Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2017

In the classic television series Dragnet, broadcast in the 1950’s, the main character was a deadpan detective named Joe Friday. Friday would cut through the stories being told to him by any witness by insisting, “Just the facts, please”. Dragnet became a model for many different police dramas over the years, and the advice, “Just the facts, please” took its place in the English language as a helpful reminder of how to get past much of the confusion surrounding any discussion.


I thought of this as I read and listened to the comments in the broadcast and social media concerning the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw the United States from the current United Nations agreement, reached at the Conference of the Parties in December 2015 (COP21), to deal with climate change. According to the media comments, the sky is truly falling and the United States has given up its “leadership”; indeed, it has become a “rogue state”, along with countries like North Korea, Somalia, Libya and Uganda.


Let us, like Joe Friday, examine the facts.


Question: What, exactly did COP21 commit countries to do?


Answer:  COP21 contains no commitments for the Parties to the agreement to meet any emissions reduction target, either globally or individually. It contains very few binding legal requirements, there is no formula for determining what each country’s obligations are, and there are no legal penalties for non-compliance. Rather, it represents a best-efforts political commitment to keep the level of global GHG emissions below that which, in theory, might produce a 1.5 degree Celsius increase in average global temperatures.


Each country is committed “to prepare and maintain successive individual nationally determined contributions (INDCs) that it intends to achieve”, to update these plans every five years and to pursue and report on the related domestic emission reduction measures. After three years, a Party may withdraw from the Agreement with one year’s notice.


There is an unresolved debate as to whether to call COP21 an agreement or a treaty.

To call it a treaty in the U.S. would mean that it would be subject to Senate ratification, where it would never pass. To call it just an agreement in other countries could reduce its credibility to nothing. That is why the agreement/treaty commits countries to accept an “aspirational goal”, but steers clear of specific targets.


COP21 reiterates a goal first articulated in the 2010 Copenhagen COP agreement. The developed countries, meaning the 24 countries on the “Annex II” list, committed again to “set a collective goal” for a Green Climate Fund of at least U.S. $100 billion a year, “taking into account the needs and priorities of the developing countries”. This too is voluntary and there is no formula as to which country should pay what. The Annex II countries includes several OECD countries but not some of the world’s largest and highest income countries like China, Russia, Brazil, or Saudi Arabia. The developing countries eligible to receive contributions from the fund include the middle-income countries like China, Brazil, Mexico and India. There is no requirement for developing countries to report what they do with the money. In fact, the least developed countries are exempted entirely from the requirement even to prepare “nationally determined contributions” to emissions reductions.


Finally, COP21 authorizes the establishment of several new programs to be run by the United Nations Secretariat, which will administer and advise on adherence to the agreement. There will be “progress reviews”, all voluntary.


Question: What did previous agreements commit countries to do, and how did that work out?


Answer: In 1988, governments working together at international levels first raised concerns about the possibility that increasing human-related emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) might be having an adverse impact on global temperatures. In 1992, developed countries agreed on a voluntary target of stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by 2005. Only Germany, the United Kingdom managed to attain those targets.


In 1997, about 150 countries committed under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce GHG emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels by the 2008 to 2012 period. China and India never signed the treaty, while the United States signed but did not ratify it, so three of the largest emitters in the world stayed out. In 2011, Canada, Japan and Russia announced that they would not take on further Kyoto targets. Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Treaty in December 2011, citing its objection to being required to pay up to $14 billion in penalties when no other country was being so penalized. Only Germany, the United Kingdom and Sweden attained their Kyoto targets. Germany did so because, following reunification, it modernized the former East German electricity generation based on brown coal. The U.K did so because natural gas replaced coal from the formerly government-run coal mines. Sweden completely transformed its district heating systems, switching from coal to biomass and replacing oil-fueled boilers with heat pumps. The U.N. considers biomass to be carbon-neutral even though burning it discharges large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.


A second commitment period, known as the Doha amendment, was agreed in 2012. In it 37 countries had binding targets. However, the Doha Amendment did not enter into force, as it did not achieve the acceptance of the required 144 states.


Question: What has happened to global emissions since countries started adopting emissions reduction targets?


Answer: The attached table shows the levels of global emissions for selected years since 1990. The numbers are in terms of million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, and the source is the United States Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center.


