With Paris deal signed, global race is on to limit global warming

Earth, eastern hemisphere --NASA

To mark Earth Day, officials from as many as 170 countries will symbolically sign on to an agreement to stop global warming and cut greenhouse gas emissions. It is the culmination of years of efforts to piece together a global deal that was finally worked out in Paris at the end of 2015. After the celebratory confetti settles, the rush is on to get the deal officially enacted.

Then the world must face the task limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius.

New research published ahead of the event shows that there is a dramatic difference between warming of 1.5C and 2C above industrial levels. While the Paris deal aspires to limit warming to 1.5C, it pegs the agreement at the hard line of 2C. But the difference means going from more regularly achieving the higher temperatures seen now, to a “new climate regime,” say the authors of the study, published this week in the science journal Earth System Dynamics. The difference will also contribute to altering rainfall and 30 percent greater rise in sea levels.

All goes to show that the amount the Earth warms is no small matter. And holding at 1.5C is looking grim considering the fact that the first three months of 2016 were at 1.48C, with February surpassing the 1.5C threshold. If the numbers seem a bit high, that is because the planet keeps setting temperature records and the researchers from Climate Central making the claim used a baseline of the average global temperatures measured between 1881 and 1920.

credit: climate central

credit: climate central

All of this is not great news when it comes to meeting the Paris goal of limiting global warming to “well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C.” And while projections show the current path of warming will bring the world to more than 2C by the end of the century, making major cuts could level off warming.

Achieving those cuts could be aided by the potentially speedy implementation of the Paris agreement. The document sets out the implementation date for 2020 – based on the need for governments to ratify the treaty. But some officials at the U.N. and U.S. say it could come into action as soon as this year.

“We are within striking distance of having the agreement start years earlier than anyone anticipated,” said Brian Deese, a climate adviser to President Barack Obama, in a speech last week at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

As soon as 55 countries sign on, the deal will be enacted. That seems possible to happen soon because both the U.S. and China, the two leading carbon emitters in the world, are pushing to formally join by the end of the year. It is expected that the Obama administration will bypass the opposition Congress and join through an executive agreement.

The reason for rushing may be political. If the U.S. joins and the Paris deal goes into force by the end of the year, whoever takes over the White House in 2017 cannot pull out for 4 years – as stipulated by the agreement. That would handcuff a potential Republican president from withdrawing. Action is already happening with 13 countries expected to introduce the agreement for ratification today.

But enacting the Paris agreement and realizing the pledges does not necessarily mean all will be well. Projections by various climate change groups show say that adhering to the deal will limit warming to between 2.7C and 3.5C.

If only a marginal temperature increase can have major negative impacts, it stands to reason that even more warming could have a worse outcome.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.