Climate Policy: Past, Present, and Future

EM—A look at the new direction of U.S. climate policy in the wake of the Paris Agreement, focusing on how the international aviation and maritime shipping sectors, in particular, can reduce their climate impacts. 

by Bryan Comer

As a youngster, I feared two things above all else: killer bees and the hole in the ozone layer. Living in upstate New York my fears of both were, admittedly, overblown. But while it seemed like there was no solution to killer bees (my plan was to jump in the pool and breathe through a straw), the world was already doing something about the ozone layer. Despite scientific uncertainty, in 1987, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was agreed. The Protocol phased out ozone-depleting substances and, over time, the hole in the ozone layer has shrunk. If we so deftly solved this global problem by restricting the amount and types of stuff we emit into the atmosphere, is there hope for solving another global problem—climate change—in the same way?

The 1992 Rio Earth Summit suggested that we might be able to do it. Like the Montreal Protocol, despite scientific uncertainty, delegates agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), ultimately ratified by 197 countries. The UNFCCC's main objective is to stabilize greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” a good first step.

Five years later, in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was agreed, although it entered into force much later, in 2005. Under the Protocol, many industrialized nations (but not the United States) agreed to binding commitments to reduce GHG emissions below their 1990 levels. With the latest Kyoto Protocol commitment period set to expire in 2020, and with global GHG concentrations continuing to rise, parties to the UNFCCC convened in Paris in 2015 to take another crack at meaningfully reducing emissions.

The Paris Agreement, which entered into force in November 2016 has 195 signatories and 175 parties as of early 2018. It aims to hold “the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C ...”. Each party to the agreement is required to set its own nationally determined contribution (NDC) toward achieving the temperature goals and the NDCs are slated to be updated every five years. This year, as part of UNFCCC “Talanoa Dialogue,” parties are taking stock of their progress toward achieving the Paris Agreement goals and will consider increasing the ambition of their 2020 NDCs.

The Paris Agreement marks a new chapter in global climate policy and is an important step toward decarbonizing a world still reliant on fossil fuels to power nearly all sectors of the economy. The task ahead is difficult, and failure means severe consequences for everyone, especially those in the developing world.

In this issue of EM, we explore climate policy in the wake of the Paris Agreement.

Read the full May 2018 Issue of EM online or via the App.