In the aftermath of the December 2015 Paris climate summit, it’s worth reviewing the final agreement. The text serves as a Rorschach Test: there are wildly varying takes on its contours. Professor Steve Breyman provides his view of the inkblot.
Leaders from 195 nations gathered in Paris in December to craft a replacement for the expiring Kyoto Protocol initialed two decades ago. What emerged from two weeks of tense negotiations is not even close to sufficient to prevent global catastrophe. The main culprits? Republicans in the US Senate who deny the scientific consensus about the causes and consequences of global warming, and who had a veto over any binding treaty Barack Obama brought home. The clock is ticking, time is short. The simple truth: the world must do more faster.
First things first: if the world urgently needs to stop burning fossil fuels and quickly transition to a carbon free economy – the message of an overwhelming consensus among climate scientists – then the Paris agreement disappoints. Right before nearly 200 world leaders gathered for December’s Conference of the Parties (COP 21), UN scientists reckoned that taken together, the pledges for carbon cuts brought to France would lead to, at best, a 2.7° C increase in global temperatures over pre-industrial levels, a recipe for disaster.1 Consider the effects already felt around the world with the present 0.8° C increase. If emissions are left unchecked, predictions are for 4.5° C by 2100 with outcomes only imaginable by Hollywood screenwriters.
At the same time, the Summit signals that the Age of Clean Energy has dawned. The sun of this new epoch must climb to its zenith quickly.
The fact that an agreement of any sort emerged from Paris is an accomplishment in itself. Pitfalls on the road to agreement were abundant; the summit nearly collapsed at several junctures over the thorniest issues. Fundamental features of the agreement include, for the first time, a commitment from developing nations to take climate action. Rich countries reaffirmed (again) their greater responsibility for climate instability and remedies for it.
Among the most important issues at the summit concerned the ceiling for global average temperature increase. Heading into Paris, there was broad consensus that it ought to be 2° C. Small island states were catalysts for the thirty-one page Paris accord that seeks to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change” (Article 2).
Supporters of periodic reviews of emissions cut pledges – with the near certainty that new science will require that reduction targets ratchet upward – also won. Signatories must assess progress in 2018, and must rejigger their promised cuts every five years starting in 2020 (p. 4). To guard against cheating, the agreement mandates protocols for measuring, reporting and verifying emissions. Questions remain about the transparency of this process; negotiators left the details to be sorted out at this year’s COP.
Negotiators merely tipped their hats toward climate justice rather than fully embrace a concept that should undergird preparations for a warmer world. They had the opportunity to enshrine the principle of a “just transition” for workers displaced by construction of a green economy in an early draft of the agreement. It ended up in the preamble of the final document, which became a dumping ground for an array of protections, including “human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity” (p. 21). The text also recognised the value of indigenous knowledge in coming to grips with climate chaos. Lacking the prominence preferred by climate justice campaigners, the inclusion of their concerns invites future action to strengthen the accord.
While recognising the differential responsibilities of rich and poor countries for the changing climate, there’s no requirement in the Paris text for developed nations to move to zero emissions over the next couple decades, a necessity to meet the 1.5° C goal. Climate justice advocates also demand protections for low-income energy users during the transition to clean energy. One study suggests energy burdens be capped at six percent of household income, solar electricity be made universally available, and dwellings be weatherised (see image below).2
Article 6 of the agreement retains the unfortunate “carbon offset” option established in the Kyoto Protocol. Offsets permit rich countries and corporations to keep polluting while paying poor countries to store the carbon. It’s a dodge of direct responsibility and a strong inducement for corruption (get paid to protect a forest but then proceed to cut it down).
Climate diplomats are not yet thinking in terms of a “carbon budget,” the idea that there’s only so much carbon the world can burn before the point of no return, even though the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculated one several years ago.3 Divvying up what still can be consumed – considering how early industrialisers constrained the carbon space of late industrialisers – would focus attention on clean energy deployment like nothing else.
Rich countries promised $100 billion per year by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation projects in poor countries (similar to a promise they made in Copenhagen in 2009). UN climate chief Christiana Figueres referred to the figure as “peanuts.” Indeed, Ceres suggests ten times that amount is needed to keep warming beneath the too high 2° C.4 More important is to spend the tens of trillions of dollars slated for infrastructure investments over the next fifteen years – mostly in the developing world – on green energy and transport systems.
