Despite recent terror attacks in Paris and elsewhere across the world, representatives from over 100 nations are meeting to discuss a plan to combat climate change at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21). When asked whether the attacks threatened the planned meeting, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius replied, “No, no, no, no, no, the COP21 to be held. It will be held with enhanced security measures but it is absolutely essential action against climate change and of course it will be held.” French President Francois Hollande added “never have the stakes been so high because this is about the future of the planet, the future of life.” These sentiments about the necessity of COP21 were echoed by President Barack Obama and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
This may have you asking, “what is happening at COP21 and why is it so important?!” Don’t worry because Sciences ACEs has got you covered.
What is being discussed at COP21?
The goal of COP21 is to make a legally binding international agreement to actively combat global warming. This would be the first such agreement in over 20 years of negotiations. Specifically, world leaders aim to limit a global temperature increase to 2°C above pre-industrial levels by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70% by 2050. Scientists predict that anything beyond a 2°C increase by 2100 would cause an increase in extreme climate events, like unusually warm or cold temperatures, droughts, floods, hurricanes, and tsunamis. By the end of 2015, global temperatures will reach 1°C above pre-industrial levels for the first time in the history of our planet! If things continue to do nothing, then our planet is in serious jeopardy, even by the most conservative of estimates.
What is causing climate change?
The evidence that climate change is occurring due to human activity is robust and the data are agreed upon by an overwhelming majority of all scientists, including climate scientists. The way in which humans cause climate change is through the production of greenhouse gasses (described in the graphic above). Briefly, much of the heat emitted from the Sun moves freely through Earth’s atmosphere, but some heat is trapped, re-emitted, and warms the planet. Increased greenhouse gasses make it difficult for solar energy to escape through the atmosphere, which causes more heat to be re-emitted and higher global temperatures.
Two major sources of greenhouse gas are (1) carbon-based fuels, which produce carbon dioxide (CO2), and (2) industrial agriculture, which produces methane . Global CO2 emissions have increased nearly ten-fold since 1900 and, although methane levels are lower, methane has a 25 times greater impact on global warming than CO2 over a 100 year period.
What is the likelihood that COP21 will be a success?
The success of COP21 is dependent on 2 questions: 1) will countries make good on their pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and 2) will those measures be enough to prevent temperatures from rising to dangerous levels?
In the U.S. and other countries, climate change is a major partisan issue. Many conservatives remain staunch climate change deniers, the Republican party often resists policies that aim to replace carbon-based fuels with renewable energy. However, the majority of liberals are in favor of a shift toward renewable energy and all three 2016 democratic presidential candidates have released comprehensive plans to address climate change. Thus, the future leadership in our country could play a major role in climate policy. However, Obama is optimistic that an agreement will be reached at COP21, and that we are taking the right steps to solve the issue of climate change.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that a 40-70% reduction in greenhouse gas will be enough to prevent a 2°C increase in temperature. However, we need not look further than France itself to see that an even more extreme shift toward renewable energy is possible in developed nations. Currently, France’s energy is 90% renewable thanks to an extensive nuclear power network. Some believe France could transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050.
The fact that COP21 is occurring is enough to inspire hope for those wanting to see a global change in climate policy. If other countries can follow the lead of COP21’s host nation, then, at the very least, we are taking steps in the right direction to combat climate change and preserve our planet’s future.