Taking Stock of the Paris Climate Deal

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The Paris Climate Talks finished a little over a week ago with a multilateral agreement in which representatives from 195 countries approved the world’s most ambitious roadmap ever to fight Climate Change. The agreement was quickly hailed as a victory and a major achievement by political leaders and the mainstream media while climate activists and others that have been at the forefront of this battle for years were more measured in their praise. Even so, the tone from most quarters is generally positive, and while it is understood that this deal is far from perfect it looks like it’s a step in the right direction and a starting point for even greater accomplishments.

COP21 Climate Change

One of the major points of contention in negotiations is how much warming the planet can accommodate and how to meet that target. For years now the figure of 2ºC over pre-industrial temperature averages has been thrown around as the goal for which to strive, especially by the G20, while less developed countries and many climate scientists have asked for more ambitious goals such as 1.5ºC. The Paris agreement caters to both camps, but it does so ineffectively. The deal states that all signing parties will have to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the goal of keeping global temperature rise below 2ºC, while taking further steps to lower that figure towards a 1.5ºC limit. The issue is that neither of those targets are truly binding, as there are no penalties nor coercive mechanisms in place to force states to comply with them. Instead, climate negotiators have placed their faith in the powers of peer-pressure and public opinion to achieve results, hoping that signatory parties will be compelled to cut their emissions to stay off the list of “evil nations that are destroying the planet”. Whether this will bear fruit or not remains to be seen, at the very least it is innovative, and given the circumstances surrounding the Paris meeting and the growth of the global climate movement it may be pay off.

According to current estimates, staying below the 2º target would require that 80% of the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves stay underground and unused, and an even higher percentage would be needed to accomplish the 1.5º goal. This is where the Paris agreement fails, as it doesn’t lay out a clear course of action for how states are going to go about making sure that 80% of the world’s oil, coal, and natural gas remain unused. It also glosses over the fact that the most important reason it has taken so long for a climate change deal to happen is because the fossil fuel industry has pumped billions of dollars into lobbying political leaders, producing bogus denialist science, and essentially used all its financial clout to preserve the status quo as long as possible. There is no plausible scenario in which Exxon, Shell, BP and the rest of the club simply give up on extracting and selling 80% or more of the world’s fossil fuels so it remains to be seen how this problem will be tackled. This ambiguity towards the fossil fuel industry is one of the biggest shortcomings of the deal in its current state.

Another criticism is of the warming targets themselves and the mechanisms (or lack thereof) proposed to achieve them. According to a number of recent studies, sticking to current emission reduction targets would lead to warming of over 3 degrees, but instead of imposing hard caps that force countries to make immediate and drastic cuts to their emissions the Paris agreement has adopted a more progressive approach: signatory states have agreed to get together every five years to make progress reports on their individual efforts at emissions reduction, while at the same time ratcheting up their goals. Like we mentioned before, none of this is binding and each individual country is given free rain to tackle the problem however they choose. What it means in practice is that a lot of signatories won’t really start working toward the 2ºC goal until after the next meeting in 2020, and the 1.5 degree goal will be pushed further into the future. This is in line with the general objective of the text of achieving decarbonisation of the world economy “in the second half of the century”, a timeframe which many scientists feel is insufficient to avert the effects of Climate Change.

Fortunately, not everything about the Paris agreement is negative. Its symbolic value and transformative power shouldn’t be understated. This is the first time the entire planet has not only accepted the reality of Climate Change but actually also decided to do something about it in a concerted manner. Despite the deal’s shortcomings it will be very useful as a springboard for more substantive climate policies based on a previously non-existent consensus. The roadmap of five-year revisions doesn’t impose hard caps or penalizing mechanisms on signatory parties yet but there is hope that the next iteration, which will be produced in 2020, will see signing countries ready to begin to make hard pledges. In short, the deal does not magically and instantly solve the climate change problem, it doesn’t create a series of coercive mechanisms that guarantee signing countries have to reduce their emissions drastically starting right now, but none of that was ever on the table to begin with. Coming into the meeting, many countries were ambivalent on Climate Change and, at least in private, many politicians on the conservative end of the spectrum were even sceptical of it. With that in mind we have to understand that Paris was never going to be about finding a magic bullet. The goal of the meeting was to reach a global consensus on Climate Change and build a framework with which to begin to act against it, and in that measure it was an unprecedented success. Now we have to hope that the voluntary mechanisms laid out in the agreement work over the coming years and the world uses this moment as a trampoline to solve perhaps the single most important problem we’re facing today.

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