#WhyThisMatters The Paris Agreement could be the turning point for global warming


The world has warmed at an alarming rate in the last three years, with 2014 and 2015 each setting the record for the hottest year ever recorded. Every single month of this year has broken a heat record, so 2016 is nailed down to take the dubious title from the last two years.

Global warming is very definitely happening, and it is pushing serious changes in our climate. The last few months have been around 1°C hotter than the average of what they should be. This year is projected to end up 1.25°C hotter. It normally takes centuries for this rate of warming to happen. We’re seeing it happen in a matter of decades. That’s because humans continue to burn fossil fuels – and other greenhouse gases – which end up trapped in the atmosphere, warming the planet.

The last time the temperature was as high as this was 115 000 years ago, according to a new research paper by James Hansen, a former senior climate scientist at Nasa. That resulted in sea levels up to nine metres higher than they are now. Projections for a world this hot – according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – make for terrifying reading, as ecosystems spiral out of control.

But there is hope of such massive change being averted, because it is a problem that the world’s governments have now decided to tackle collectively.

Last week, the Mail & Guardian reported that enough countries had ratified the Paris Agreement for it to go into force. That required 55 countries, representing 55% of carbon emissions, to ratify it at a country level. The UN said the official ceremony would happen on November 4.

That agreement is the culmination of years of climate negotiations, which ended 11 months ago in the French capital. It saw countries committing to do as much as they could do ensure that the world does not get more than 2°C hotter than it was before the Industrial Revolution kicked off.

To do that, each country submitted an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC). This laid out what the country would do to lower its carbon emissions, and help its own people adapt to the changing climate.

Put together, the agreements from nearly 200 countries do not commit to do enough to reach the 2°C. The UN admits they will mean a 3°C world – which is catastrophic if you live along the tropics, or in Africa.

That could be cause for further depression. But the Paris Agreement is a huge breakthrough because it is the first time each country in the world is on the same page.

In the late 90s, developing countries signed up to the Kyoto Protocol. This gave them targets for how much they should reduce their carbon emissions. But its small scope – it didn’t include the soon to explode economies of China and India – and the withdrawal of the United States rendered it ineffective.

The Paris Agreement signals a departure from countries doing their own thing on climate change. It creates a single goal for everyone, with diplomatic and economic consequences for countries that do not do their bit to lower emissions. China and the United States were quick off the mark to ratify it, with both countries announcing ambitious plans to lower their carbon emissions. President Barack Obama said: “If we follow through on the commitments that the Paris Agreement embodies, history may well judge it as a turning point for our planet.”

For its part, South Africa has not yet ratified the agreement. The environment department says it has to go through steps including public consultation before that happens. But the country will ratify it. That will then require the country to lower its carbon emission by 42% by 2025, and then continually drop them from 2035 onwards.

If the political will turns into practical action, this could just be the moment when humanity stood together to save the world.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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