Global Emissions

YearMillion Tons CO2 Equivalent


In summary, in spite of governments’ repeated agreements to reduce emissions, from 1990 to 2014 global emissions grew by 62 %. Most of this growth occurred in the less developed countries, and especially in Asia.


Question: What did the COP21 Parties commit to do their first submissions of Individual Nationally Determined Contributions?


Answer: On October 30, 2015, the U.N. secretariat published a synthesis report on the aggregate effect of the INDCs that had been submitted up that point. By then, 119 submissions had been received, covering 147 Parties to the Convention and representing 86% of global emissions to 2010. According to the U.N. synthesis, the actions set out in the INDCs would result in global emission levels of 55.3 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2025 and 56.7 Gt of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2030. When presented in ranges, global emissions would be 34-46% higher than 1990 levels in 2025 and 37-52% higher than 1990 levels in 2030. The U.N. estimates that the growth of emissions would be slowed by 10 to 57 % from the rate that occurred between 1990 and 2010.


Bjorn Lomborg, a professor at the Copenhagen Business School, has analysed the temperature reduction impact of the INDCs submitted to date, using the standard MAGICC climate model. This model integrates all of the premises and equations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that increasing human-related greenhouse gas emissions will cause significant global warming in future, which remains the subject of intense debate. Even optimistically assuming that promised emission cuts are maintained throughout the century, the impacts of the Actions to be taken pursuant to COP21 are generally small. All climate policies by the US, China, the EU and the rest of the world, implemented from the early 2000s to 2030 and sustained through the century will likely reduce global temperature rise about 0.17°C in 2100. In effect, these commitments will do little to stabilize the climate and their impact will be undetectable for many decades. The following graph illustrates the difference COP21 would make.

r lyman blog post cop21 impact 1


Question: Is it true that China’s INDC shows it to be the world leader in addressing global warming?


Answer: China’s INDC has been very favourably reviewed by a number of environmental groups. China is by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. The Chinese economy and population continues to grow rapidly by comparison with other countries, so the challenge for China is somehow to break the link between economic growth and the increases in emissions associated with higher energy demand. The Chinese INDC projects that this will be accomplished by making the economy less emissions-intensive. Thus, the goal is to decease the carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60% to 65% from the 2005 level by 2030. China also hopes to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% and to substantially increase the size of its forests. The result would be that China’s carbon dioxide emissions would peak around 2030 and possibly decline from there.


These are probably “aspirational” goals, as they assume unprecedented changes in the energy economy. Even if these goals were attained, however, Chinese emissions by 2030 would be two to two and a half times as high as those of the next largest emitter, the United States.


China is not required under the COP21 agreement to make any contributions to the funding of the Green Climate Fund. As noted previously, it can in fact qualify as a recipient of that fund.


Question: What are the current sources of energy consumption in the world?


Answer: According to the International Energy Agency, in 2012 (the most recent year for which confirmed data are available), global consumption of energy by source, as measured in terms of quadrillion British thermal Units (BTU) was as follows: liquid fuels (mainly oil and natural gas liquids), 183.55; coal, 153.27; natural gas, 124.21; nuclear, 24.47; and renewables 63.77. Renewables include primarily hydroelectric power and biomass, meaning traditional burning of wood and dried animal dung. Roughly speaking, therefore, the percentage breakdown is liquids fuels 33%; coal 28%, natural gas 23%; nuclear 5%, and renewables 12%. Wind and solar energy combined account for less than 2%.


Question: How are greenhouse gas emissions projected to grow in future according to the most expert sources?


Answer: According to the United States Energy Information Administration’s 2016 International Energy Outlook, based on its best analysis of economic, population and technology trends, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will grow from 32.3 gigatonnes in 2012 to 43.2 gigatonnes in 2040, a 34% increase. Ninety-one per cent of the emissions growth will take place outside the OECD, mostly in China, India and Southeast Asia.


Here are three graphs from the International Energy Outlook report that illustrate the trends.

r lyman blog post cop21 oecd non oecd energy consumption graph 2


r lyman blog post cop21 emissions oecd nonoecd graph 3


r lyman blog post cop21 co2 emissions oecd non oecd graph 4

Those are the facts. Readers can draw their own conclusions as to whether the United States involvement or non-involvement in the COP21 agreement is likely to have a significant impact on the growth of global greenhouse gas emissions or on future average global temperatures.