Climate Solutions

We Read the News from the Paris Climate Conference So You Don’t Have to

At COP21, grandstanding, abandoned shoes, and talk of coal rule the day.

World leaders are attempting to fix the immense problem of global warming at COP21, the climate conference in Paris that began Monday and will run through December 11. Various news outlets have had plenty of earnest—and salty—opinions on the matter: The Onion probably summed up a cynic’s view most aptly, with President Obama astride the world’s last white rhino. Even The Guardian didn’t pull any punches as it described the “circus” atmosphere that surrounded the Copenhagen conference in 2009 as a cautionary tale for what we might expect this time around. Those in the catering business take note: the future of the world may rest on your shoulders!

But despite the news media snark, COP21 presents an opportunity for governments across the globe to forge new partnerships and agreements to help combat the threat of climate change—a threat that, according to Audubon’s own scientists, stands to imperil more than half of North American birds. Trudging through all the news reports coming out of COP21 can be a drag to all but the most dedicated climate nerds, so we have gathered some of the most interesting reports and takes for easy digestibility.

What the opening remarks tell us, even if it’s not explicitly said

Opening remarks are meant to set the tone for the rest of the conference, and multiple heads of state, including President Obama, Russian president Vladimir Putin, and Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull turned on the charm. The upshots, according to Grist, are as follows: President Obama may be the symbolic leader of the global climate movement, but the U.S. is still way behind in concrete actions; Russia’s carbon footprint is, yes, lower, but that’s because its economy is in the toilet; and poorer countries are angry at being left to shoulder a burden not of their making and desperately want a strong agreement to come out of the conference:

While the high-level conversation about developing countries tends to focus on just a few big, fast-growing ones such as India, China, and Brazil, which anticipate emitting a lot more in the near future, most developing nations have minuscule emissions and will continue to for the foreseeable future. And their poverty and poor infrastructure make them especially vulnerable to extreme weather. This isn’t just true for island states. Ghanaian President John D. Mahama, for example, noted Monday that irregular rain patterns for the last few years have damaged his country’s agricultural yield and its ability to create hydropower. For smaller developing countries, there’s almost no downside to a stronger agreement, only upside.

India and other developing countries are willing to cut coal, but they need money to do it

More developed countries like the United States are putting the pressure on less developed countries like India to get on board with renewable energy. Their basic message: We're all in this together! In response, the less developed countries are asking how they're supposed to pay for such a move. Going into Paris, India said that it would most likely have to lean on dirty coal for its future development. An estimated 300 million people in the country don't have electricity, and bringing power to them will be a huge undertaking. This week, senior Indian negotiator Dr. Ajay Mathur said his nation is willing to use less coal if other nations help pony up the cash:

If cash was provided to make the capital investments in renewables cheaper, India would use more sun and wind, and less coal.

"We look forward to an agreement that enables financial support from the countries that have developed on the backs of cheap energy, to those who have to meet their energy with more expensive but low carbon energy," Dr. Mathur said.

Justice has been a hot-button issue so far in Paris. The message from many delegates is that if developed countries want to avoid being climate hypocrites—telling other countries not to use coal after they themselves burned tons of fossil fuels to reach a cozy standard of living—they need to put their money where their mouths are. Grist sums it up neatly:

Rich countries—most especially the U.S.—are responsible for the bulk of the problem, have almost all the capacity to fix it, and should be on the hook for the vast majority of the solution.

We all love trees, but we can’t agree how best to save them

Deforestation is to blame for at least 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and planting more trees helps trap carbon. But just how to get from today’s deforestation nightmare to tomorrow’s arboreal paradise is still hotly debated. According to both Grist and InsideClimate News , the UN’s program called REDD+ should help with some of the deforestation issues, but scale-up poses problems and indigenous groups have raised concerns about enforcement and land rights. From InsideClimate News:

REDD+ is already working through bilateral deals and multilateral funding. Norway, for example, has a bilateral agreement with Brazil that has provided the South American country $1 billion through REDD+ for keeping its forests intact. The 7-year-old program has been incredibly successful, helping the country reduce its rate of deforestation by 75 percent. Reductions in the rate of deforestation in Brazil have saved more than 33,000 square miles of forest since 2004, an area roughly the size of Maine, according to a study published last year in the journal Science.

[…]

But while bilateral and multilateral funding is useful for pilot projects, many forest advocates say, it's no substitute for implementing and financing REDD+ at a global scale, which is necessary for radical change in slowing global warming. Crucial to achieving this, some say, is to prominently mention REDD+ in any Paris climate agreement and also to make clear the funding amounts that forest countries would receive under the deal after 2020, something the United States, European Union and other developed countries are opposed to doing.

And Grist tackles the data problem that fuels much of the debate:

Such links between deforestation rates and emission rates have traditionally been difficult to make, however. That’s one of the reasons why, on Tuesday, Barber and collaborators at WRI helped launch Global Forest Watch Climate, an interactive mapping initiative that rides on a hefty Google Earth backbone. The software allows users to translate deforestation rates to carbon emission benchmarks as a function of time. One of Barber’s hopes is that the initiative will help clear up the confusion as to who—governments? international bodies? third parties?—is responsible for monitoring and disseminating deforestation emissions data.

“This kind of technology, as it develops, will make that an irrelevant debate,” he said. “There won’t be unofficial and official information. There will only be good information and bad information.”

Data nerds take note: deforestation studies = job security. You heard it here first (or, well, second).

New to this whole climate conference gig?

Earth Summit? Kyoto Protocol? Fear not. If you’re a climate conference neophyte, The Daily Climate will sate your itch for history with their timeline of all the COP meetings to date.

Citizens hit the streets for climate

The day before COP21 kicked off, more than 600,000 people around the world showed their support for climate action. Check out some of their gorgeous banners, costumes, and demonstrations in Grist's photo essay. French officials nixed public demonstrations in Paris because of security concerns, but environmental advocates there shared artwork and lined up pairs of shoes symbolizing those who had planned to march. Pope Francis chipped in a pair of black Oxfords, and UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon sent his sneakers.

While there isn't much else we can do but sit and wait to see how the meetings turn out, you can burn some of that nervous energy with these 5 things you can do right now to fight climate change.

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