As global climate change conference approaches, the world “commits”

24th Apr 2015

The world has been watching to see how developed nations will decide to address their contributions to global climate change. As many developing nations struggle to adapt to abnormal seasons, water shortages, and rising sea levels, various developed countries still debate about theoretically using fewer fossil fuels to stave off the worst projected outcomes.

The US has submitted its pledge to the UN to cut carbon emissions by 26-28% by 2025 (relative to 2005 levels), ahead of the COP21 (Conference of Parties) in Paris this December. Referred to as the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), “The US target will roughly double the pace of carbon pollution reduction in the US from 1.2 percent per year on average during the 2005-2020 period to 2.3-2.8 percent per year on average between 2020 and 2025,” according to the White House’s official website.

Though the agreement is nonbinding, and therefore no legal action can be taken if the targets are not met, some scientists are optimistic about the figures. As usual, President Obama faces opposition from the Republicans in Congress, claiming the he is waging a ‘war on coal,’ because part of the plan to reduce emissions is to steer away from and heavily regulate coal-fired power plants, and move towards wind and solar power.

Those leading the charge against the President’s proposal are Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and vocal denier of climate change, James Inhofe, and Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell.

Some of the measures suggested for reducing emissions include: fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emission standards for medium-and-heavy-duty vehicles; energy conservation standards for appliances and commercial building codes; and cutting methane emissions from landfills, agriculture, coal mining, and oil and gas systems.

Though COP21 in Paris was always meant to be legally binding, political forces are hard at work to make sure that the agreement does not make it to the status of a ‘treaty’ where international law would apply. According to the New York Times, “Laurence Tubiana, France’s climate change ambassador to the UN and a central figure in efforts to forge the Paris deal said that she does not expect the Paris deal to resemble a traditional top-down UN treaty. Instead, she anticipates that it will resemble a collection of targets pledged by individual countries, along with commitments from each government to follow through with domestic action.”

Richer nations are expected to act more swiftly than developing nations; China and Mexico intend to allow their emissions to continue rising for a few years to allow their economies to grow and their people to rise out of poverty, while countries such as the US, which have polluted significantly in the past, which helped them achieve their powerful status, will start reducing emissions immediately.

Mexico stated that it plans to have emissions peak by 2026 and then begin to decline; China did the same, but put its peak year at 2030. Even Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, pledged to sign the agreement in Paris, a surprising decision from the nation with the second-largest carbon footprint per capita of the G20 nations (behind Saudi Arabia). Though the deadline to submit proposals was March 31, some of the largest polluters, including India, Brazil, and Indonesia, do not intend to do so until October, only two months before the conference.

The goal over the years has been to avoid a 2C increase in global temperatures from 1990 levels; many experts believe that, based on the current trend, this is unavoidable even with countries’ commitments to significantly reduce GHG emissions, and that more action will be needed beyond 2015 to ensure commitments are met, and even more ambitious proposals are made.

Nations love to pat themselves on the back when it comes to following through with proposing commitments, but unless these proposals become concrete action with quantifiable emissions reductions on a meaningful timescale, the world’s poorest nations will continue to be disproportionately adversely affected by climate change; some island nations may have to flee their sinking lands altogether. When the largest polluters start accepting swathes of climate refugees, perhaps the dire need for action will hit a bit closer to home. Still, the fact that so many significant commitments have been stated to the world is a hopeful sign that major polluters are ready to act on climate.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy

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