The heat in Paris – limiting global warming to under two degrees

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By Deb Markowitz 

The last time I was in Paris, the temperature was unbearable. The country was suffering through a record-setting heat wave that caused the deaths of over 100 people. Then, our visit to this beautiful and historic city was cut short. But strong memories of the trip stayed with me.

Such deadly heat waves, as well as floods, fires and droughts, have become common across the globe. The impacts of climate change are already here, and cities, states and countries are struggling to address the consequences.

Last week, there was a different kind of heat in Paris. Tens of thousands of people converged to strengthen our global response as part of the 21st annual United Nations climate conference (called the COP21 — or “Conference of the Parties”). Negotiators worked to establish a new set of commitments to sharply reduce worldwide emissions; commitments well matched to address the degree of risk we face from climate disruption. The energy and hope were palpable.

The negotiations at COP21 advanced a process that began in Durban, South Africa, in 2011 to establish a new agreement by the time the Kyoto Protocol (the first international climate treaty) expires in 2020. The new agreement in Paris seeks to reduce emissions to the level needed to hold global warming to an absolute maximum of two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the level at which many scientists agree that impacts will become intolerable.

Some remember the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009, which fell flat because of resistance to top-down mandates that didn’t account for the particular challenges facing each country. The U.N. learned a valuable lesson that year; countries are now being asked to bring their own individual pledges forward as part of a bottom-up approach that offers more flexibility to developed and developing nations alike. However, it is not yet clear whether the commitments, when combined into one international package, will deliver enough emissions reduction to stay below that critical two degrees threshold.

What makes me optimistic is that this was not just a meeting of presidents, prime ministers and their negotiators. Paris was filled with people — young and old and from every continent — who were there to say the time is now, we cannot defer this any longer. Representatives from a diverse group of business and industry were there because they recognize that reducing emissions is a necessity, not only for polar bears, but for our economic security, health and prosperity.

They are investing in the technical innovations that will enable us to move off of fossil fuels. Additionally, environmental, public health and international development organizations from around the world were there to share innovative approaches to reducing emissions and building local resilience to the impacts of climate change.

I spent time on this trip with Gov. Shumlin and a group of truly energized innovators —state, local and regional leaders. Since Copenhagen, their governments have taken the lead where national governments failed to act. Together we are demonstrating that we can make and implement plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and that when we put them into action, new economic opportunities proliferate. (Vermont’s gross state product has grown 57 percent since 1990. During this timeframe, emissions initially grew but now have returned to near 1990 levels, and clean energy jobs grew to 5 percent of all jobs in our state!)

At side meetings in Paris, Vermont signed on to a number of sub-national agreements along with more than 80 other state, regional and local governments. They will express our commitment to meet the goal of holding global warming to under two degrees and to build our own resilience as a state.

We can show the nations of the world what is possible, and in doing so, make meaningful progress toward ensuring the health of our planet and the safety of humanity’s future.

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Deb Markowitz is secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.