Paris 2015: Signaling a Sea Change in the Global Climate Fight?

World leaders must craft a climate plan in Paris ambitious enough to spur new investments in renewable energy and to keep emissions reduction targets falling in the years to come.

Wind energy
Wind turbines on Mount Oiz in Biscay, Spain. Three weeks before the Paris climate conference, pledges to reduce carbon emissions are only one third of what's needed to prevent temperature increases above 2°C and avoid catastrophic changes in climate. (Mimadeo/Shutterstock)

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Three weeks before the Paris climate conference, almost all nations have put forward plans to do more than ever before to slow climate change. But will it be enough to signal a sea change for the future of the planet?

By 2030, these national pledges will reduce carbon emissions by 6 billion tons, but a reduction of 18 billion tons is necessary to keep temperature increases below 2°C and avoid catastrophic changes in climate. In other words, we’re one third of the way there. We must do better, and quickly, before worsening floods, storms, droughts and heat waves take an ever greater toll on human health and the environment, especially in vulnerable communities. 

A clear policy signal to board rooms, investors and communities around the world that fossil fuels are on the way out and renewable energy is here to stay is urgently needed. Will the Paris agreement provide market signals strong enough to shift trillions of dollars in investment toward a clean energy, low-carbon future? Let’s look at where we stand:

The energy transformation is well underway. On a sunny day in Germany, solar energy provides more than half of the country’s electricity. In 2014, Denmark and Spain produced 39 percent and 21 percent, respectively, of their electricity from wind energy. The city of Vienna uses nearly zero energy for heating and cooling. Copenhagen aims to become the world’s first zero-carbon capital by 2025.

In the U.S., almost half of all new electricity generated in 2013 and 2014 came from solar power. In California, the three largest utilities collectively provided almost 23 percent of their 2013 retail electricity from renewables, and Hawaii has committed to using 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. 

Fantastic progress. But it’s the tip of the iceberg compared to what a 2°C future demands.

The Paris agreement must inspire and accelerate a global race to supply clean energy, the largest—and coolest—investment opportunity of our day. We are in a race to shift the projected 90 trillion dollars of investment in global infrastructure that will made by 2030 toward clean energy and low-carbon development to avoid locking in new fossil fuel plants that will pollute for decades to come.

On that score, many of the national plans really deliver. The Chinese pledge commits to building between 800 and 1,000 gigawatts of non-fossil energy generation capacity—close to the U.S.’s total current electricity capacity—by 2030, including 200 gigawatts of solar and 100 gigawatts of wind, which will drive the price of renewables down worldwide. The centerpiece of the U.S. pledge, the Clean Power Plan (CPP), is a game-changer, creating new opportunities for renewable energy in every state. Under the CPP, renewables will make up as much as 28 percent of our electricity by 2030, versus 13 percent today, according to the EPA.

But fossil fuels still supply over 80 percent of the world’s energy, and without policies that force industry to pay for the environmental and health costs, fossil fuel is still often the cheapest option for meeting growing energy demand. 

What can the Paris agreement do to change this calculus? A successful agreement will include a process to regularly review global progress as soon as possible and continuously ratchet down emissions. It will ensure transparency and accountability, giving confidence that all nations are meeting their commitments. It will provide financial and technical support to developing countries to help them leapfrog to clean energy and to adapt to the unavoidable and worsening impacts of climate change.

And finally, the agreement must enshrine a transformational, long-term goal for governments, business and civil society to de-carbonize our economy, phase-in 100 percent clean energy and limit global warming as much as possible. 

Although the Paris agreement won’t contain everything the world needs, it is shaping up to be a major turning point on the road to a low-carbon economy. But it’s up to all of us to ensure the signal from Paris is heard—and acted on—in board rooms, on main streets and in communities across our nation and around the world. The United States has put a strong climate pledge on the table for Paris, including the Clean Power Plan, improved fuel economy standards for vehicles and measures to curb methane emissions.

Paris is not our final destination, but it’s a major stop along the way and a prime opportunity to tip the economic scales in the direction of clean energy and to raise a global toast to a low-carbon future.

The Road to Paris and Beyond is a blog series exploring how Earthjustice’s climate and energy work will help strengthen the goals to be set by the United States and others during the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, and the development of the new global climate agreement. The Paris Climate Change Conference (aka “COP21”) begins on November 30 and runs until December 11, 2015. 

Part of the International program, Erika's work focuses on climate change, at international negotiations and with U.N. Environment Programme and regional bodies like the Arctic Council to reduce emissions of atmospheric pollutants.

The International Program partners with organizations and communities around the world to establish, strengthen, and enforce national and international legal protections for the environment and public health.