Thursday, December 10, 2015

Paris Climate Talks: What does it mean for the Bay

Image result for cop 21For the past two weeks, negotiators from across the globe have convened in Paris for the 21st United Nations conference on climate change. One hundred eighty six countries have come with ambitious pledges to limit greenhouse gas emissions. While past conferences have attempted to negotiate a treaty that would keep warming to 2 degrees Celsius, over 100 countries have now pushed to try and keep warming to 1.5 degrees.

It is unclear if this goal is possible given the amount of carbon we have already added to the atmosphere and the voluntary pledges being offered so far. Our current path including these pledges sets us up for 5 degrees, and we have already passed the 1 degree mark. Meeting a goal of only half a degree more of warming would require an unprecedented shift to a decarbonized economy across the world and would also require removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Because of the urgency, the final treaty will likely have specific requirements to “ratchet up” the promises from each country. The goal is that by the year 2030, all countries would be on a common pace to revise these promises every five years.

Much of the focus at the conference has been on lowering the demand for fossil fuel and using technology to limit emissions while switching to renewable energy. This directly ignores the scientific consensus that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must say in the ground for us to remain below 2 degrees of warming. Keeping it in the ground is not being discussed at this point, and here at home, the United States promotes and subsidizes fossil fuel development while trying to limit carbon emissions – a very difficult task.

In Paris, and here at home, you will hear two major topics of discussion when it comes to climate change: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation includes activities that will reduce or prevent greenhouse gas emissions, such as switching to renewable energy or preventing deforestation. Adaptation includes activities that reduce harm from the effects of climate change, such as removing infrastructure from flood prone areas, planting trees and treating stormwater.

Much of Save The Bay’s work in habitat restoration falls under adaptation. We are restoring salt marshes so that they provide habitat value for as long as they can be sustained. We are supporting dam removal as a way to connect rivers so that fish can migrate. We are helping cities and towns to move flooded infrastructure and treat stormwater. We also support mitigation by using solar panels at the Bay Center and advocating for renewable energy. On Tuesday, the RI Governor signed an executive order that will direct state agencies to get 100% of their energy use from renewable sources by 2025. It also supports zero emission vehicles, public transit and green buildings. 

There is a third piece of the puzzle, however, and that deals with loss and damage.

The problem, of course, is that no matter what we do in the coming years, some amount of sea level rise and temperature rise are already “baked in” and this will bring significant loss and damage to everyone on the planet to varying degrees. Already, Pacific Island nations are faced with abandoning areas that are uninhabitable, and droughts and floods are forcing people off their land.

This loss and damage is a bone of contention at the talks because poor countries feel that wealthy developed nations should shoulder the burden for making payments to them as restitution for causing much of the problem. Beyond money, assistance would include providing these countries with the capacity to cope and welcoming refugees from climate change disaster zones.

The sad reality is that so much damage has already been done we are beyond talking about mitigation and adaptation and are realizing that we could soon be dealing with a vast humanitarian crisis. The scale of that crisis depends on the strength of this and future climate agreements and how quickly they are acted upon by all the countries of the world.