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'After the Paris climate deal, change is up to us'

Concordia researcher Damon Matthews explains what it will take to reach net-zero emissions
December 15, 2015
By Damon Matthews

"Canada has an opportunity to step up and lead this global effort." | Photo by Yann Caradec (Flickr Creative Commons) "Canada has an opportunity to step up and lead this global effort." | Photo by Yann Caradec (Flickr CC)

Damon Matthews
 is the Concordia University Research Chair for Climate Science and Sustainability, and an associate professor in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment. This op-ed was recently published in the Montreal Gazette.

With the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the world has finally struck a deal to fight climate change. The goal — to hold temperatures to “well below 2 °C” and pursue “efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C” — is impressively ambitious.

If we can achieve this, we stand a good chance of avoiding some truly dangerous climate impacts.

On the other hand, the Paris Agreement does not include mechanisms to compel countries to act, and countries’ current emissions commitments will not be enough to achieve the agreement’s temperature goal.

The success or failure of the Paris Agreement will therefore depend entirely on the collective actions of all nations in the years to come. And achieving the 2°C target — let alone 1.5°C — will require strong action on every front.

The Paris Agreement states that countries should seek to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible … and to undertake rapid reductions … so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.”

This is unfortunately not the clearest of statements. So here is what it actually means:

To stabilize global temperatures at any level, we need to stop adding carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Net emissions from human activity must eventually reach zero, such that any continued emissions are balanced by an equivalent amount of intentional removal from the atmosphere.

To meet the 2°C goal, this net-zero target must be reached by the year 2070. To stay below 1.5 °C, we have to hit net-zero by closer to 2050.

Meeting the 2°C target will be hard. Staying below 1.5°C will be even harder. Impossible? Only if we don’t try hard enough.

Encouragingly, there is now some evidence of progress. According to new emissions data from the Global Carbon Project published last week in Nature Climate Change, global CO2 emissions have been stable since 2013.

Emissions from 2013-2014 increased by only 0.6 per cent (compared to 2.5 per cent increases in previous years), and emissions in 2015 may have actually decreased back to 2013 levels.

This is the result of decreased coal use in China coupled with rapid global growth of non-fossil energy sources, and marks the first time that emissions have not increased during a time of global economic expansion.

It may be that a “global peaking” of CO2 emissions has occurred sooner than we dared to imagine possible. And if nations take up the challenge of the Paris Agreement, this might even be enough to move us further along a decreasing emissions trajectory.

Canada has an opportunity to step up and lead this global effort. According to researchers at Stanford University, Canada could transition to 100 per cent renewable energy sources by 2050, using a combination of wind, solar and hydro power.

This is the bar we have to set for ourselves. We have both the responsibility and the ability to act to cut our emissions more quickly than the rest of the world.

It is therefore essential that the target of eventual net-zero emissions be internalized at every level of decision-making.

New energy infrastructure needs to be carbon-free, and existing fossil fuel energy infrastructure needs to be either decommissioned or retrofitted with carbon capture technology.

New buildings should be built to be powered by renewable energy technology, and existing buildings retrofitted with new energy technologies. New vehicles should be built without internal combustion engines, and existing gasoline-powered vehicles phased out.

None of this is impossible. It is just a question of making the right choices.

We need to realize and acknowledge that every greenhouse gas emission that we produce takes us incrementally closer to the level of climate change we need to avoid. We need to spend our remaining carbon budget with the utmost reticence and care.

The Paris Agreement tells us where we need to go, but it will be up to us to choose the path that will take us there.

Read about what sustainability will look like tomorrow.


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