It’s a big week for the climate. Leaders from around the world are meeting in Lima, Peru for the COP20, this year’s United Nations climate summit. While the meeting in and of itself isn’t groundbreaking—the UN has been hosting similar annual summits since 1992 with the goal of forging a global agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions, this is the first year that the two largest emitters, the United States and China, are showing up with domestic emission reductions commitments in place.
The recent agreement by President Obama and President Xi Jinping, whereby the U.S. committed to cut emissions by 28% by 2025 and China agreed to reach peak emissions by 2030, is one step in a long journey, but an important one that will hopefully spur other countries to make similar climate action commitments.
After two decades of flaccid response and muted action, negotiators are arriving in Lima with cautious optimism that a global climate deal may—finally—be achievable. Negotiators hope that the meetings lead to an historic agreement that commits every nation to a domestic plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at realistic levels that take into consideration political and economic constraints.
Without a deal, scientists affirm that the planet will become uninhabitable for humans and many other species. Even with a deal that implements immediate action to dramatically reduce current emissions levels, it’s all but certain that the Earth will become an increasingly more unpleasant place to live.
Scientists and climatologists warn that it may now be impossible to avoid a threshold 3.6 degree Fahrenheit temperature increase, identified as the tipping point that would lock the planet into a vicious cycle of extreme weather, droughts, floods, water shortages, reduced crop yield, and rising sea levels. According to climate scientists, a 4 degree increase in temperature would likely prove fatal for humans.
This scenario is creating an even greater sense of urgency for leaders attending the Lima talks, who are hoping that a draft document can be crafted and then signed at next year’s climate summit in Paris.
Climate-caused catastrophic natural disasters are already altering ecosystems and economies across the globe. To prevent the threshold temperature increase, we would need to hit peak global carbon emissions within the next 10 years and reduce current levels by 50% by 2050. Many experts agree that, even if a deal is crafted this week and executed next year, change won’t happen fast enough, especially given that any agreement developed at the climate summit wouldn’t be officially enacted until 2020.
The road is long and bumpy, and there are many possible setbacks to climate progress. Topping the list is the uncertainty of whether Obama’s successor will embrace aggressive climate action and India’s (the world’s third largest carbon emitter) lack of commitment to emissions reductions to date (although there is scuttlebutt that the agreement between the U.S. and China has forced India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to analyze the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and develop a climate action plan.) Moreover, to reach set targets, robust and transparent monitoring and verification frameworks must be established, which will undoubtedly be an arduous process.
Many low-lying countries, particularly island nations, are hoping that the large, developed countries shift debate into action quickly and drastically, as they continue to suffer from rising sea levels, tidal surges, coastal crop destruction, and contaminated fresh water supplies. Many of these island nations are shifting into survival mode, purchasing farmland abroad to grow food and even relocating large portions of their populations.
To assist the vulnerable countries that have been (and will continue to be) hardest hit by climate change, the UN has created the Green Climate Fund. This fund, and the larger issue of climate finance, will be front and center in this week’s meetings.
No doubt, the momentum is moving in the right direction for sustainability. Now that the U.S. and China have raised the bar with national carbon reduction commitments, it’s expected that other countries will follow. I am hopeful that this week’s meetings in Lima will not only result in some form of a global climate action plan, but will also transform the concept of climate action from a burden to a smart, successful national strategy that will lead to enhanced jobs, innovation, and opportunity.
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