During the final month of December 2015, 150 World Leaders, including Presidents Obama, Putin & Xi came together in Paris to try to reach an agreement about how to tackle Global Warming. Newspapers and news stations around the world followed 'will they/won't they reach a deal' headlines and whether these talks would signify a tangible move forward to find a solution in curbing emissions and reducing global temperatures.
If you were paying attention, you'd have heard that shortly before Christmas, a deal was reached. But do many of us know what was agreed and what it will mean to ordinary citizens like ourselves?
What is Climate Change?
First of all, we need to understand what's happening to our planet and what we mean by the 'Greenhouse Effect.' Over the course of the Earth's history, the average temperature has been warmer and cooler than it is today. Currently the average global temperature is about 15C but it's the pace that our planet has warmed up recently that will have catastrophic consequences if we can't halt this progress & reverse the trend. Humans are now the biggest threat to Earth's survival.
The 'Greenhouse Effect' is what we call the effect of our atmosphere trapping the sun's energy and effectively bouncing it back to our planet's lower atmosphere and surface. There's a fine balance to maintain as without our atmosphere it would be at least 30C colder and life would not be sustainable. The natural Greenhouse Effect is being added to by man by the gases we produce via our industry and agriculture. These trap & reflect more energy towards the Earth's surface & raise temperatures. CO2 emissions cause the most significant problem as there are only so many places (i.e. the oceans) that can soak it up. The increase in CO2 emissions is caused by burning fossil fuels and cutting down carbon absorbing forests.
World's Top Ten Greenhouse Gas Emitters:
- China - 24%
- USA - 12%
- EU - 9%
- India - 6%
- Brazil - 6%
- Russia - 5%
- Japan - 3%
- Canada - 2%
- DR Congo - 1.5%
- Indonesia - 1.5%
Source: Carbon Brief, figures are for 2012
What Did They Agree On?
195 nations agreed to cut Greenhouse gas emissions and limit the average global temperature rise to "well below" 2C. Levels exceeding these are deemed to be dangerous and threaten the survival of every living creature on Earth. It is hoped that the Paris Climate Talks will lead to a reduction in global warming to pre-industrial levels and a future where we can consistently commit to a limit of 1.5C
Whilst initially this might prove to be a positive step for those in imminent danger of losing their homes, such as those living on low-lying Pacific islands, what does it mean for the rest of us?
The most obvious areas that will affect us all directly will be the tax we pay, how expensive it becomes to run a car, fuel our homes and how much food costs. The 'Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change' says if we don't do anything the cost of inaction will ultimately costs us all significantly more.
Is it Legally Binding?
This is a tricky area - some of it is, some of it isn't! There will be a $100bn fund from developed economies to help those less developed to 'de-carbonize'. This will enable all nations to look at clean energy sources, renewables and nuclear power instead of fossil fuels. However, the emission targets themselves aren't legally binding and have to be determined by each nation separately. Only 187 countries have submitted their 'Intended National Determined Contributions' many say that this won't curb emissions enough. China, India and South Africa are among those that wouldn't agree to signing a condition that might affect their ability to grow and develop their economies.
There is a large shift in attitude among big businesses and investors towards 'greener' policies but there has also been the emergence of 'carbon markets' where trading certain types of pollution is permitted, which will inevitably cause more problems. The Paris Agreement will follow on from the Kyoto Protocol when it ends in 2020 but it will require ratification by at least 55 countries before it comes into force. The 185 countries that have already pledged to support the Agreement cover 94% of global emissions and 97% of the world's population.
However, if we are going to succeed then politicians, businesses and scientists need to learn to work hand in hand.