The Paris summit is a small step forward on climate change
COP21 accord goes further than expected a year ago but not as far as it needs to
Costumed activists demonstrate near the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, during the COP21 United Nations Climate Change Conference. Participating nations agreed to keep global temperature rises below 2 degrees. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Is the Paris agreement a breakthrough in the struggle to limit the risks of climate change, as weary negotiators claim? Or is it just another way station on the road to calamity, as critics insist. At this stage it is neither. It is far more than the world could have reasonably expected a year or two ago. But it is also far less than the world needs.
As it stands, it will at best slow the pace at which the world reaches a possible disaster. Whether it averts disaster depends partly on how the climate system works, on which much uncertainty remains.
But it also depends on what happens in the near future. Is the agreement the beginning of revolutions in policy, as well as the energy system? Or is it yet another piece of paper that promises far more than it delivers? The answer depends on what happens now.
The achievements of the negotiators, ably chaired by the French government, are far from nothing. They showed it is possible to get the world’s countries to agree to action in response to a shared danger, even one that seems both remote and uncertain to many of those now living.
These agreed that all countries must participate in the effort. They agreed that the rich should help the poor meet their decarbonisation objectives. They also agreed on the goal of keeping global temperature rises well below 2° and even to “pursue efforts” to keep them below 1.5°.
Yet these are, on the face of it, largely hollow achievements. The provision of needed finance is an aspiration, not a bankable commitment. No limits are to be imposed on emissions from aviation or shipping.
No mechanism is to be established for setting a global carbon price. Countries are above all committed only to communicate and maintain plans – described, in slippery language, as “nationally determined contributions”.
So why should an agreement that is not only toothless, but falls far short of what is needed to reduce the risks to manageable proportions, be taken seriously? One answer is that it forces each country into a process of peer review.
Every country will need to resubmit their plans every five years. Moreover, the reporting and monitoring system is to be more transparent and comprehensive than ever before. In particular, emerging and developing countries that now dominate emissions (China, above all) will be part of that system. In the end, it was decided, monitored aspirations would be more effective than any binding commitments that could (or, more probably, could not) be achieved.
Above all, with everybody committed to producing a plan (because everybody agrees the challenge is important), it will be far more difficult for any country to argue that failure to meet its promises does not matter. Or so it should, provided the next US president is not a Republican.
Nevertheless, the case for scepticism is strong. Recall that over the past quarter of a century of climate negotiations, emissions of carbon dioxide, stocks of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and even emissions per head have been rising. The task now is far bigger than it would have been if action could have been taken sooner. But growth of the world economy has overwhelmed the fall in emissions per unit of output. If growth is not to be sacrificed (which humanity will not tolerate), this rate of decline must accelerate hugely. That is a daunting challenge.
What really matters is not the Paris agreement, but what follows. The national plans must be ambitious and become more so, swiftly. The world also needs a new pattern of investment and new sources of finance, backed by changed incentives.
Global carbon price
Not surprisingly, the reaction of many in the fossil fuel industry shows that it does not yet feel threatened. Political leaders have huffed and puffed before, but demonstrably failed to blow their house down. The immediate threat for them is low prices of the fuels they produce and sell, not a high price on carbon dioxide emissions. Both the industry and the big users are politically powerful. They may well feel that when it comes to creating national plans and setting priorities, they remain in an excellent position to see off ambitious commitments, particularly ones instigated by so undemanding a process.
In some countries, notably the US, the opposition will be open and fierce. Elsewhere it will be more genteel. But the results might not be so different.
I sympathise with the enthusiasm of many of those in Paris. This agreement was hard won. But it is only a small step, even if one in the right direction. It is far too early to feel confident that the curve of emissions will now bend decisively downwards. Laozi, the ancient Chinese sage, said: “The journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”
The question is whether humanity has the will or even the time to finish a journey that it has started so late. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015)