By now, you’ve probably heard of the climate deal that was reached this weekend in Paris — 196 countries, late-night negotiating, existential threats, etc. — and you’ve heard it’s a big deal. Historic, even.
But in the United States, which remains probably the place most skeptical of the idea of manmade, catastrophic climate change, what will this international agreement really mean?
First: In the rest of the world, the accord is being called an unprecedented achievement, and a turning point in the climate movement. And, at least symbolically, it’s hard to overstate the significance of what negotiators at the COP21 meeting arrived at: a near-unanimous acknowledgement of the threat of climate change and the international community’s obligation to do something about it.
The agreement has two big, long-term goals — to continue the global rise in temperature to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, and to take steps to contain it to 1.5 degrees if possible. Temperatures have already risen by about 1 degree from the pre-industrial era. Countries agreed to tackle these goals as soon as possible by setting concrete carbon emissions targets, but the idea is to have the temperature rise under control by 2050.
A key sticking point, however, is this: The specific targets are nonbinding. A country will not receive formal punishment if it fails to meet the emissions goals it set out. But the agreement does enforce a transparency structure under which countries have to disclose how they’re doing every two years — the idea being to name and shame those nations that aren’t making as much of an effort.
U.S. officials praise agreement, stick to plan
U.S. officials have a lot of latitude to decide how they want to approach the agreement and meet the goals it outlines. The current executive branch is pretty friendly toward that objective: President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry joined virtually the entire world in praising the Paris agreement as an unmitigated victory in the battle against climate change.
Sen. Al Franken, who traveled to Paris to participate in the conference, said it was a historic and exciting agreement.
“This is a global acknowledgement that we have a problem, that we need to reduce our CO2 emissions, that we need to do things to remediate the damage that’s going to be done in certain parts of the world, that we have a transparent process going forward to measure what countries are doing in terms of meeting goals,” Franken said.
Minnesota’s other Democratic members of Congress joined them. Rep. Keith Ellison hailed it as “one of the most important agreements in human history … [it] gives us a fighting chance to protect our way of life against the worst impacts of climate change.” Rep. Tim Walz called it a “step in the right direction. … Climate change is real and needs to be addressed now.”
Republican Reps. Erik Paulsen and Tom Emmer did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said the agreement “shows the world that nearly 200 countries are united and ready to take action. In Minnesota, we’re already ahead of the curve and have been proactively working to cut greenhouse gas emissions and adopt energy efficiency practices for years.”
“This international agreement takes all the work we have done in our own country to a much bigger and more meaningful level,” Klobuchar said.
How will all that lofty talk translate into action in the U.S.? Helpfully for Obama and his climate allies, the Paris agreement doesn’t require approval by Congress, because it does not legally commit the U.S. to concrete action or punitive measures for failure. A ratification of the deal would likely have been dead on arrival in Republican-controlled Congress, as the Kyoto Protocol was in 2001.
Obama’s plan to honor the Paris accord doesn’t really require congressional approval, either. The White House believes its Clean Power Plan, a comprehensive energy strategy outlined earlier this year, will be enough to get the U.S. to meet the targets laid out in Paris. The CPP requires states to cut carbon emissions from power plants by a third by 2030, and takes specific aim at plants that use coal.
But the Clean Power Plan is an administrative rule, not a law, and a future administration — say, under a President Trump or Rubio — could take a very different approach. Republicans from coal country and beyond have attacked the CPP as a jobs-killing executive overreach. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has suggested it is illegal.
Still, some observers are confident the new climate regime established in Paris could endure in the U.S. even if a Republican wins the White House in 2016.
Minnesota: above average
Though the White House has found enemies in a few states because of its climate plan, states are legally required to implement it. After some initial reticence, Minnesota seems to have embraced the CPP, and is on track to easily meet the plan’s requirements. Franken said he “think[s] we’ll meet them and exceed them.”
Gov. Mark Dayton is, of course, required to abide by the federal government’s rules, but welcoming it now probably beats fighting it. North Dakota is one of the states that sued the government over the CPP, but observers say the state is quietly preparing its compliance anyway.
Even before the White House rolled out its climate agenda, Minnesota had put in place one of the strongest renewable energy standards in the country, requiring that 25 percent of the state’s power come from sources like solar, wind, and hydrogen by 2025. Beyond that, Minnesota had already reduced emissions from electric power plants by 20 percent in the last decade, and utilities like Xcel Energy have embraced ambitious carbon reduction plans.
Major Minnesota businesses are taking part in conversations on the topic, too. Cargill, the agribusiness giant based in Minneapolis, has top officials collaborating with policymakers on how to address climate risks.
Minnesota cities have also adopted some of the strongest climate change mitigation plans in the country. In October, Rochester announced it is aiming to get 100 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030. In July, Minneapolis rolled out its Climate Action Plan, under which it plans to reduce carbon emissions by 15 percent of 2006 levels this year, and by 30 percent in 10 years.
Putting Minnesota in the spotlight
Clearly, Minnesota has already been enthusiastic in developing plans to fight climate change and mitigate its effects. So what does the Paris agreement mean for the state? It might be best to see it as an opportunity for Minnesota to assume a national leadership role in the fight against climate change, and as a key player in the new energy economy, according to Ellen Anderson, executive director of the Energy Transition Lab at the University of Minnesota, and a delegate to COP21.
“The Paris agreement reinforces and supports leadership in carbon reduction that’s cost-effective and represents a huge opportunity for Minnesota’s future as a renewable energy leader,” Anderson says. She predicts that Paris will open the floodgates for even more global investment in renewable technologies, and heighten demand for climate planning models like those advanced in Minnesota.
“Investment dollars are going to talk even when government decisionmakers don’t necessarily follow. … That growth will continue without regards to public policy decisions. I think a state like Minnesota has an opportunity to really benefit from this if we stay on the current path,” Anderson says.
“Minnesota has the opportunity to share its experience with other places around the world, how we’ve grown our renewable sector and how we’ve reduced emissions. … Those are good things that the agreement will put us more in the spotlight on going forward.”
According to Franken, Minnesota’s lack of fossil fuel resources and amount of brainpower means it’s uniquely positioned to take advantage of what he and others see as the coming new energy boom. “We don’t have coal, we don’t have oil, but we do have a great research university, we have brain people, we have wind, we have biomass. There are incredible opportunities in the renewable energy sector and I want those jobs to go to Minnesotans,” Franken said.
Of course, advocates insist there’s still a lot more work to be done on the state and local levels if the state, and the country, is to live up to the lofty Paris agreement. “I shouldn’t suggest that Minnesota has it all figured out and that we’re finished here,” Anderson says. “I think what this agreement will do is help accelerate efforts around the globe to find solutions.”