This morning Japanese time the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) closed in Paris with agreement on what is being hailed as a ground-breaking deal on mitigating global warming. The basic outlines of the deal, summarized by the Guardian here are:

  • An aspirational goal of keeping global mean temperature rise below 1.5C
  • A pledge to reach zero emissions by the end of the century
  • A promise to implement stronger emissions controls than currently in place, and a catalogue of existing measures (called INDCs)
  • Monitoring of emissions and efforts to meet the targets, conducted every five years
  • Recognition of the damage done to some countries that had little responsibility for warming by the past warming of the big emitters (“loss and damage”) though no legally binding compensation framework
  • Funding to support transition to low-carbon economies for developing nations that are still on the energy development path
  • Recognition that some countries need longer to adapt to low emissions than others
  • It’s legally binding

The most surprising pledges for me are the 1.5C target and the mid-century zero emissions goal. If we can achieve both of these we are truly going to have done a lot better than I ever expected. We already have reached about 0.9C of warming (people say 1C but some part of that is random variation due to El Nino), and there is still a lot of warming already built into the climate system (I have seen estimates of about 0.5C guaranteed), which leaves only a maximum of probably 0.1 C left before we hit that target. The target needs to be seen in terms of carbon budget, of course, and if we make reasonable assumptions about the climate sensitivity I have seen estimates of between 6 years to a couple of decades at current emissions before we hit that budget limit[1]. This makes the goal extremely hard to reach, but it’s much better to set a goal that requires aggressive action, miss it and fall under the 2C guardrail than to set a goal that is reachable but risky, miss it and fall into the seriously deadly zone above 2C. The 1.5C target is also important because it commits the whole world to at least try to act to prevent the destruction of the most vulnerable communities in the Pacific Islands and coastal zones of the developing world, which is important from a social justice and solidarity perspective. Setting 2C as the goal basically means telling these countries that they are going to disappear, and would obviously require that we also start talking about major refugee flows, a fairly contentious topic right now.

If the world can be held below or at 1.5C, the future our children inherit may be recognizable to those of us alive now. I think it’s worth trying for that.

I also approve of efforts to recognize the differential responsibility – both historic (US and Europe) and present (US and China) – for climate change, and the differential ability of countries both to adapt and mitigate. Past efforts at responding to warming, such as Kyoto, have failed to properly recognize this issue, and developing nations’ anger at being forced to slow development in order to prevent a problem that is 90% not their fault has been a major sticking point in subsequent agreements. It’s good to see a more realistic assessment of who can and should do what in what order, and all the reports out of Paris suggest that the atmosphere at the talks was much more positive than past talks. I think this positivity is partly because of the obvious horrors being unleashed on the world by 1C of warming, which makes action much more imperative than it was in 1997; but also by this recognition that development, inequality, peace and justice are all tied up in this issue and a strictly equal commitment to preventing warming by every country will exacerbate inequalities and probably fail.

The funding being made available also opens up the possibility of a serious commitment to alternative modes of industrial development than carbon-based mechanisms. This is particularly important in the least developed nations, where a classical carbon-based path is prohibitively expensive and an alternative based on local renewables and storage is likely to be cheaper and more reliable in the short to medium term. Much of the recent rhetoric of denial has been about the importance of coal for development in Africa, but this rhetoric is misguided. Coal requires huge set up costs in grid expansion, and although it is a mature technology it requires advanced skills and systems to maintain those grids. In contrast, local solar and wind with battery or hydro storage is scalable, requires little infrastructure investment, and has low fuel costs. This makes it an ideal first step for development in rural areas of poor countries, where the grid will not reach for years and where, even when it does, brownouts and dropouts are likely to be common. Twenty years ago the cost of solar and wind and their inefficiencies might have made such an idea impossible but not now, and the rhetoric of carbon-based development needs to be recognized as out of date and counter productive.

