After two weeks of intense negotiations at a UN summit in Paris, leaders of 195 countries reached an historic agreement to limit the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the atmosphere to warm. The agreement creates a new bottom-up infrastructure for managing carbon emissions, with each country pledging emissions reductions targets and agreeing to regular, transparent reporting of their successes or failures in meeting them. The new framework will use global peer pressure: Countries that fail to meet their commitments will be named and shamed in a global setting. But while the new agreement calls for limiting the rise in global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), it’s not clear that this essentially voluntary approach to managing emissions will work. For this ambitious yet necessary goal to be achieved, global emissions must peak by 2030 and the world needs to be net-zero by 2050. The accumulated carbon in the atmosphere then needs be drawn down so it doesn’t continue to warm the planet far into the future.
The world’s temperatures have already increased 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. The current commitments of the world’s governments from now through 2020 now only make up half of the further decrease in emissions needed to stave off scientists’ doomsday scenarios. But under the new framework, countries will only take stock every 5 years, revising their earlier pledges, and ratcheting up their emissions reductions targets. In reality, this means an almost-constant campaign to bring pressure on leading emitters to further reduce their emissions, explains Bill McKibben, a critic of the deal, in an op-ed in The New York Times. He argues that, “what this means is that we need to build the movement even bigger in the coming years, so that the Paris agreement turns into a floor and not a ceiling for action.”
Still, many commentators argue the Paris agreement is critical because it sent the loudest and clearest signal yet to financial and energy companies that the shift to clean energy, like wind and solar power, must occur more rapidly. The countries that signed the Paris climate agreement are now all on record stating their support for the transition away from fossil fuels. But now the hard part comes with translating this positive sentiment into policy and regulatory changes that will shift the energy mix. Fossil fuels still overwhelmingly dominate worldwide. The New York Times reports that “fossil fuels, including coal, oil and gas, now make up about 80 percent of the world’s energy mix. The combined stock value of the world’s coal, oil and gas companies is about $5 trillion. By comparison, stocks related to renewable energy are valued at about $300 billion, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research firm.” And to add, fossil fuels get about $550 billion in subsidies each year.
Former NASA scientist James Hansen, one of the first to raise the red flag about climate change, dismissed the agreement, and its potential impact on the energy sector. “It’s a fraud, really, a fake,” he told The Guardian. “There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.” Hansen argues that what’s needed in the near term is a global carbon tax to speed up the shift to a global clean energy economy.
Bill Gates, now the world’s leading philanthropist, instead argues that many more billions of investment in clean energy technology research is needed to orchestrate this shift. He believes that current technologies can’t solve our current energy problems, but more advanced technologies are needed. Gates, along with Richard Branson of Virgin and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, have created a new multi-billion-dollar fund for research into clean energy technologies; and the U.S. and other countries have announced they will increase clean energy research to $20 billion by 2020.
Other critics pointed to the lack of guaranteed financial support for the poorest countries in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, which will be hit hardest and need billions to adapt. There was a new requirement in the non-binding agreement that developed countries would deliver $100 billion in support to developing countries by 2020, but often these promises fail to materialize. And the agreement may do nothing to stop the potential rise of coal in India. If India chooses coal over solar and wind, it could be a deal breaker for the planet.