The European Union’s ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement has nudged it beyond the required threshold — ratification by more than 55 Parties to the Convention accounting for at least 55 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This will ensure that the Agreement will enter into force, or become part of international law, on November 4, 2016. Many leaders have praised the speed at which the ratification process moved forward. Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said that she viewed this accelerated process as an expression of the importance that countries attach to climate change.

The Paris Agreement, in contrast with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, makes all countries responsible for reducing GHGs instead of just the rich or Annex-1 countries, which are responsible for the bulk of the total GHG concentrations in the atmosphere. Individual countries are now responsible for implementing their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), goals that each country developed and submitted to the UNFCCC before the Paris Conference of Parties (COP) last December. Most of the pledges, including India’s, are partly or entirely conditional on financial support for their implementation.

Support for building capacity 

The thorny question that remains is, what are the implications for an agreement that enters into force without the support needed to implement it? Rich countries are supposed to make available $100 billion annually by 2020 for climate-related projects in poor countries. There is little sign of any significant progress towards this goal. We are therefore at a point where support for building capacity to achieve the NDC goals requires the same level of international pressure and enthusiasm that was demonstrated in ratifying the Paris Agreement.

The governing body of the Paris Agreement will hold its first meeting at the COP in Marrakech in November 2016. This is referred to as the Meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA). In fact, the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA) still has a number of tasks ahead of it for implementing the Agreement. The APA has been mandated to prepare for the entry into force of the Paris Agreement and also for convening the CMA.

Coincidentally, another big news was announced recently: the earth’s atmosphere has exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2).CO2 concentrations have been steadily going upward since humans began removing fuel from below the ground and using it to fire up the industrial revolution. There are small annual fluctuations in these concentrations, which are usually at their lowest after the summer as vegetation in the Northern hemisphere absorbs the atmospheric gas. In autumn, as leaves fall, the CO2 levels begin to increase.

Over the past few years, several places in the world have recorded concentrations above 400 ppm, but this September, when concentrations should generally be lowest for the year, the values have remained above 400 ppm; the world as we know it has changed indefinitely. The scientific community has generally regarded a GHG concentration of 350-400 ppm as the maximum level needed for a safe climate. James Hansen from Columbia University wrote nearly a decade ago: “Pale climate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that.” Other scientists have in the past suggested that 400 ppm be treated as a safe threshold, but also note that the last time the earth’s atmosphere saw such concentrations was over two million years ago, when sea levels were 6 metres higher than they are today.

No matter what the magic figure, these higher concentrations of CO2 and other GHGs are trapping more heat and we are getting close to average warming by 1.5ºC over pre-industrial levels. A group of seven leading scientists produced a brief report in September this year called “The Truth about Climate Change.” They explained that with the high levels of GHGs already in the atmosphere and the slow but perceptible response of the climate system, we can expect average global temperatures to rise by 1.5ºC in the 2030s and cross 2ºC as early as 2050, which is well within the lifetime of many people alive today. The current NDC pledges made by the countries of the world, as ambitious as some of them are, will not be sufficient to put us below the 2ºC target.

Transformational change 

Given the enormous scale of the challenge, it has become clear to many who have been working for long in the domain that tinkering at the edges to tackle climate change will be inadequate. What is needed is a significant shift in human behaviour and economic systems, which are closely tied with atmospheric systems and the future of our planet. In other words, a transformational change, a system-wide modification in social, economic and technological institutions will be necessary.

Currently, about 82 per cent of the world’s energy comes from burning fossil fuels. This is used in different sectors and entails the upstream production of electricity, petrol, diesel and other forms of usable energy. Improving efficiencies of energy production and use, and increasing the contribution from renewables are major improvements, but the world will have to go to “net zero” emissions over the next few decades in order to avoid exceeding a 2ºC rise by mid-century or soon thereafter. These changes will need to take place while the lives of the poor in developing nations continue to improve, the world population increases, and we also adapt to living in a warmer world. In the last three years, global emissions, which were rising at around 4 per cent per year, have slowed to under 1 per cent growth, but it is both a scientific and social challenge to expect global emissions to peak very soon and go down to zero and remain there.

The dim source of light in this otherwise grim picture is that transformational change may in fact be taking place now in several small isolated communities around the world. These are eco-villages and transition towns (although they also go by other names) where renewable alone are used, people track all their emissions, and try to build communities while adopting simpler and less consumerist lifestyles.

Further, on October 15, a global agreement was reached to limit the use of hydro fluorocarbons (HFCs), which are used mainly as refrigerants and are powerful GHGs. According to estimates, this agreement could help avoid about 0.4ºC warming until 2100. But HFCs are a small proportion of GHGs and broad change of the scale that is required severely tests our imagination. It is only possible if social movements, civil society organisations, legal systems and political leaders work together. Such single-minded purpose across nations rich and poor, weak and strong, is only possible if there is a sense of oneness, of global solidarity, to address climate change. Whether such transformation is possible in our lifetimes remains to be seen.