January 2016 Bar Bulletin
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January 2016 Bar Bulletin

Climate Change: Three Thresholds and Three Options

By Joe Terrenzio


From November 30 to December 11, Paris hosted the 21st Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC went into effect March 21, 1994, with a focus on the interests of human safety in the face of scientific uncertainty about climate change; 195 countries and the European Union are currently members of the Convention.

The Kyoto Protocol came into effect on February 16, 2005. Where the Convention only encourages countries to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions, the Kyoto Protocol seeks to bind developed countries to specific commitments. The meetings in Paris were the most recent of years of efforts to create a binding agreement to curb emissions and allow sustainable development. On December 12, a new Paris Agreement was unanimously adopted, setting a goal of holding global temperature increase below 2° C with aspirations to limit temperature increases to 1.5° C.1

The Convention and the Paris Agreement are important because of three numbers — 1° C, 2° C and 4° C.

• 1° C: The Earth is currently on pace to see global temperatures hit 1° C above preindustrial levels. The first 10 months of 2015 were the hottest ever, at 0.86° C above the 20th-Century average.2

• 2° C: The Copenhagen Accord, a nonbinding agreement initially signed by 114 countries at 2009’s COP 15, recognizes the “scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius.”3 As we approach 1° C, the extreme weather events of today could become commonplace under a 2° C increase. To stay below 2° C, the world can emit no more than 1,000 gigatons of additional carbon after 2011.4

With the increased knowledge and scientific certainty the global community has acquired in the six years since Copenhagen, the Paris Agreement sets a 2° C limit and requires periodic updates to each country’s national determined contribution.

• 4° C: If emissions are not curbed and temperatures continue to rise, the results would be catastrophic. At a 4° C increase, extreme heat waves, drought, drastic sea level rise, and irreversible impacts to agriculture, water resources and human health would be part of daily life.

Leading up to COP 21, individual states submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Many of the INDCs are promising. The EU promises to cut emissions by 40 percent; the United States by 26–28 percent. China will reach peak emissions by 2030.

The aggregated data from all INDCs submitted by October 1, 2015, show promising goals, but fall short of the least-cost mitigation scenarios to stay below 2° C.5 If all these currently aspirational numbers hold true, the planet is on track to hit a temperature increase around 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100.6

There is some good news: Carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels dropped 0.6 percent in 2015, likely from a decrease in China burning coal to produce electricity.7 This is huge progress from the 2–3 percent annual emissions increase since 2000. However, with India projected to increase its use of coal to produce electricity, emissions are likely to increase again in 2016.

There was hope that COP 21 would achieve what international meetings have failed to do so far — a binding treaty with strong enforcement provisions that will get the world on track to reduce carbon emissions so we never hit 4° C. Though the Paris Agreement looks to be much more of a success than Copenhagen, what appears to be its early shortfall is the lack of any enforcement provisions.

What does it mean locally? The research group Climate Central provides mapping tools to show coastal areas affected by rising sea levels. At a 2° C increase, approximately 130 million people are under water; at 4° C more than 600 million people are under water.8

For Western Washington, the potential impacts are striking. 2° C likely results in global sea level rise of 4.7 meters (15.4 feet):

• Seattle’s waterfront, parts of downtown, and south along the Duwamish are under water;

• much of Tacoma and Fife are flooded;

• Olympia floods;

• Ocean Shores is thoroughly in the ocean;

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