There’s a New Sheriff in Town: COP 21

And I don’t mean Paul Blart in a new “Mall Cop” movie. I’m talking about the historic international climate agreement reached in Paris last month.

COP 21 is the name given to the 21st convening of the Conference of the Parties (COP), the group of 195 countries that have ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). After early international gatherings, such as the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the UNFCCC Convention in 1994: a.) recognized there was a climate problem, and b.) set the goal of stabilizing greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations to prevent climate destruction from human-caused impacts. Using the 1987 Montreal Protocol as a model, the Convention based its goal on the premise that: to avoid disaster, members must act in the interest of human safety even in the face of scientific uncertainty. Since then the COP countries have convened annually to review progress and use the growing body of climate research to establish additional agreements and protocols for achieving the Convention’s goal.2015ClimateAgreement

There is quite a bit of detail in the 29 Articles of the COP 21 Paris agreement, some of it unfortunately obfuscated by jargon and dense language, as described by SBC’s Jill Sanford. But key highlights include:

1. An agreement to prevent the global climate from warming more than 2.0 º C (3.6 ºF). There is also an eventual goal to limit warming to 1.5 ºC, pending further study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

2. Plans to reduce human-caused GHG emissions to what can be absorbed naturally. The Agreement pledges that the world will work toward net GHG emission neutrality, which is a point where humans will emit only as many GHGs as can be absorbed naturally by plants, oceans, and soil.

3. Countries must be transparent. Countries must actively inventory their emitted GHGs, set reduction goals, report on progress and potentially update their targets every five years.

One of the most important advancements may be the emphasis on changing how the financial system treats climate issues. To strain the film analogy once more, if you saw the movie “The Big Short” you saw how financial institutions can influence development through their investment policies, for better or for worse. The Paris agreement calls for economic strategies and policies to incorporate sustainability concepts such as natural capital and ecosystem service benefits. All parties are encouraged to see this as an opportunity to spur markets and create new jobs in a growing low-carbon economy. By knowing that clean energy and other climate initiatives are an international priority, private industry can step up with more confidence.

There are already more Americans working in the so-called “green-collar” workforce than there are in the fossil fuel industry, a fact that was groundtruthed by Politifact. California is at the forefront of this movement, with innovations such as carbon pricing through the Greenhouse Gas Cap and Trade Auction system, the statewide climate action plan known as Safeguarding California, and early and ongoing investments in renewable energy.

Before we finish our popcorn and go home, however, much remains to be done. Existing global GHG reduction commitments are not strict enough to meet the 2.0 º C limit in temperature rise, let alone the 1.5 º C limit under consideration. The energy used to move water from place to place – an issue not only in the U.S. but also in large countries like India and Africa – is also not addressed, nor are the devastating impacts of climate change on habitat. But COP 21, and its expanded focus on private industry to drive innovation, gives us a good starting place. As one Obama Administration official put it, COP 21 gets us to base camp – we still have a ways to go to reach the summit (I’ll spare you the final movie reference here).

Image courtesy of the Associated Press