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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

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Friday, March 4, 2016

The Centennial Commemoration of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. II.

A Fable

Paris is sparing no extravagance for the centennial celebration of the 2015 climate agreement, themed “Paris 2115”.  The Eiffel Tower is decked out with the newest efficient lighting fixtures, highlighting the sky blue of the United Nations flag, intermingled with the Tricouleur, the red, white and blue of the French flag.  Laser light shows projecting these colors playfully pierce the air around its spire.

The Étoile and Arc de Triomphe are adorned with exotic vegetation brought from far reaches of the planet, symbols of the preservation of the environment resulting from one hundred years of sustainable climate policies resulting from the agreement.

The most striking aspect of the celebration is that several hundred thousand people from all around the world have descended on The City of Light, to mark the centennial of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreement limiting emissions of greenhouse gases.  The 2015 agreement enshrined the goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to under 2ºC (3.6ºF) above the preindustrial temperature, i.e., the temperature before humans began burning fossil fuels.  The agreement also included the more stringent goal of keeping the rise below 1.5ºC as a more ambitious option. 

Just under 200 nations, all the U.N.’s members, joined the agreement.  Now the member nations are celebrating, for they had in fact summoned their resources and achieved the more stringent goal.  This required that restraint and discipline be applied by each nation, each independently of, but in concert with, the constraints developed by every other nation.  The 2015 agreement made these constraints voluntary, nation by nation.  It is remarkable that the member nations all accepted the responsibility of fulfilling their pledges, with records and validation open for all to see.  Indeed, since the original 2015 pledges were deemed inadequate to attain this goal, the nations repeatedly reconvened every five years, and intensified their efforts by developing ever more stringent reduction pledges.  The centennial we are now celebrating honors these pledge extensions.  Without these extra efforts we could not have kept the global temperature from increasing as little as it has today.

How did this come about?  After all, the energy needed for industrialization and raising living standards in developing countries, obtained almost entirely from burning fossil fuels, had underpinned their headlong rush to economic growth for more than a century.  The fossil fuel industry was a significant fraction of the world economy, and the fuel companies exerted their considerable political power to maintain the status quo, extracting ever more fossil fuels each year.  This path, called “business-as-usual”, would have brought the world to an average temperature rise of about 4ºC, a truly devastating result.

Governments the world over, working in collaboration with the fossil fuel companies and other segments of the economy, transformed the world’s energy sector.  Governments and company managements, realizing the dangers of continuing along a business-as-usual path, transformed their political frameworks and business models.  The companies came to realize that there was profit to be gained by developing and deploying renewable energy sources, and redirected their development budgets accordingly.  New research and great economies of scale made solar and wind energy, for example, economical yet highly profitable.  Energy storage was optimized with new battery compositions and physical storage modes.  People began to see new beauty in renewable energy installations.  In the meanwhile, biotechnology researchers developed genetically modified crop plants that withstand the stresses of heat and drought more effectively than the old wild strains.  Research ingenuity also optimized yields of biofuels to provide all the needs of the growing airline industry.

Our land transportation has also been revolutionized.  Self-driving vehicles now navigate e-highways, minimizing the need for extra weight to protect us from crashes.  They are powered by newly developed highly efficient renewable energy sources.

Sadly, several small island nations that signed on to the agreement in 2015 no longer exist, because their islands were swallowed up by rising seas over the intervening one hundred years.  Already by 2015 sea level had been rising because, averaged over the seasons of the year, more ice melted from polar ice masses into the ocean than was deposited by fresh snow and ice.  Rising seas were already locked in by then.  Indeed, by 2015 ice loss had been accelerating because temperatures over the ice masses were rising rapidly.  Now as we fete the centennial, many coastal regions around the world have been lost to ocean inundation.

Pingali, Richard and Hailong met each other last night at the Korean pavilion.  Paris 2115 is organized around these centers, representing each nation of the UNFCCC agreement, all around the city.  Each one displays highlights of the environmental and sustainability contributions they have made in the past hundred years that brought us to this week’s celebration.  The three new friends are circulating among the pavilions, trying to take in as many as they can, from countries large and small. 

The celebration reaches its peak tomorrow, as major personalities from the UNFCCC and various nations speak about the significance of this occasion, and the way forward.  Of course these speeches will be streamed live as holographic displays in all the pavilions, so that all the celebrants can experience the immediacy of the presentations.

