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Historic Paris Climate Deal: A Low Va Va Voom

By: Bob Henson and Jeff Masters 5:29 PM GMT on December 14, 2015

After two weeks of intricate negotiation, world leaders wrapped up the 2015 UN climate summit in Paris with the most important diplomatic advance on global climate protection in more than two decades. The end product was the Paris Agreement (see PDF), a finely tuned document aimed at getting all of the world’s nations on board with plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions--even if those plans are not legally binding.

Figure 1. Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Christiana Figueres, Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon and Foreign Affairs Minister and President-designate of COP21 Laurent Fabius raise hands together after adoption of a historic global warming pact at the COP21 Climate Conference in Le Bourget, north of Paris, on December 12, 2015. Envoys from 195 nations adopted the historic accord. Image credit: Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images.

Key parts of the Paris Agreement include:

--New global targets. The Paris Agreement emphasizes the importance of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.” The 1.5°C goal was originally proposed years ago by small island states for which any greater warming could spell extinction. In a surprise move, the U.S., European Union, Brazil, and many other nations joined forces with those small island states to argue on behalf of including the 1.5°C goal. For now, the target is mainly a statement of solidarity and empathy, given that the nation-by-nation plans submitted over the last few months would together limit global warming to perhaps 2.7°C over preindustrial levels at best.

--Regular review and fine-tuning. The targets in each national plan will remain voluntary--largely out of deference to the U.S. Congress, which telegraphed its refusal to approve binding U.S. targets. But the Paris Agreement does include newly binding requirements on how each nation reports progress toward its targets, to help ensure accountability on the world stage. The plans must be reviewed and revised every five years, with an eye toward greater emission cuts over time as renewable technologies are deployed at larger scale.

It appears that the legally binding requirements of the Paris Agreement may not require approval from the U.S. Congress if they are interpreted as extensions of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was signed by President George H.W. Bush and approved by the U.S. Senate in 1992.

Was the Paris summit a success?
The international nonprofit group E3G had envisioned three possible outcomes from Paris:

Le Zombie--tactical deal with high potential for collapse
Comme ci, Comme ça’--modest progress with guarantees on finance
Va Va Voom--cements a new enduring regime on climate change

E3G rated the final result as a “low Va Va Voom.” According to E3G, the Paris Agreement “signals the end of business as usual for the energy industries. Future investment will need to be compatible with a zero carbon world.” The agreement is also expected to hasten other activity on the regional, state, and local scales worldwide. For example, mayors from hundreds of cities around the world pledged in Paris to move toward a year-2050 target of 100% renewable energy or an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases.

Will it be enough?
This year’s global temperature is likely to reach 1.0°C above preindustrial levels. It’s been estimated that the known global reserves of fossil fuel are already several times more than enough to push us above the 2.0°C target. In the wake of the Paris Agreement, some activists and policymakers argue that good intentions and voluntary targets could still wilt in the face of economic pressure to use this coal, oil, and gas. The eminent climate scientist James Hansen, now retired from NASA, called the Paris talks “a fraud,” arguing that a fee on emitting carbon remains essential: “As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

There are several ways to use market forces to reduce greenhouse emissions, including a tax or fee on carbon as well as cap-and-trade mechanisms. Many nations, regions, and states have adopted cap-and-trade systems, including the northeast U.S., and Climate Central’s John Upton recently showed how interstate collaboration may help reduce emissions from U.S. power plants under new EPA guidelines. We can expect a further blossoming of such arrangements as nations around the world explore ways to meet their Paris commitments. Yet this won’t be a cake walk, as veteran climate writer and activist Bill McKibben pointed out in a Guardian essay on Sunday, using the apt analogy of a marathon: “Our only hope is to decisively pick up the pace...We know where we’re going now; no one can doubt that the fossil fuel age has finally begun to wane, and that the sun is now shining on, well, solar. But the question, the only important question, is: how fast.”

Figure 2. Typhoon Melor as seen by Japan’s Himawari satellite at 0237Z Monday, December 14 (9:37 pm EST December 13), 2015. At the time, Melor was a Category 3 storm with 125 mph winds, and the southern eyewall of the storm was over northern Samar Island. Image credit: NOAA/RAMMB.

Yet another Category 4 in the Pacific: Melor churns through Philippines
Typhoon Melor powered into the Central Philippines on Sunday night, December 13 (U.S. EST time) as a Category 3 storm with 125 mph winds. This was slightly below its peak intensity as a Category 4 storm with 135 mph winds at 8 am EST Sunday, when Melor became the record-smashing 26th Northern Hemisphere Category 4 or stronger storm this year (previous record: just 18 such storms in 1997 and 2004, according to WU contributor Dr. Phil Klotzbach.) Melor is also the 20th typhoon of 2015, which is the most typhoons in the Northwest Pacific since 2004 (which also had 20 typhoons.) Melor is the strongest December typhoon to affect the Philippines since Typhoon Bopha of 2012, which hit Mindanao Island on December 3 as a Category 5 storm with 175 mph winds.

Damage is likely to be heavy from Melor, since the southern eyewall of the storm tracked along the north coast of Samar Island for several hours when the typhoon was at Category 3 strength. The Philippine Meteorological agency, PAGASA, warned that Melor could bring a storm surge as high as 4 meters to the coast, and rainfall amounts of 10+ inches were expected over a wide swath of the Philippines along Melor’s path. As it weakens, Melor is expected to make a final Philippines landfall on Mindoro Island on Tuesday morning local time.

Figure 3. A view of the powerful extratropical cyclone over the Bering Sea from Japan’s Himawari satellite at 0500Z Sunday, December 13, 2015. Image credit: NOAA/RAMMB.

Aleutians pummeled by fierce cyclone in Bering Sea
Melor wasn’t the only cyclone thrashing around the North Pacific this past weekend. An extremely strong non-tropical low developed south of the Aleutian Islands and raced north, deepening to a central pressure estimated by the Ocean Prediction Center at 06Z Sunday as 924 millibars. According to WU weather historian Christopher Burt, this ranks with the Bering Sea storm from November 7-8, 2014, and another one from October 25, 1977, as the strongest extratropical lows observed in the North Pacific since reliable records began in late 1969. Both of those two previous systems developed from the remnant circulations of typhoons, a common source of Aleutian storms that was not in play last weekend. A drifting buoy northeast of Adak--the westernmost town in the United States--reported a pressure of 929 mb, and sustained winds at Adak reportedly reached at least 94 mph. If confirmed, these would be the highest sustained winds on record for Alaska.

We’ll be back by Wednesday at the latest with a report from the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

Bob Henson (Paris Agreement, Bering Sea storm), Jeff Masters (Typhoon Melor)

Climate Change Politics Climate Change Hurricane Extreme Weather

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.