Five years after Paris

Today’s original art for The Phoenix is by Laila Arêde.

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Emissions are down in 2020, big time

This week marks five years since the Paris climate accord was agreed upon, the world’s first global mandate to tackle climate change.

A new report out today finds that carbon emissions are indeed down since 2015, but only after a hell-year of pandemic-related lockdowns, mass death, and governments around the world placing harsh curbs on immigration and freedom of movement.

Even though this was expected, it’s still huge, huge news.

The majority of this year’s global dip in emissions were transportation related, particularly in the US and Europe as people worked from home and abandoned air travel.

Globally, emissions in 2020 were roughly the same as they were in 2011. More specifically, 2020-level emissions were last seen in:

  • 2018 in China

  • 2015 in India

  • 1988 in the US

  • 1964 in Europe

Amid all of this year’s pain and suffering, we gave ourselves a once-in-a-planet chance to reshape our economies and our societies in a way that works with the Earth.

Let’s be clear about one thing: A virus is not a climate plan. The Covid pandemic turned back the clock on emissions worldwide. But it’s changed nothing – yet – about the problem that got us here: Extractive capitalism working in partnership with white supremacy, patriarchy, and imperialism. To change everything, we need everyone healthy, valued, and loved.

That means NOW IS A SUPER IMPORTANT TIME. If we return to business as usual post-Covid, it will be a disaster that may be unrecoverable. Climate change needs to be at the heart of every country's recovery plans in 2021.

For the first time in a very long time, there are emerging signs that we are starting to get back on the right course on climate.

Rejoining Paris might be a bigger deal than we thought

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to re-join the Paris agreement on the first day of his presidency. To do that, though, he’ll need to officially submit a new national goal (a “nationally determined contribution”) to improve upon the one that President Obama originally committed us to in 2015. That’s the harder part of rejoining Paris. (Here’s a good overview of the nuts and bolts of the process.)

Obama’s goal was pretty weak: A 26-28% reduction in emissions by 2025, compared to 2005 levels. Climate experts think Biden could ramp this all the way up to 50% by 2030 – something that was honestly unthinkable even just a few years ago, and nearly in-line with a path to a less-than-2°C–warming world.

As my conversation this week with Biden’s frontrunner for EPA Administrator Mary Nichols shows, a rapid decarbonization of the US economy seems imminent. An analysis last month showed Biden’s climate plan alone could achieve up to 54% emissions reductions by 2030, but that will be hard to do without comprehensive climate legislation. Democrats can win  control of the Senate if they maintain their lead in the two Georgia elections on January 5. By 2030, says Nichols, “almost the entire energy system, both our electricity and our transportation systems, [could] be zero carbon” and we’ll have made tremendous progress on the tougher sectors like agriculture, industry, and buildings, too.

Of course, “nearly” on a path to 2°C is still not enough, and a 2°C warmer world is still unacceptably dangerous. Cutting emissions is just the first step. To be a climate leader on a global scale, Biden will need to pledge resources to help countries who have done the least to cause the climate emergency adapt to escalating disasters, including debt relief, and a permanent shift to repairing the centuries-long harms of extractive capitalism and inequality.

Limiting warming to less than 1.5°C is an existential necessity. Joe Biden won’t get us there on his own, but he could make a transformative leap in the right direction.

A better world is possible. It’s never too late.