By Bill Dawson
Texas Climate News

A Texan with an exceptionally good vantage point on the matter at hand issued a far-traveling message of celebration Saturday when 195 nations agreed to launch a historic, planet-spanning effort to transform the way humanity uses energy in a bid to avoid the most devastating consequences of man-made climate change.

“Congratulations COP21 delegates on your historic agreement!” tweeted International Space Station Commander Scott Kelly, addressing the 21st Conference of the Parties, where negotiators had forged a new pact to give force to a 1992 agreement on climate change after meeting for two weeks outside Paris.

“Earth thanks you and so do I!” added Kelly, a Houston-based U.S. astronaut, in his Twitter message from the space station.

The Houston-based astronaut’s joy about the long-sought agreement to limit global warming by slashing greenhouse pollution from fossil fuels – the energy bedrock of the world economy – echoed the happiness at the Paris conference itself when the agreement was finally approved. It wasn’t behavior normally associated with diplomatic gatherings:

“Mass rejoicing broke out” at the Le Bourget conference center, Climate News Network reported. “The hall erupted in cheers,” reported the New York Times.

The agreement comes after a years-long series of earlier U.N.-sponsored talks resulted in disappointment for climate-action advocates. The 1996 Kyoto Protocol, for instance, which the U.S. never joined, only contained binding emission-cutting commitments by rich countries, but not developing nations including fast-growing and increasingly polluting economies such as China.

The Paris accord applies to all nations – rich and poorer alike – which have promised to make, and periodically update, voluntary emission-lowering commitments of their own choosing. Such pledges were in hand from 185 nations at the conference start on Nov. 30.

According to U.N. and independent experts, however, all those separately pledged reductions in emissions from the use of coal, oil and natural gas won’t collectively reduce the atmosphere-warming impact by enough to limit the average temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial (around 1750) levels. That was a line drawn in an international agreement in 2010 in an effort to avoid the most devastating impacts that scientists project from climate change.

Such impacts include more severe droughts and heat waves, stronger storms, increasing polar-ice melting and sea-level rise, and the aggravation of a variety of public-health problems.

Inspired in part by growing scientific evidence, the agreement reached in Paris has an even more stringent climate-protection goal – holding the temperature increase to “well below 2 degrees C” while also “pursu[ing] efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C” because that would “significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”

[See TCN’s examination of temperature limits: “The climate negotiations – ultimately, it all boils down to temperature.”]

Addressing the critical problem of setting a temperature goal without enough emission reductions in hand to meet it, the Paris agreement creates a system for nations to reconvene every five years (some countries wanted these tune-up meetings less often) to check their progress and increase emission cuts.

In a related provision, the agreement calls for a unitary transparency system for nations to disclose their emission-reduction progress. The adopted language represented a victory for the U.S., which called for such a system while some developing countries wanted different disclosure requirements for different countries.

Here’s a key agreement passage that sets out a somewhat vague timetable for the way stepped-up emission reductions are to occur in the next few decades:

In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse-gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.

And here’s a translation of that wording by the Associated Press:

In the pact, the countries pledge to limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the same levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally, beginning at some point between 2050 and 2100.

In practical terms, achieving that goal means the world would have to stop emitting greenhouse gases — most of which come from the burning of oil, coal and gas for energy — altogether in the next half-century, scientists said. That’s because the less we pollute, the less pollution nature absorbs.

While the agreement language on this point has no explicit call for an outright end to fossil-fuel use, the widely-held expectation among experts is that the pact will, if carried out as designed, push the world rapidly toward vastly less use of those fuels and a turn toward renewable energy sources.

Texas faces both major impacts from accelerating climate change and from the energy transformation expected to flow from the Paris agreement designed to avoid human-caused climate disruption’s most damaging manifestations.

Because of its geography, experts say Texas is at special risk of climate impacts related to drought, heat, sea-level rise and tropical diseases. Migration experts have said “climate refugees” to Texas from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean could become far more numerous.

At the same time, with an economy still heavily dependent on coal-produced electricity and the production of oil, natural gas and petrochemicals, Texas has much at stake in the wholesale changes to energy production that the Paris agreement foretells.

The agreement itself – and earlier efforts encouraging its adoption – suggest that Texas political leaders who question the science of climate change and strongly oppose related emission-reduction requirements by the federal government have become increasingly isolated internationally in those stances.

Leading figures as diverse as Pope Francis, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the leaders of Exxon-Mobil and other major oil and gas companies have been expressing support in the lead-up to the Paris conference for governments to act against climate  change.

The agreement was supported Saturday by big oil producers including Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Russia, as well as by major developing countries including China, India and Brazil, which have heavily relied on fossil fuels to grow their economies.

“This is a win for humanity,” Brazil’s Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira said of the pact.

The agreement also reflected the dramatic difference between U.S. conservatives hostile to climate action, including top officials in Texas, and leading conservative leaders in other nations. Strongly backing the Paris accord, for instance, were politicians belonging to conservative parties such as British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A common theme running through many of the public pronouncements about the agreement and much of the news coverage about it stressed that, historic and encouraging as it may be, it’s essentially just a start for the world’s newly solidified collaboration against dangerous climate change.

Besides the emission-cutting pledges themselves, another crucial element that was crafted in a way to require much more work in years ahead involves the area of rich countries’ financial assistance to developing and especially climate-vulnerable nations to help them make the transition to cleaner energy and adapt to damaging climate change.

The agreement did not specify a monetary amount for this aid, as developing nations had wanted, but stipulates that a “mobilization of climate finance should represent a progression beyond previous efforts.”

“It’s not the perfect deal but it’s the best deal,” said Giza Gaspar-Martins, an Angolan diplomat who chaired a coalition of the 48 most vulnerable nations at the talks.”

The agreement is the “first step in a long journey that the global community needs to undertake together,” South Africa Environment Minister Bomo Edna Molewa said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry were among those who were optimistic that the agreement will catalyze the mobilization of market forces to step up development of new emission-reducing and climate-adaptation technologies.

“We are sending a critical signal to the global marketplace,” Kerry said.

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, a multinational consumer-goods giant, agreed: “The billions of dollars pledged by developed countries will be matched with the trillions of dollars that will flow to low-carbon investment.”

Such statements echoed an announcement at the beginning of the conference, when Gates, the world’s richest person, unveiled a large public-private partnership in which 28 of the wealthiest individuals on the planet will jumpstart new clean-energy technologies with a special focus on helping people in developing nations.


Bill Dawson is the founding editor of Texas Climate News. He has reported on climate change since 1988.

Image credit: Scott Kelly / Twitter