This agreement spells the end of the coal industry and, by mid-century, the widespread decline of oil. Oil will always have use for plastics and some vehicles, but demand is going to plummet over the next century; coal is going to be stripped very quickly back to coking coal and a few boutique uses, and a lot of people are predicting that this agreement is the opportunity many investors and banks have been looking for to secure their exit from coal. If anyone doubts the power of a global agreement to threaten the interests of the oil and coal industries, look at the desperation of the Saudi government at these talks – they even tried to portray themselves as “developing” and “too poor” to engage in mitigation efforts. Coal is not directly represented at these talks but the simultaneous Greenpeace sting that revealed the role of coal companies in buying commentary and “research” makes their desperation pretty clear[2]. The end of coal as a major source of power is going to be of huge value to human health and development, and I predict that if this agreement can be made to work it will lead to a democratization of and revolution in power generation that is going to vastly increase human wealth and, if done well, reduce inequalities across the globe.

There is, of course, every possibility that the agreement won’t lead to any outcomes, but I don’t think that is the case. It’s not the final statement on what we need to do, and there will be future meetings and further tightening of efforts, but this agreement sets out a framework and a commitment that gives countries the opportunity they need to get to work, and to coordinate efforts. Global agreements are not always as good as they should be but they are usually better than their critics suggest, and sometimes they are really effective: the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, for example, and the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting gases are really good examples of agreements that have been very effective in achieving their goals. This agreement has some critics: James Hansen thinks it is a failure and George Monbiot thinks it should have been much stronger, for example. In this case I think Hansen is wrong, and I think his comments don’t really grapple with the way that international agreements work, and I think Monbiot is allowing his deep cynicism to obscure his vision. Global agreements, even with vague wording, can be powerful, and this agreement shows clearly that there is a global will to fix this problem. It would be unwise to be full of hope, but I see a light at the end of this tunnel[3].

There are a few other striking outcomes from this summit that are worth commenting on. First, I was heartened to see that existing commitments made independently by countries, states and cities would likely hold warming under 3C, which is far better than I thought. To be clear, 3C is close to a suicide pact for industrial society, but I thought we were more likely to be on track for 4-6C without further action, which would put us firmly in the post-apocalyptic zone[4]. It’s good to see that independent, small-scale changes have become this widespread and effective, even if they aren’t enough. Second, the complete failure of the denialist corporations and their shills and captive governments to grandstand and hijack this conference has been notable. This is partly because the two big denialist governments – Canada and Australia – have both been toppled and replaced with more rational alternatives, and also because China has really got serious about climate change since 2009. But it’s also because those denialist movements are now just being ignored, and none of the standard denialist memes circulated in this conference, even by countries like Saudi Arabia that were trying to stymie the process. What little intellectual energy the denialist movement had is spent, and they have been reduced to a bunch of old men yelling at clouds [for money]. Finally, the special stupidity of the Republican party in the USA was on display, with some parts of the text of the final agreement apparently being moved or weakened purely because of the problems Obama would have getting them through Congress. When the entire world is having to change what it says and does because of your patent stupidity, then your stupidity has become a genuinely toxic force. This reaffirms the importance of the 2016 Presidential and Congressional elections for the future of the planet. Both domestically for Americans (on health care and judicial appointments) and internationally, for everyone who values our planet and industrial civilization, we need the Republicans to lose and lose badly. This isn’t a matter of partisan contempt (though I have plenty of that!) but of human survival. It’s sad that the party of Lincoln has fallen to such a low state, where they are simultaneously a laughing stock and a global threat.

Still, despite those caveats and the possibility that this agreement will not be as effective as we would all like, I am positive about it. It’s a good start that will begin to spur a whole range of actions that are going to revolutionize our approach to energy and environment. When I’m a grumpy old man sitting on my porch yelling at clouds, I will at least be able to complain that the young’uns don’t appreciate the clean air, abundant cheap energy and stable climate that I am leaving them. Here’s hoping!

fn1: I have seen these estimates on websites about global warming, which I don’t link to directly even if they’re scientific sites because the ensuing flame wars exhaust and depress me.

fn2: Again, no links because I don’t want the backwash.

fn3: A solar-powered halogen lamp, of course!

fn4: I think I am slightly more pessimistic than some other people on this issue. I really think the full power and force of global warming has been underestimated, and what we’re seeing at just 1C is really bad and happening a lot faster than the science expected.