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Scientists React to Paris Agreement


Sometimes, in the midst of all the politicians, negotiators and, yes, media, we forget that the whole reason that world leaders gathered at COP21 in Paris is due to, well, science. If there is one thing we should also be able to agree on, it is that we need an agreement based in scientific reality, because only then can we avoid the worst of climate change.

Fittingly, there were several scientists gathered at COP21. They were outspoken about the final agreement, and mostly applauded the inclusion of a below 2 degrees Celsius target in the latest draft text.

"If agreed and implemented, this means bringing down greenhouse gas emissions to net zero within a few decades," said said Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. "It is in line with the scientific evidence we presented of what would have to be done to limit climate risks such as weather extremes and sea-level rise."

Right now, the main mechanism for reducing emissions are countries' Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which leave us far short of the 1.5-degree goal that scientists and many vulnerable developing countries are pushing for. We need stronger, short-term action, said Steffen Kallbekken, research director at Cicero:

“By the time the [INDCs] enter into force in 2020, we will have probably exhausted the entire carbon budget for the 1.5-degree target.”

Another area of concern was the removal of the 70- to 90-percent emissions reduction target and the inclusion of the term “greenhouse gas neutrality,” which some scientists fear opens the door for unproven carbon-capture technologies and the counting of carbon sinks, such as forests, in carbon accounting.

“[The current text] has no reference to levels of carbon peaks, no reference to fossil fuels in text, and the language of neutrality [assumes] we can suck massive amounts of CO2 in the future,” said Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Center for climate change research.

“We should do research on geoengineering, but should only develop policy assuming that it does not work.” Geoengineering – which is still unproven – should not be assumed, and we don’t need it. The progress of renewables in countries like Germany, China and, increasingly, the United States is showing that strong action can reduce emissions. We just need to scale up – fast.

Science can help do that – but in partnership with businesses and civil society. That's what Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Center, argued for.

“Future COP meetings should allow for real assessment of INDCs, and take business, science and civil society together in revising agreements and monitoring our global set targets for the future of humanity.”

“It is incredibly positive that world political leadership has recognized the science – and put targets to stay within 1.5 degrees. Now we just have to operationalize it,” Rockström continued. “The top scientific goal is to really limit our warming to below 2 degrees – as far from that as possible.”

And it won’t be just up to governments. Businesses are increasingly calling for a stronger climate framework to help make long-term decisions. The agreement can be a starting ground for this – even if it's not up to par with the standards of science.

“This text will be a narrative, but it will be the job of businesses, cities, consumers and investors to finish the job. The divestment movement, in particular will be crucial in this,” Schellnhuber said.

One key point in the new agreement is a new assessment, by 2018, on the impacts of a 1.5 degree warming. When released, this could spur greater commitments in INDCs and push businesses to do even more to reduce emissions.

Paris is not the end, but really, the beginning.

Photo credit: Mak Thorpe

Nithin Coca headshotNithin Coca

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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