The greatest weakness of the Paris accord is the absence of legally binding reduction targets. Should a country fail to meet its pledge, there will be no official consequences. This failure – inevitable due to the power of climate deniers in the US Senate – is all the more unsettling given the scale of the task before us.
To stay at or below 1.5° C, global emissions must decline precipitously by the end of the century. Considering that rich countries are overwhelmingly responsible for the climate mess, they will need to near zero emissions much sooner, likely before 2050.
The IPCC suggested in 2014 that the maximum atmospheric concentration of CO2-equivalent allowable to stay within 1.5° C is below 430 parts per million (ppm), a level the world surpassed in 20115. By 2013, the CO2-equivalent level reached 478 ppm.6
Another problem with the modest cuts agreed to in Paris is that the warming influence of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere change less than proportionately as their concentration changes. Small reductions thus have progressively less influence on the climate as the atmospheric concentration increases. This means that eliminating a ton of emissions in the twenty-first century results in only half of the cooling that it would have had in the twentieth century.7 To make matters worse, damage rises faster than average temperature.
Rich countries were able to beat back poor countries demands’ for climate reparations, “loss and damage” in UN speak. Loss and damage, or liability and compensation, for the climate chaos inspired destruction currently happening and sure to worsen is a central requirement for climate justice. The Global North admits that it’s primarily responsible for heating up the planet. It just doesn’t want to pay for it: discussion of these matters in the agreement “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.” (p. 8)
Despite the defects of the Paris concord, the path to climate stability is clear. Meeting the 1.5° C target entails an end to deforestation and reform of industrial agriculture. It requires leaving two-thirds to three-quarters of fossil fuels in the ground stranding the assets of some of the largest and most powerful corporations on earth. Transportation must be electrified, cities made walkable, gasoline powered vehicles retired, public transit enhanced. The investment opportunities in clean energy are enormous: we’ll need many more solar plants and windmills. The stoves and fire rings of hundreds of millions of families that now cook with wood or dung require replacement.
The benefits of the massive expenditures needed are manifold. The world will see vast improvements in human and ecosystem health. Standards of living and wellbeing will grow. Wars for oil will be history. Defense expenditures will be redirected to socially beneficial projects. Corrupt and authoritarian petrostate regimes will reform or be replaced. Communities will be strengthened, climate refugees prevented, international security enhanced.
For cynics who contend there’s neither time nor money available to make the clean energy transition, remember two things. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, it took a mere ten weeks for the US to completely halt auto manufacturing, and rapidly switch to making bombers and tanks.8 While the funds needed to make the clean energy transition are massive, they are dwarfed by the capacity of global financial markets to supply the needed capital.
Great change requires great effort, courage, and persistence. Success of the clean energy revolution depends on vibrant global climate justice movements leading their governments, economies, and societies. Movement groups were invigorated by the Paris summit. They need to turn it up like never before.
About the Author
Political scientist Steve Breyman, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. He writes and teaches on energy and environment, war and peace, political economy and politics. His next book, Bending the Arc: Peace and Justice in the Age of Terror, will be published in 2017.
1. Report of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action: Synthesis report on the aggregate effect of the intended nationally determined contributions, COP 21, Paris, December 2015. http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/07.pdf
2. Arjun Makhijani, “Energy Justice in Maryland’s Residential and Renewable Energy Sectors,” Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. http://ieer.org/resource/energy-issues/energy-justice-marylands-residential/
3. Infographic: The Global Carbon Budget, World Resources Institute, http://www.wri.org/ipcc-infographics
4. Ceres, “Clean Trillion,” http://www.ceres.org/issues/clean-trillion
5. IPCC, Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change, http://mitigation2014.org
6. “400 ppm CO2? Add Other GHGs, and It’s Equivalent to 478 ppm,” Oceans at MIT, June 6, 2013. http://oceans.mit.edu/news/featured-stories/5-questions-mits-ron-prinn-400-ppm-threshold
7. Steven E. Koonin, “The Tough Realities of the Paris Climate Talks,” New York Times, November 4, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/04/opinion/the-tough-realities-of-the-paris-
8. Joe Solomon, “The Rise, Fall, and Return of 1.5°C in the Global Climate Negotiations,” Common Dreams, October 21, 2015, http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/10/21/rise-fall-and-return-15degc-global-climate-negotiations