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The beginning of the transition

Paris Agreement on Climate Change calls for a global pledge to limit the temperature increase and envisions a low-carbon economy

Celebration of the agreement in the French capital on December 12, 2015: bold objectives in the first climate pact signed since the Kyoto Protocol

Arnaud Bouissou – MEDDE / SG COP21Celebration of the agreement in the French capital on December 12, 2015: bold objectives in the first climate pact signed since the Kyoto ProtocolArnaud Bouissou – MEDDE / SG COP21

On the morning of Saturday, December 12, 2015, representatives from 195 nations meeting in Paris at the 21st Conference on Climate Change (COP-21) approved a historic agreement whereby they pledge to take measures to combat climate change. The Paris Agreement establishes an international effort to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (°C) above pre-industrial levels, but to strive for a goal of less than 1.5°C—a level that could reduce the risks and impacts of climate change. The agreement also provides for wealthy nations to spend $100 billion per year to assist the less prosperous countries. If the effort is successful, by the end of the century the planet will have reduced the use of fossil fuels, and any remaining emissions will be offset by CO2 absorption as a result of reforestation and the use of techniques that can capture and store atmospheric CO2. “The Paris Agreement is a triumph for people, the environment, and for multilateralism. It is a health insurance policy for the planet,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in celebration of the pioneering climate pact among many countries.

The signatory countries agree to present goals subject to periodic review, and to communicate what they are doing in order to reach them. Countries that do not meet their promises will draw the scrutiny of public opinion and environmental entities but will not incur penalties. The obligations created by the agreement will be related to the process of communication and review, rather than to goal fulfillment. Consequently, the Paris Agreement creates a weaker link than did the Kyoto Protocol, which set legally binding baselines for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The format for the Paris Agreement grew out of lessons learned from the failure of Kyoto. Signed in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was never ratified by the U.S. Congress, and despite international pressure, it was unable to prevent China from an increasing use of carbon in its energy matrix, until it became the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

The countries meeting in Paris set voluntary, unilateral quantitative goals—their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)—for reducing emissions by 2025 or 2030. “Each country had to establish and present its commitments,” says Gilberto Câmara, a researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and coordinator of the FAPESP Research Program on Global Climate Change, who was in Paris during the conference.

Voluntary goals have less force than binding protocols, but the INDCs were built on realistic foundations. Brazil’s goals were based on a reduction in the pace of deforestation in the Amazon seen in recent years, and on the restoration of forests as mandated by the Forest Code. By 2030, Brazil expects that it will be able to stop emissions arising from deforestation. For their part, the United States and China have already signed a 2014 agreement that calls for curbing emissions. “What we had was a maturation of the countries’ internal policies on global warming,” wrote physicist José Goldemberg, president of FAPESP, in an article in the newspaper O Estado de S.Paulo. “Those who thought the battlefield would be the climate conferences, where heads of state meet and decisions are made, realized that the real battle would have to be waged in each country, where internal policies are decided and adopted.”

Instead of “top-down” multilateral decisions, Goldemberg observed, “bottom-up” unilateral policies were adopted. “The government of China realized that unlimited use of carbon as a basis for its economic development has seriously deteriorated air quality in its large cities. For these reasons, it decided that by 2030—or even sooner—carbon use will cease to increase and begin to decline. And Brazil, in an internal effort that involved the government, the environmental movement and large companies, considerably reduced deforestation in the Amazon.”

032-035_Cop21_239The United States played a fundamental role in Paris to prevent a repetition of the failure of the Copenhagen Conference in 2010, which was convened to establish a post-Kyoto treaty but ended without an agreement. “Five years ago, President Barack Obama was still in his first term and had no concept of the urgency there is today,” says Gilberto Câmara. “In recent years, Obama has made bilateral agreements with China, Brazil and India. He also won a victory in the Supreme Court, which ruled that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and therefore falls under the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency, so Congressional approval is not needed.” Câmara points to two additional changes in the geopolitical landscape: “The fall of the conservative governments in Canada and Australia helped the industrialized world act more consistently.”

