Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

The Paris Accord Is Now the Law

United States Secretary of State John Kerry signed the Paris Agreement on April 22, 2016 with his granddaughter in his arms. Photo: UN Photo/Amanda Voisard/CC BY-ND (Flickr)

United States Secretary of State John Kerry signed the Paris Agreement on April 22, 2016 with his granddaughter in his arms. Photo: UN Photo/Amanda Voisard/CC BY-ND (Flickr)

This is What Momentum Feels Like

By Carl Pope

For years climate reporting had two strands. On the one hand, climate science got more alarming as we got closer and closer to exceeding various warming thresholds. On the other, climate diplomacy and public policy were a relatively unbroken saga of disappointment and delay.

Both strands of the pre-2014 climate story nourished an appetite the mass media have for bad news, conflict, grid-lock, and failure. Beginning in 2014, however, the climate story grew more hopeful, though it has also become more complex and harder for the media to summarize.

Greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase at an alarming rate, and projections of the risks of these concentrations become steadily more grave. In the first week of October, we were told that the planet was hotter than it has been in the last 100,000 years. Current climate commitments fall far short of what is needed to avoid catastrophe, and this causes concerned observers to argue that the world is not taking the problem seriously.

But on the solutions front, progress is accelerating. Climate diplomacy and public policy are not only galloping ahead at an unprecedented speed, their pace is increasing. Many people are missing that. Stories that head in two directions are often difficult to cover, so there were challenges in the media’s attempts at covering events that took place in the first week of October. The importance of those events may be lost on some, but they are a decisive turning point in the fight for climate protection.

With ratification by the EU,
the Paris Accord became
legally binding
five years earlier
than originally envisioned.


First, with ratification by the EU the Paris Accord came into legally binding effect, five years earlier than originally envisaged. Media coverage of this event has focused on one defensive motivation, which is to ensure that a possible future Trump Administration could not pull the US out of the agreement. Even so, it is clear that major emitters of greenhouse gases wanted to ratify Paris in early 2017 at the latest, a step which not only locks in the US but also accelerates all of the processes embodied in the bottom-up Paris agreement. This is a critical factor in maximizing the odds that the next round of global commitments, due in 2019, is as ambitious as possible.

Second, in Kigali, just as Green Energy Times is going to press, the world for the first time is poised to commit to the total phase-out of one of the six major climate pollutants, HFC refrigerants. While these chemicals, whose use is an unintended consequence of the Montreal Protocol phase-out of ozone-layer-destroying chemicals they replaced, have thus far contributed only a small part of temperature rise to date, their use is growing rapidly. Their phase-out is expected to cut mid-century temperatures by a startling 0.5 to 1 degree, avoiding the emissions of HFCs with the warming potential of 200 billion tons of CO2.

Third, the global community for the first time established an effective global emission limit for an entire sector of the economy, aviation. At the Montreal meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization, 60 countries representing 80% of the worlds aviation agreed to cap global emissions from air travel at the 2019-2020 level, requiring emissions growth after that date to be offset. There are significant limitations to this agreement, as we will need to phase out all emissions by 2050, not just emissions growth. There are also concerns that the use of offsets, while offering a promising funding mechanism to reduce deforestation, postpones the problem of eliminating aviations reliance on fossil fuels. Still, this is a powerful precedent, and the airline industry actually favored a faster timeline.

Canada, which only a year ago was viewed as a major barrier to climate progress, became the first industrial nation outside the EU to embrace a national carbon price, putting in place one of the ingredients for an eventual global financial regime capable of achieving a “decarbonized” world economy by 2050.

The Netherlands concluded it would shut down its almost brand new fleet of coal power plants, because the nation could not meet its Paris climate pledge without doing so.

Some developments have been covered by the media, but in a low-key, low-intensity way. The reason is that they relate to things that were avoided, and the press does not usually jump up and down and pointing out the things that did not happen:

  1. The Polish government, which badly wants to delay fading out coal from the EUs energy mix, did not choose to blockade early EU ratification of the Paris agreement.
  2. A fractious, challenging US-China relationship on security issues was not allowed to get in the way of the two countries coming together on the aviation deal in Montreal.
  3. Indias legitimate anger at the US over how the Trade Representative is handling WTO complaints against Indias efforts to build its domestic solar industry did not cause India to refuse to ratify Paris this year or decline to permit the phase out of HFCs.
  4. The major developing countries agreed, voluntarily, to participate in capping aviation climate pollution without waiting for climate finance from the industrial world, which they were seeking, even as they still have many important reforms to implement.
  5. Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau chose to commit his government to carbon pricing without waiting for the reluctant, slower provincial governments such as Manitoba to agree.
  6. The Dutch government did not hide behind Europes post-“Brexit” financial uncertainties to delay the decision on shutting down its coal plants.

sm_cr_carlpope__vnRoad blocks not thrown up and excuses not offered, do not solve the problem. Nevertheless, they are significant and consequential signals that countries, including the biggest emitters and the historic laggards, are now serious above moving forward. And since forward momentum in the climate space creates its momentum (through economies of deployment), this first round of action will speed the next round, giving us a serious shot at meeting the de-carbonization imperative.

So far, October has shown us what momentum feels like – and we need to find a way to better celebrate momentum, because it is the single process with the best shot of rescuing a stable climate.

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Reprinted with permission from Carl Pope. Learn more at

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. He has published three books and is now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies. He continues to serve as a board member or adviser for a long list of environmental organizations.


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