Some in the media seem confused about what the big international Paris climate talks in December could or could not achieve. Both the U.K. Guardian and Slate suggest that the Paris talks will be a failure if they don’t keep warming below the limit of 2°C, which scientists have said is the limit if we are to avoid dangerous impacts.
I have argued for years that we must stabilize as close as possible to 2°C — and preferably below it. But as made clear in the chart above by Climate Interactive and MIT, using their C-ROADS model, the world has been headed to the beyond catastrophic RCP8.5 pathway, which would take us ultimately to 6°C warming or more.
We have been ignoring climate scientists for so long — more than a quarter-century — that there was never a possibility that one agreement could change our emissions pathway so sharply. That’s particularly true because the individual national commitments are geared toward 2030 (or 2025). To stabilize anywhere near 2°C, you would need firm commitments from all of the major countries for steady post-2030 cuts that ultimately leading to zero global omissions by 2100. That was never going to happen.
So does that mean Paris will be a failure? EU climate chief Miguel Arias Canete says no: “2C is an objective. If we have an ongoing process you can not say it is a failure if the mitigation commitments do not reach 2C.” Slate says you can say it is a failure because 2°C “is the entire goal of the U.N. climate negotiations. That’s it. That’s what the world is fighting for. All of the eggs have been put in that basket.”
I don’t think one can call Paris a failure merely because it doesn’t create an agreement that would limit warming to 2°C, much as we ultimately need to keep to that limit. Let me use an example I have written about many times before, “the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer,” which is widely viewed as having saved the ozone layer from being destroyed by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other chemicals.
The 1987 agreement called for a 50 percent cut in CFC production by 1999. Significantly, the protocol’s targets and timetables slowed the rate of growth of concentrations only slightly and would have still led to millions of extra cases of skin cancer by midcentury. Further, the protocol allowed developing countries to delay implementing the control measures for about 10 years. It also required rich countries to give developing ones access to alternative chemicals and technologies, together with financial aid.
Nevertheless, President Reagan endorsed the protocol, and the Senate ratified it. By the end of 1988, 29 countries and the European Economic Community — but not China or India — had ratified it. The treaty came into effect the next year. But it took many more years of negotiations, continuous strengthening of the scientific consensus, and significant concessions to developing countries before amendments to the treaty were strong enough and had enough support from both rich and poor countries to ensure that CFC concentrations in the air would be reduced.
Although the ozone layer and the Montreal Protocol are as close an analogy as there is to global warming and the U.N. negotiation process, I’ll be the first to admit it is far from perfect. Greenhouse gases are more integral to modern life than CFCs ever were. American politics has changed a lot in the past quarter century, and conservatives would no doubt unanimously oppose the Montreal Protocol today, especially without ratification by China and India. Yet this small first step by the rich nations jump-started a multiyear process that saved the ozone layer and prevented millions of cases of skin cancer.
Paris will “not get us onto the 2°C pathway,” as Christiana Figueres, the top UN climate official, acknowledged to reporters. Again, that wouldn’t be possible without every major player agreeing to specific and serious post 2030 cuts, an outcome that was never on the table. There are simply too many major political leaders in this country and in other key countries who simply do not understand how dire the situation is — in part because of the most well-funded disinformation campaign in history, coupled with an equally well-funded lobbying campaign against climate action.
Certainly Paris should reaffirm that the goal of the ongoing process is to get onto the 2°C path. Failure to ultimately avert catastrophic climate change would rightly be judged by future generations as the greatest failure in the history of humanity — though that failure will be tied to all of us, not just those directly involved in the U.N. negotiation process. And I do hope the team of business leaders led by Richard Branson has success pushing us toward a “net-zero emissions target for 2050.”
But what the world has desperately needed to do is to get as far as possible from the unimaginably catastrophic business-as-usual path to 6°C — and down a sharply different path — ASAP. That would give the next generation a plausible chance at getting close to a 2°C path in the 2020s and 2030s when stronger action will become more viable as it becomes harder to deny the painful reality of just how desperate our situation is — and as the accelerated deployment of clean energy technologies required to meet national commitments made in Paris make achieving 2C even more super-cheap.
What would it mean if there is a serious global agreement coming out of Paris (which is by no means assured). To quote Winston Churchill’s remarks after the Allies defeated Rommel for the Battle of Egypt in the fall of 1942, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”