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The Paris Agreement reached in December 2015 represents major progress on the path to controlling worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases.  All 197 U. N. member nations agreed to its terms.  This accomplishment is due in large part to departure from earlier attempts at negotiating a treaty involving imposing predetermined limits on emissions from each nation.  Instead the Paris Agreement solicits voluntary pledges from each which, once filed, are subject to review and verification by the U. N. 

Prior to the convening of the Paris meeting almost all nations had already submitted their pledges.  A scientific evaluation shows that those pledges are insufficiently ambitious to achieve the goal of keeping the global average temperature increase less than 2ºC during this century.  Climate model calculations by  Fawcett and coworkers (Science, 2015, Vol. 350, pp. 1168-1169) show that the current voluntary pledges will keep the annual


Actual (up to 2010) and projected annual rates of emission of CO2 from energy and major industrial sources from 1990 to 2100.  The heavy lines are summary representations for four emissions scenarios.  Top to bottom these are the reference case of no emissions reduction policy in place; no reduction policy up to 2030, then a 2% per year reduction in emissions; implementation of only the current voluntary pledges through 2030, continued unchanged to 2100 (curve labeled INDCs); and the current voluntary pledges to 2030, then further reduction by at least 5% per year to 2100.  The individual thin lines are actual modeling runs repeated many times.  IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; AR5, Fifth Assessment Report issued 2013-4.
Source: Fawcett and coworkers, Science, 2015, Vol. 350, pp. 1168-1169; .


rate of CO2 emissions level at their present rates up to 2100 (curve labeled INDCs in the graphic above).  Since these are annual rates, the emissions will continue to raise the total accumulated CO2 level throughout this period, leading to a steady rise in global average temperature to 2100.  Only the lowest heavy blue curve shows a decreased rate of annual emissions after 2030, accomplished in the model by imposing a stringent reduction in annual emissions rate of 5% per year.  The accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere continues, admittedly at lower rates, throughout this period.  As a result the global average temperature will still continue rising from its present (unprecedented high) value at a slow but measurable pace.

The Paris negotiators recognized this deficiency, and included the intention in the Agreement to reconvene in five years to assess progress and to encourage updated pledges including more ambitious emission reductions from the member nations.  It also mentions explicitly the more stringent goal that reductions should in fact be ambitious enough to keep the increase in global average temperature below 1.5ºC.

Some nations and provinces around the world have already undertaken efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions. China’s pledge lays out increasing annual emissions until 2030, mainly from burning coal, then a reduction in that rate.  But the recent economic slowdown in that country appears already to be leading to lower emissions than anticipated.  As part of its pledge, China intends to expand pilot cap-and-trade limits on emissions in some of its cities to the nation as a whole.

Australia imposed a carbon pricing scheme in 2012, but it was repealed in 2014.  In addition Australia is now severely cutting back its spending on its respected government scientific research organization, including its climate science section.  This impedes the country’s and the world’s ability to track its greenhouse gases and temperatures.

The European Commission announced a plan in 2010 to reduce emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.  Europe implemented a cap-and-trade Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) a decade ago as part of its participation in the Kyoto Protocol, the UNFCCC agreement preceding the Paris Agreement.  The ETS has had difficulties that are preventing it from achieving its full potential.

The U.S. federal government has been unable to enact laws to limit emissions because the majority party in one or both of the Congress’s chambers does not admit the need to address man-made global warming.  But President Obama has undertaken executive steps that will double fuel efficiency of the nation’s vehicles, and will increase the efficiency of electricity generation in electricity generation.  Independently, California and some other states have policies limiting emissions similar to the reduction intended by the European Commission.

In Canada, the province of British Columbia has had a revenue-neutral carbon tax in place since 2008.  Revenues collected from the tax are used to lower tax rates in other categories.  Use of fossil fuels has dropped with no effect on the province’s economy.


Implementation of the Paris Agreement of 2015 promises to turn our world from a warming disaster to a manageable, but palpably warmer, global environment.  But there are powerful political and commercial interests opposing the changes needed to stabilize the global climate.  Business models of large multinational energy companies need to change, such that they recognize that profits can be derived from producing renewable energy.  Deep-rooted psychological barriers also exist that resist our need to change our ways.  With good will and ambitious planning the fable represented by Paris 2115 may come to pass.
© 2015 Henry Auer

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