The aggregate INDCs presented in Paris are not sufficient to hold the temperature rise to less than 2.7°C. Nevertheless, the countries agreed to take action to prevent an increase of more than 1.5°C, which will require efforts far beyond those envisioned in the agreement, in addition to monitoring and periodic review of goals. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will do a study in the next two years to identify the impact of a 1.5°C temperature rise and cutting emissions to meet that goal. “In practice, we’ve already exceeded 1.5°C, and we would need to miraculously stop emissions tomorrow to get anywhere close to that objective,” says climatologist Carlos Nobre, former scientific coordinator of the FAPESP Program on Global Climate Change. “Setting 1.5°C as a cap recognizes the risks posed by exceeding that number and engenders a global collective effort to reduce those risks,” says the researcher, who is currently president of the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes).

Brazil took an active role in the negotiations. Minister of the Environment Isabela Teixeira, and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado, a diplomat with strong experience in climate negotiations, were invited by the president of COP-21 to enlist support. At the beginning of the conference, Brazil aligned with the “High Ambition Coalition,” an initiative proposed by the Marshall Islands, one of the small island nations in the Pacific Ocean threatened with rising sea levels. The coalition attracted more than 100 countries, including the United States and the European Union. “Brazil pulled away from the other BRICS countries, with which it has no affinity on the climate question, and abandoned the role of spokesman for the poor countries, unlike its stance at other conferences. As a result, it was able to join the high ambition group, which was fighting to get the best possible agreement in Paris,” says Câmara.

“With the world pledging to decarbonize, Brazil will have to revisit the idea that oil exploration in the pre-salt layer will redeem the country’s economy. You can’t be in the “High Ambition Coalition” and at the same time be thinking about selling six million barrels of oil per day,” Câmara says. At the same time, he observes, Brazil will have an opportunity to attract investment to restore deforested areas and help increase carbon absorption from the atmosphere. “The restoration of illegally devastated areas, as mandated by the new Forest Code. shows that we can organize to receive investment flows and turn ourselves into a carbon sink. And we have great potential for expanding renewable energy production in Brazil.”

Gilberto Câmara (holding microphone) and Minister Isabela Teixeira (second from right), in Paris:  Brazil aligned with the “High Ambition Coalition”

Arnaud Bouissou – MEDDE / SG COP21 Gilberto Câmara (holding microphone) and Minister Isabela Teixeira (second from right), in Paris: Brazil aligned with the “High Ambition Coalition”Arnaud Bouissou – MEDDE / SG COP21

But what are the chances of achieving a radical emissions cutback in the coming years? In the view of Carlos Nobre, there is available technology to make the transition to a low-carbon economy in the next few years. “The challenge is enormous, but it’s not impossible, because clean energy sources such as wind and solar are becoming increasingly competitive,” he says. “It seems unlikely, for example, that we will eliminate electric power plants in the short or medium term, but there is an attempt to prevent effluents from power plants from reaching the atmosphere.” He concedes, however, that the impediments are not limited to potential technological bottlenecks and the need for major investment. “Fossil energy is responsible for 20% of global GDP and consumes $700 billion per year in subsidies alone. That is seven times greater than the $100 billion that the industrialized countries will devote to helping the poorer countries confront climate change,” he says. “It is not yet possible to assess for sure how fast we will move to a low-carbon economy.”

José Goldemberg observes that in the industrialized countries, and Europe in particular, efficient energy use is the most promising path to emission reduction, since their fossil fuel energy consumption is very high. “In the less industrialized countries, where per capita consumption is low, it will inevitably rise, but the thing to do is to ensure that growth incorporates the most efficient technologies, and in particular the use of renewable energy,” says Goldemberg, who was Minister of the Environment during the Rio-92 Conference.

The Paris Agreement was also characterized by the value placed on scientific knowledge. “In 2010, the Copenhagen Conference only partially reflected the outcomes of the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, issued three years earlier, by establishing a certain baseline threshold for the rise in temperature, about 2°C,” says Carlos Nobre. “Now, the negotiators in Paris have taken into account the outcomes of the Fifth Report, from 2013, according to which 2°C presents many risks.” In Nobre’s view, one of the most significant outcomes of COP-21 is that the conference was guided by science.