Stanford experts view landmark Paris climate agreement as a ‘foundation for future work’

International climate talks in Paris - known as the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 21) - recently concluded on a high note as 196 countries forged an agreement to ward off the worst effects of climate change through mutual commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The accord, which was 23 years in the making, has been recognized as an historic move to protect the future of life on earth. The agreement couldn't come soon enough – during the two weeks of negotiations, Beijing issued its highest-level alert on pollution for the first time, the Indian city of Chennai experienced its heaviest rains in 100 years, and Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, received record December snowfall.

The agreement reflects an aspirational goal of keeping global average temperature rise since the Industrial Revolution below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and sets a formal goal of limiting temperature rise to well-below 2 degrees. Critics of the agreement note that both limits are unattainable under current emissions reduction commitments from the accord’s signatories. However, countries will update their pledges with more stringent targets beginning in the year 2020 and every five years after. Additionally, the agreement commits developed countries to help finance developing countries as they adapt to climate change and make the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. With the negotiations complete, the agreement now goes to individual governments for adoption.

We asked Stanford scholars to reflect on the climate accord and look ahead to what comes next:

Q: What was your reaction to the agreement?

Noah Diffenbaugh, Stanford Earth

“First, I was impressed with how well the science that has come out since Copenhagen six years ago was integrated into the structure of the agreement, such as the clear acknowledgement of a carbon budget, detection and attribution of global warming impacts that have already happened, and recognition that a 2 degree Celsius target will not avoid further impacts.

Second, it was particularly noteworthy that by the end of the talks, 2 degrees was the outside boundary, with a clear aspiration to have less than 2 degrees of warming - a debate between "1.5" and "2" is not something I would have predicted after Copenhagen in 2009.

Third, it was really significant that sustainable development and constraining global warming were integrated in the language and structure of the agreement. This integrated approach to climate risk management is something that the IPCC has been at the forefront of articulating under the leadership of Chris Field. Access to energy is fundamental for human well-being, and this agreement acknowledges that for all people on planet Earth to be protected from climate change, the climate has to be stabilized through a pathway that ensures access to the benefits of energy.”

Rob Jackson, Stanford Earth

“The Paris agreement is historic, but the hard work lies ahead of us. We know that the current mitigation pledges to 2030 are not enough to keep global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius. Country commitments will need to be strengthened quickly. One thing that the agreement does not do is set any intermediate goals beyond 2030. Such goals are critical for keeping us on track with compatible pathways. A specific emissions mitigation target for 2050, for instance, would have benchmarked where emissions need to be to keep temperatures below 2 degree Celsius by end of this century.”

Mark Jacobson, Stanford Engineering

“The COP21 meeting was inspiring, as thousands of people had coalesced around the concept of providing 100% clean, renewable energy for everyone. The signs calling for that goal were everywhere, including on the Eiffel Tower, along the Champs Elysee, and at Le Bourget. This concept was born at Stanford University. More important, the policy makers were galvanized into making some sort of agreement although far from as strong as needed. My feeling is that individual countries will go stronger than their commitments because they will find it is to their advantage economically, job-wise, health-wise, and stability-wise.”

Michael Wara, Stanford Law

“First, it's important to put the Paris Agreement in appropriate perspective. These talks were never going to solve the problem. The best we could have hoped for was an agreement that lays the foundation for future work. We got that. Now it's time to get to work building on that foundation.

Second, wow, I can't believe what a great deal the United States managed to achieve. The U.S. essentially got what it wanted on most if not all fronts, threading the needle between effectiveness and the need to avoid a requirement for the U.S. Congress to ratify the agreement. If there were any justice, chief U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern deserves a long vacation and a big bonus.”

Lastly, I won't relax about the Paris Agreement until the Obama Administration wins in the Supreme Court in its defense of the Clean Power Plan. If the Administration loses, everything, including the international deal, will be in jeopardy. In addition, the damage from a U.S. default on its promises would likely spread far beyond climate to impact a broad array of U.S. cooperative initiatives with international partners.”

Q: What is the difference between limiting warming to 2 degrees and the more ambitious 1.5 degree target?

Chris Field, Stanford Earth

“Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emphasized a growing body of evidence indicating that we are experiencing real impacts from climate changes that have already occurred. Neither 2 degrees Celsius nor 1.5 degrees Celsius is a guardrail below which everyone is safe. Many key risks to coastal zones, ecosystems, food security, human health, heritage sites, and economics are already high at a warming of 2 degrees. Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees does not solve all of the problems, but it decreases the risks and expands the suite of options for effective adaptation.

The Paris agreement has three key components for emissions reductions. Step one is the contributions that countries have already offered. These don’t get us anywhere close to the zero emissions that will eventually be required, but they start moving things in the right direction. Step two is a framework for increasing national-scale ambitions for emissions reductions. With progress in technology and policy, this framework can embrace and support faster and larger emissions reductions in the future. Step three is actions by actors other than countries. Some of these other actors are states and cities. Some are companies. Others are non-governmental organizations. Innovators will have growing opportunities to contribute to climate solutions. Many of these will be economic opportunities as well as leadership opportunities. Together, these three elements of the Paris agreement lay the foundations for a virtuous circle—a circle that amplifies small initial steps and ultimately drives emissions to zero. If we are to have a chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees, net emissions will need to drop to zero well before 2100.”

Q: For scientists who have devoted much of their professional lives to informing the IPCC process, what happens now? What role will scientists continue to play?

Katherine Mach, Stanford Earth, Ph.D. ‘10

“Governments built the Paris agreement on a robust scientific foundation. IPCC reports, based on the work of many thousands of scientists globally, have underscored the essentials: climate change impacts are already widespread, risks climb substantially with continued high emissions, and ambitiously limiting warming requires driving our emissions to zero within the century. A new era of climate response has begun. And the need for creative scientific insights has never been greater. As the world charges ahead with climate solutions, science will play a key role in developing and evaluating the necessary technologies and actions. Experimentation and assessment, by scientists from around the world, will help us figure out how to turn the tide on rising emissions, while developing our economies sustainably and protecting people and the planet. Effective climate responses can build a better world. Science will be essential in empowering smart decisions in the transformations ahead.”

Q: How can the private sector help achieve the goals of the COP?

Jim Leape, Stanford Consulting Professor

“In the run-up to Paris, and at the conference itself, many of the world’s biggest companies made important commitments to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions in their businesses — by increasing their reliance on renewable energy, for example, or eliminating deforestation from their supply chains. Now, for companies as for countries, it will be crucially important that they move promptly to implement their pledges, that they are transparent and accountable to the public for their progress, and that they work with their peers to build even stronger commitments.”

Q: As a student who traveled to Paris for the climate talks, how do you plan to bring your experience back home?

Meghan Shea, Stanford Engineering, ‘17

“Experiencing the COP 21 climate negotiations was incredibly influential. I have always been interested in a research-based career, but seeing how science is incorporated into international agreements has very poignantly reminded me that research does not exist in a vacuum. In Paris, the COP 21 class had a Q&A session with Chris Field and Katie Mach, and they are both such incredible role models for how environmental researchers should be engaging beyond the lab. Now, I want to devote much of the rest of my time at Stanford to continuing to contextualize the science I am passionate about--through communication, law, political science and policy classes.

While at the COP, classmate Charlie Jiang and I worked on a short film about the role of small island developing states in the negotiations. The most tangible part of my experience that I am bringing back is 250 GB worth of footage that is in the process of being compiled into a video that we can share with those who were not able to attend. But more than that, I am bringing back so many thoughts and questions that I hope can continue to spark discussions about the success and failures of the agreement. ”