In a few days, world leaders will assemble with the goal of reaching an international agreement that will impact the way we live, the structures we build, and certainly the type of HVACR systems we will produce and sell. Tens of thousands of delegates from around the world will meet in Paris for COP21, the twenty-first Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework on Climate Change. When the COP15 meeting adjourned in Copenhagen in December 2009, there was great disappointment and finger pointing; we walked away without a plan to curb the future exponential growth in carbon emissions and the associated consequences of climate change.
However, there have been significant signs of progress in the six years since Copenhagen. In fact, the changes in environmental policy and technology development have been accelerating this past year, resulting in momentum coming into the Paris negotiations.
Just in the past 12 months:
• The Obama administration issued its Clean Power Plan, giving CO2 emission targets to the states which must collectively reduce their CO2 emissions from power plants by 32 percent by 2030.
• The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ruled that some of the highest global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants will be banned from most new commercial refrigeration equipment by 2020.
• During his September visit to the U.S., China’s Premier Xi Jinping, along with President Obama, committed to reach an ambitious outcome at COP21.
• More than 400 institutional investors divested themselves of their fossil fuel holdings to the tune of over $2.5 trillion.
• The U.S. Department of Defense released its report on the anticipated effects of and remediation needed to adapt to climate change.
• The Parties to the Montreal Protocol agreed to negotiate a global phasedown of HFCs during 2016.
• Pope Francis called climate change a moral imperative for humanity in a papal letter.
Plus, since 2009, the price of solar PV has dropped over two-thirds, making solar systems competitive with the grid in some parts of the country.
And the New Buildings Institute reports that there are over 180 zero net energy buildings whose performance they have verified or that are in some stage of completion. Virtually all of these have come about in the past six years.
One might ask, with all this progress outside of the UN Framework, is reaching a global climate agreement all that important? I believe it is. These efforts listed above, while noteworthy, will barely budge the needle. It will take a concerted global effort.
So it is encouraging to note that, during the past year, countries have been voicing their pledges to reduce carbon emissions. More than 140 countries that currently represent over 85 percent of worldwide emissions have spoken up by offering their Intended National Determined Contributions (INDCs). The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has calculated that these INDCs, if enacted, would reduce the amount of global emissions per capita by 8 percent in 2025 and by 9 percent in 2030, but would still result in a global temperature rise of 2.7°C by the end of the century. This is higher than the 2° target that scientists say we must not exceed if we are to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change. But even getting to these emissions reductions is not trivial, since a growing middle class in developing countries will have a large appetite for many of the conveniences that we already take for granted, like electric lighting, automobiles, and air conditioning. To put our emissions in perspective, in 2011 the U.S. emitted over 17 metric tons of carbon per year for every man, woman, and child. By comparison, China, with all its dirty coal plants, emitted one third as much per person, and India, only 8 percent of the U.S. total.
What are now “intended national contributions” can become legally binding through an international agreement. This has to happen in Paris. Anything less would fail to meet the mark.
In order to meet our global emissions targets, it will require considerable global investments in energy efficiency and renewables worldwide. Developing countries are looking for the developed world to set an example. Investments will only be made if there is a sense of certainty that countries will move ahead with their commitments and that the burden will be shared fairly. Thus, a global agreement is needed.
COP21 will have to deal with who pays for all this. It has been estimated that, to meet climate goals, investment in energy efficiency and clean energy sources will have to double by 2020 and quadruple to $1 trillion per year by 2030. The financial community will need to step up.
As we are reminded at every commencement ceremony that ‘commencement’ is a beginning, not an ending, all the initiatives to be presented at Paris will only begin to slow down climate change. Much more will be needed in the years to come — but it will be a start.