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By Phu Ngyuen, December 2015.

For many years now, Sustainable Silicon Valley has been advocating for a Net Positive Bay Area, an action-based initiative that seeks to build a regenerative region by 2050: generate more renewable energy than we use, sequester more carbon than we emit, and optimize water resources to ensure water resilience. On December 12, 2015 in Paris, COP21 agreed to limit global warming to well below 2 degree Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels through 2100. This means that we may involve something called negative emissions, a component of Sustainable Silicon Valley’s Net Positive Bay Area goals where we take out more carbon dioxide from the air than we put in. So for those of us at Sustainable Silicon Valley, net positive sequestration is net negative emissions for carbon.

COP21, Paris. Source: COP Paris.
COP21 Climate Conference, Paris. Source: COP Paris.

The COP21 Agreement

I have been following the UN’s COP21 climate conference in Paris, France (21st session of the Conference of Parties), where world leaders from nearly 200 countries have been discussing how to tackle climate change for the last two weeks with great interest. Now the 31-page agreement, also being referred to as the Paris Agreement, is here, and the logical question is: What does it mean? But before I get to the question, let me summarize the significance and important components of the agreement.

Significance of the Agreement

As we learned through the first 20 years of U.N. negotiations, it’s extremely difficult to get the nearly 200 countries of the world to come to agreement on anything, much less something as challenging as the transformation of our global energy economy. So having achieved the Paris Agreement is not, by any means, an easy feat.

Important Components of the Agreement

As summarized by Andrew Freedman, Marshable’s Science Editor,

  1. Temperature target: The new agreement sets a goal of limiting global warming to “well below 2 degrees Celsius”, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels and “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius”, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels through 2100.

2. Ratchet mechanism: The agreement provides a timetable for countries to take stock of their emissions reduction commitments and make additional, more ambitious pledges. Such reviews would take place every five years starting in 2023, although an interim review would take place in 2018, before the agreement goes into effect in 2020.

3. Financial assistance: Climate finance was a huge sore spot in the negotiations, since developed countries previously promised to provide $100 billion per year in climate aid to the developing world by the year 2020, and have not yet provided the full amount of money. The agreement deals with this by setting a floor of climate aid to developing nations at $100 billion, and calling for five-year review cycles of climate finance commitments.

4. Long-term goal: The long-term goal of the agreement is to send a strong signal to world capitals and financial markets that fossil fuels like coal and oil are on their way out, and that there needs to be a massive scaling up of investments in clean energy.

5. Loss and damage: Going into these talks, the concept of having the industrialized nations that are responsible for most of global warming to-date compensate developing countries for damage from climate change-related impacts was a hotly contested issue. It predictably caused some friction at the talks, particularly between the U.S., which was against any language that would establish a system in which the country could be held legally liable for climate change-related damages, and poor countries.

Now, let me get to the question of what the agreement really means. It means that more than 7.04 billion tons (that’s 15.5 trillion pounds) of carbon dioxide needs to stay in the ground instead of being spewed into the atmosphere for those temperature targets to happen, even if you take the easier of two targets mentioned in the agreement; to get to the harder target, it’s even larger numbers. It means that by sometime in the second half of the century, man-made greenhouse gas emissions – which includes methane and other heat-trapping gases as well as carbon dioxide – won’t exceed the amount that nature absorbs. Earth’s carbon cycle, which is complex and ever-changing, would have to get back to balance. It means that the world has to emit close to zero greenhouse gases by 2070 to reach the easier goal, or by 2050 to reach the harder one, said John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. It also means that we may involve something called negative emissions. That’s when the world – technology and nature combined – take out more carbon dioxide from the air than what humanity puts in.

So the Paris agreement, in a nutshell, is a confirmation of Sustainable Silicon Valley’s Net Positive Bay Area goals. So thank you, COP21. Thank you for confirming the goals we have been advocating at Sustainable Silicon Valley for many years now. Now, let’s get to work!

References and Reading:

Countries just adopted a historic climate change accord. Here’s what happens next,

With A Climate Deal In Place, Now The Real Work Begins,

World leaders agree climate deal at COP21 talks,