Paris climate agreement

Adoption of a historic accord is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions impacting the planet.

Last week, a new Paris Climate Agreement was approved by 196 nations. The goal of this Agreement is to reduce greenhouse gas emission levels to limit the rise of global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial averages. Ambitious language was added to the agreement to attempt to restrict the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, if possible. This 2 degrees C above the pre-industrial average goal is believed to be the maximum amount of heating the planet can sustain before negative impacts occur to the natural ecosystems.

Greenhouse Gases (GHG) are any gas that absorbs infrared radiation in the atmosphere. The main greenhouse gases include, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, fluorinated gases and ozone.

These gas emissions would never reach zero in the future. However, this target means emissions would be low enough that new technology along with natural processes would be able to remove these greenhouse gases from the air. Natural processes include oceans and plants. Oceans absorb it into the water and plants use carbon dioxide (CO2) during photosynthesis.

This agreement also calls on all nations – both rich and poor – to take action to limit greenhouse gases, in particular CO2, by requiring reviews every five years to encourage greater cuts in emissions by every country. Each five year review should show an increase in reduction activities over the previous one.

This agreement requires countries with current climate pledges to update them. A number of countries currently have pledges to cut or limit fossil-fuel emissions. Those pledges that end in 2025 and 2030 would need to update them by 2020 to better align with the new Agreement’s goals. The agreement connects each country’s pledges together to cut or limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Another goal of the Agreement is to spur private industry as well as governments to develop new technologies to address climate change issues. While trends in the energy sector already include growth in renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind and hydro, efforts will need to increase to reach the goals. The agreement pledges “to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible” and that countries will “undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve balance between anthropogenic, originating from human activity, emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.”

The agreement also calls on countries to “engage in adaptation planning processes” to insure they are ready for future climate change effects.

Finally, the agreement outlines costs to adopt these actions. It states that developed countries “shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation.” In essence, countries, including the U.S., will need to step up and contribute funds to less affluent countries to change to cleaner energy systems and brace for climate change impacts that can’t be avoided.

In addition to the national agreement, a number of sub-governments, businesses and universities have signed commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

  • Compact of Mayors
    • 117 U.S. mayors have signed a pledge to identify reduction efforts through standardized measurements and public reporting efforts.
  • Under-2 MOU
    • States have agreed to cut emissions and share technology and research.
  • American Business Act on Climate
    • 154 companies doing business in all 50 states signed to support the Paris Agreement, reduce emissions, increase low-carbon investments and utilize more clean energy.
  • American Campuses Act on Climate
    • Over 300 colleges and universities, including Michigan State University, representing over four million students, have signed this pledge.

For more information on greenhouse gases read the article “Greenhouse gases: Their impact on climate change” published by Michigan State University Extension. You can also visit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website.

The EPA U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report: 1990-2013 is available online.

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