Q&A on the Paris Agreement

School for Marine Science & Technology Dean Steven Lohrenz and Environmental Policy Professor Chad McGuire offer their reaction to the historic agreement and discuss President Obama’s legacy on climate.

The Paris Agreement is being hailed as the world’s most significant agreement to address climate change.

This past Saturday in Paris representatives of 195 nations reached a landmark accord that will commit nearly every country to lower planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. The Paris Agreement is being hailed as the world’s most significant agreement to address climate change. UMass Dartmouth School for Marine Science & Technology (SMAST) Dean Steven Lohrenz and Environmental Policy Professor Chad McGuire offer their reaction to the historic agreement and discuss President Obama’s legacy on climate.

UMass Dartmouth recently hosted the Global Awareness Education and Action (GAEA) Summit focusing on the impacts of climate change on southeastern Massachusetts.

In your opinion, how significant is the Paris Agreement?

SL: This is a major achievement in acknowledging the need for action to mitigate climate change by the global community. It is an historic agreement and a positive step for our nation and the world. A key part of this has been the leadership of the U.S., which is responsible for the largest cumulative contributions to greenhouse gas increases in our atmosphere. The involvement of China, which is now the largest emitter on an annual basis, is also pivotal and a key to the success of the agreement. The U.S. is still the largest emitter on a per capita basis, and must continue to show leadership in advancing technology and adopting methods and actions to reduce emissions. The Paris Agreement is also notable in that it seeks to limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Centigrade (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), a target that if met should lessen the devastating impacts of climate change in many parts of the world.

CM: The Paris Agreement is significant for at least two reasons. First, it provides international validation of climate change at the political level. Having international agreement that climate change is occurring, and humans are at the center as a cause, is a critical psychological step in moving forward globally on solutions. Of course, each of the 196 nations that are signatories must now ratify the Agreement and, if so, develop concrete plans for reducing their emissions. How this plays out over the next year and a half (countries have until April of 2017 to ratify the Agreement) will be important.

Second, the Paris Agreement provides a foundation for moving to a carbon neutral world. Although the individual nation targets are voluntary, the framework is aimed at ensuring global temperatures do not exceed 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels (we are already about 1 degree Celsius above preindustrial levels). To accomplish this goal, countries will be evaluating their plans about every five years (after initial plans begin in 2020) to see how those individual plans are working toward the aggregate goals of not exceeding 2 degrees C. To help with this planning there is another goal of being entirely carbon neutral (net zero emissions globally) by 2050.

What factors influenced the ability for world leaders to reach an agreement previously unreachable for two decades?

SL: The fact that the largest emitters, the U.S. and China, showed leadership at the outset of the conference set the stage for a successful negotiation. In addition, consideration to aid developing countries that have played only a minor role to date in greenhouse gas emissions was an important element in the success of the agreement.

CM: I think the voluntary nature of initially setting individual country goals was key to making this agreement work. Previous work focused on mandatory reductions from each country. Paris requires voluntary reductions. However, those voluntary reductions must add up to a collective reduction goal under that 2 degree C limit. The buy-in at that point can occur with very little cost to each country. That is likely the critical factor making this agreement acceptable to the signatories.

Where does the agreement fall short in the eyes of environmentalists, scientists, and other climate stakeholders?

SL: The agreement is non-binding, so one potential concern is that the agreement outlines an intent to reduce emissions, but does not ensure that actions will be taken. The next steps will be to implement substantive actions to reduce emissions. This will require an aggressive strategy at both national and international levels of implementing actions along with monitoring, reporting and verifying that reductions are being made and that they are sustainable and persistent.

CM: Not setting mandatory limits is problematic for many who worry about the ability of countries to follow through with reduction pledges that actually meet the 2 degree Celsius goal. Also the timeframe is likely an issue as well. No nation is required to begin implementing their voluntary reductions until 2020 and thus an accounting on progress will not be official until around 2025. So we are talking about a decade before a progress report on how well this climate agreement is working to reduce global carbon emissions. Some certainly will see that as too slow and ineffective. Also, some would have liked to see the global goal be set at 1.5 degrees Celsius rather than the agreed 2 degree Celsius target.

How would you define President Obama’s legacy in acting on climate?

SL: President Obama has acted boldly to show leadership. Without a strong commitment by the U.S., it is unlikely that the negotiations would have had a successful outcome. The President relied upon his Executive powers to outline actions that can be taken within the existing legal framework, and by doing so, avoided having to get the approval of Congress, members of which have been slow to recognize the urgent need for action.  I believe this will be seen as a major accomplishment for his Administration, and one that will be honored by future generations if we can meet the goals that have been set.

CM: I think President Obama has enacted important policies nationally to help deal with climate change. Federal incentives supported by the President have spurred the development of green energies such as wind and solar power generation. Automobile fuel efficiency standards have aided in the development of more fuel-efficient vehicles, including innovations in electric and fuel cell technology. Our Environmental Protection Agency has quantified carbon emissions at most of our stationary power generators and used that information to regulate carbon as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. These are significant actions at our national level to help reduce our dependency on carbon. Add to these commitments made at the international level, bilaterally and now with Paris, and I think one would have to see substantial evidence that President Obama has done quite a bit with the powers he has to position the United States towards the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement.

About Steven Lohrenz

Dr. Steven Lohrenz has led SMAST's faculty, staff and students since January 2011. An expert on marine productivity and ecology with a focus on using advanced optics to understand the effect of CO2 on oceans, he previously chaired the University of Southern Mississippi's Department of Marine Science at the NASA John C. Stennis Space Center. While serving as Chair, Lohrenz was involved in the recovery following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and also served on the University Oil Spill Response Team and a statewide Mississippi oil spill response committee during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2009. He received his Ph.D. in Biological Oceanography in 1985 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program

About Chad McGuire

Dr. McGuire is a Professor of Environmental Policy within UMass Dartmouth's Department of Public Policy. His background is in environmental law and environmental science. Professor McGuire teaches, writes, and practices in the fields of environmental law, policy, sustainability and dispute resolution. He has published more than 20 scholarly articles and three academic texts on these topics over the last ten years. In addition, he works on policy issues related to fisheries management, climate change, coastal management, and land use patterns. Dr. McGuire's expertise has been sought in both private and public forums, and he currently serves on committees for both non-profit and government entities. For more information on Professor McGuire's research on environmental issues, sea-level rise, and climate change, click here.

Editor's Note: Video above is Dr. McGuire discussing his latest research on climate change on March 4, 2015 in his ARNIE Talk titled A Changing Climate, Rising Seas, and Human Institutions: The Strangest of Bedfellows.


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