely mischaracterized and maligned installation—which is a barrier of frozen soil rather than a wall of ice—has every chance of delivering the hoped for results, say radiation cleanup experts at U.S. national laboratories and feedback from initial system tests.

“The frozen barrier is going to work,” predicts Brian Looney, senior advisory engineer at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina and co-author of an independent assessment of TEPCO’s frozen barrier. The report, produced in collaboration with researchers at Looney’s lab and at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, was completed in February but only released late last month; it found the system’s design to be sound and within the bounds of prior practice. Continue reading

Arizona Utility Blinks in Bitter Battle Over Rooftop Solar

Arizona’s biggest utility, Arizona Public Service, is withdrawing its bid to jack up monthly fees for rooftop solar users in its territory. The retreat, tendered last week to the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), capped an eventful month in the high-stakes battle between utilities and solar advocates that’s raging across Arizona rooftops. The party with the most bruises is not Arizona Public Service (APS), however, but the ACC itself. The elected body referees the state’s power markets, but all five of its commissioners now face accusations of bias that challenge their ability to fairly adjudicate the rooftop solar dispute.

Arizona’s solar dispute is hot, but not unique. Across the United States utilities are fighting to contain or eliminate “net metering” policies Continue reading

Carbon Polluters Fund XPrize to Repurpose Their Emissions

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Unique plant in San Antonio converts CO2 to minerals and chemicals. Photo: Skyonic

XPRIZE—the organization behind grand technology challenges such as the race to space won in 2004 by SpaceShipOne and current contests to land a Lunar rover and a Star Trek-style medical tricorder—unveiled a competition today that tackles a more mundane yet critical challenge: transforming carbon dioxide emissions from power plants into saleable products to help slow or reverse climate change. The competition’s $20 million kitty has been raised from major carbon emitters: a coalition of oil and gas producers producing high-carbon oil from Alberta’s oilsands, and New Jersey-based electric utility NRG Energy. Continue reading

First Place Finish for Outstanding Reporting on the Environment

SEJ-Awards-logo_1Time to toot my horn. The Society of Environmental Journalists has honoured my work in their 2015 Awards for Reporting on the Environment. I took first place in Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large Market, for “History, Technology, Politics and Impact of Solar Power” — a series of articles published in MIT Technology Review and IEEE Spectrum magazines:

Can Japan Recapture Its Solar Power?
Topaz Turns On 9 Million Solar Panels
Hawaii’s Solar Push Strains the Grid
How Rooftop Solar Can Stabilize the GridContinue reading