In order to meet growing concerns about climate change and the challenges presented by mitigation and adaption, delegations from around the world met last year in Paris to negotiate a new and binding international agreement to limit climate change. The first major steps towards implementation of the Paris Agreement were discussed during the 22nd UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (“COP22”) in Marrakech, in November of this year.
I had the pleasure of participating in the COP21 and COP22, taking part in high level assemblies of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), in various side-events, small meetings, press conferences, and a briefing of the German Parliamentary delegation. The two conferences were very unique in character, with the palpable anticipation and final euphoria of the COP21 giving way to excitement and a little puzzlement over what to do after the Paris Agreement entered into force already a few weeks before the COP22 had started – over a year earlier than anticipated – and also a sense of determination not to let some of the challenging political developments, especially recent ones in Europe and North America, stand in the way of a successful international collaboration to achieve the Paris Agreement goals.
After the COP22 I am still convinced that achieving the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to below 2 °C is possible – both physically and socially. But the challenge is immense, and scientific studies indicate that it would require three major steps:
- Global decarbonisation (i.e., reduction of CO2 emissions towards zero) – by 2050 at the latest;
- Extensive reduction of the emissions of soot, methane, ozone precursors, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which together are responsible for about half of the current global warming;
- And in all likelihood, the active removal of large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere, depending on how long it takes before substantial decarbonisation occurs globally. While CO2 removal is being tested in small amounts with various prototype techniques, scaling up such techniques to be able to remove hundreds of gigatons of CO2 would have very poorly understood implications for social and environmental systems (including land use competition for techniques using biomass and biofuels) as well as economic implications (including tremendous investments to build up the necessary infrastructures).
If these three are not applied rapidly enough to significantly limit global warming, then global societies may end up in a position where there is substantial pressure to take a fourth step, namely solar climate geoengineering: modifying the atmosphere or the Earth’s surface to reflect more sunlight back to space. At present there is still only a very limited understanding of the potential of such techniques for reducing climate risks, as well as the associated physical and social risks, but it is clear that any form of solar climate geoengineering would present a tremendous governance challenge (even research itself on the topic already presents challenges for developing adequate governance).
While achieving the Paris goals via the first three steps (without solar climate geoengineering) might be possible, whether it is likely depends on: 1) the willingness of world leaders to adopt policies for major systemic changes, e.g., in energy, agriculture, and transport systems; and 2) on the willingness and ability of people to explore ways to make sustainable living enjoyable and healthier in their individual lives, through lifestyle choices such as energy use, travel, consumerism, and eating habits. Neither transformations at the systemic level nor at the individual level will be sufficient alone.
At the IASS, in our second funding phase starting in 2017, we will continue to contribute to paving pathways for making these kinds of transformations, through projects including: socio-political and legal analyses of the Paris Agreement; ongoing involvement in international processes such as the UNFCCC COPs and the activities of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC); engagement of societal leaders around analyses of mitigation measures for climate-forcing air pollutants mentioned in step two above; and developing metrics to support the energy system transformations which are being pursued in Germany and selected other countries around the world. We will also remain at the forefront of analyses of the potentials, risks, and uncertainties associated with climate geoengineering, especially in terms of steps towards development of effective governance structures.
Vast, environmentally-driven societal transformations are ahead of us, either in terms of adapting and mitigating reactively as climate change worsens in the future, or rapidly mitigating proactively and thus having to adapt considerably less. It’s “all hands on deck” if we want to achieve the Paris Agreement goals, and COP22 has made important steps for putting us on that trajectory. Let’s hope we can still say the same – or be even more positive – next year after the COP23!