Report #3 from Paris: A scientist's view on COP21

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Robert Howarth

the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology & Environmental Biology at Cornell University, and one of the four Cornell-appointed Observer Delegates to COP21


I arrived home in the Finger Lakes of New York from Paris last night, and this is my final report on my participation at COP21. Since my second report from 4 days ago on Wednesday, I attended a variety of events, but three are particularly noteworthy: the International Anti-Fracking Summit on Thursday, a showing of the movie Groundswell Rising that night, and a press briefing by leading climate scientists on what COP21 did and did not accomplish. And of course the COP21 has come to a successful conclusion, albeit a day late and while I was on the plane home from Paris.

The International Anti-Fracking Summit was a remarkable event held off-site in downtown Paris and organized by Friends of the Earth Europe, Earthworks, Stop the Frack Attack, Food & Water Watch, and Attac France. More than 130 activists from 40 different countries and 5 continents attended, spending much of the day sharing information and ideas and exploring the best steps moving forward in the fight against high-volume hydraulic fracturing for shale gas and other extreme forms of energy. I gave a presentation in the afternoon entitled "Methane Emissions from Shale Gas Aggravate Global Warming," followed by a talk by Kevin Anderson (Deputy Director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research in the UK) and a joint discussion by the two of us. My talk (presentation available here) demonstrated that when methane emissions are appropriately considered, shale gas has a larger greenhouse gas footprint than even coal (comparing methane and carbon dioxide over a 20-year period following emissions). Further, the greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use in the US over the past several years have been rising at their most rapid rate in decades – due to shale gas development – not falling, as claimed by the US EPA and the White House. Anderson highlighted that even if the methane emissions from shale gas could be eliminated, shale gas would have no place in the world envisioned under the COP21 Paris Accord: we need to start immediately to reduce the use of all fossil fuels if we are to meet a 1.5°C warming target, and not build out a shale-gas and natural-gas infrastructure that would take decades to pay off. In our discussion, Anderson and I agreed that we should think about carbon dioxide emissions from shale gas and other fossil fuels as setting the final temperature of global warming (and therefore focusing on reducing carbon dioxide to keep below the target); but we should consider methane as critically important in setting the rate at which we will hit the 1.5°C target. Reducing methane emissions buys time for society and for natural ecological processes to better adapt to global warming. One of the fastest ways to accomplish this is to eliminate our use of natural gas (and particularly shale gas) as quickly as possible. This idea is nicely captured in an article written by Mark Hertsgaard for The Nation on December 11, based on his interviews with me and Anderson (link to article).

On Thursday night, I attended a showing of the documentary film Groundswell Rising, shown at the Generator Hostel in Paris where a large number of folks from the Sierra Club were staying during their time in Paris. After the movie, the Executive Producer, Mark Lichty, invited me and Poune Saberi (a physician from Philadelphia, and expert on the health effects of shale gas development) to join him in answering questions from the audience (both Aberi and I are in the film). The audience reacted very positively to this powerful documentary on the problems with fracking, and we spent several hours with them. Plans are underway to produce a version with French subtitles.

Friday was scheduled to be the final day of COP21, and at noon I attended a press briefing organized by the International Council of Science and others, featuring a panel of some of the world’s leading climate scientists: Hans Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Center in the UK, Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Center, Joeri Rogelj of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, and others. As it turns out, COP21 took more than another 24 hours to come to full agreement of all nations, but the final Accord language is quite similar to the draft these scientists discussed on Friday in most ways. The scientists were remarkably unified in their comments, which I suspect well represent what most scientists who work on climate change feel. I certainly agree with their statements. All of the panelists agreed the COP21 agreement was setting an appropriate and ambitious temperature limit, but they also all agreed that the language was too vague as to how this limit could be safely met.

On the positive side, the COP21 agreement sets a target above which all 195 nations that participated agree the global temperature must not rise. In the statement released on the agreement, the United Nations states: "The universal agreement's main aim is to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The 1.5 degree Celsius limit is a significantly safer defense line against the worst impacts of a changing climate." Many of us would have preferred a direct statement of 1.5°C as the limit, but this final compromise language is far more protective than what I certainly thought possible two weeks ago.

At the press briefing, Schellnhuber told us that the world must be fully free of fossil-fuel use by 2050 in order to stay below a warming of 1.5°C, and Rogelj said the peak of fossil-fuel emissions must occur no later than 2020 to reach the target. None of the plans laid out by national governments come close to this. In fact, according to Kevin Anderson, the current national plans laid in preparation for COP21 will result in the temperature of the Earth rising to 3.5°C to 4°C (not the 2.7°C I mentioned in my earlier two reports, which according to Anderson is based on models that assume some aggressive carbon capture from the atmosphere in the future, which may or may not ever be possible at a meaningful scale). So should we be pessimistic?

At Paris, the nations of the world have for the first time shown that they recognize the huge importance of keeping the planet below 1.5°C. This has come about because of massive grass-roots pressure, and because the effects of global warming are now becoming increasingly clear across the Earth. The nations have also demonstrated that they cannot yet agree on how to truly solve global warming, but they have asked for an assessment on this by the IPCC within 2 years, and have pledged to reviews of targets every 5 years (not often enough for my taste, but a start).

I am optimistic that the COP21 is a tipping point in global response to climate warming, and that the necessary steps to rid ourselves of fossil fuels and run our societies with renewable energy will quickly accelerate from here. Why? Not because of national leadership, at least not in the US, but because of actions at local levels and by states, and by the growing recognition that we can power human society in a cost-effective manner with solar, wind, and water power using modern, efficient technologies that are already in use. This transition, which can and must happen quickly, will not only address global warming but also hugely reduce health problems for fossil-fuel air pollution (which according to their poster of the World Health Organization at COP21 leads to one out of every eight deaths globally). And it will lead to far greater energy security for most regions and nations, to greater stability in energy costs, to far more jobs, and if done well, to far more democratic control over energy sources. It is up to all of us now to participate and push this transition as quickly as we can.