Words without action: Seven failures of the Paris climate deal


People's Climate March, Sydney, November 29.

The Paris Agreement on climate change, which emerged out of the November 30 to December 12 COP21 UN climate talks, has been hailed as a “turning point for the world'. But it is long on rhetoric and short on real commitments – below are seven reasons why.

1. It sets an ambitious target sure to be missed

Headlines such as “Euphoria as landmark Paris climate deal adopted” tell an inspiring story. The celebratory tone is partly relief at the fact that 195 countries managed any kind of climate deal at all.

But it is also based on an extraordinary claim at the heart of the Paris Agreement, which aims at “Holding 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.”

Achieving the 1.5°C goal is more than even many climate campaigners have the audacity to hope for. It would mean we stop burning fossil fuels by 2030.

Unfortunately, nothing in the Paris deal suggests that is likely to happen. That is even acknowledged in the introductory blurb to the treaty itself, which says that “much greater emissions reduction efforts will be required” to meet even the 2°C target.

The new agreement only takes effect from 2020, by which time the chance to achieve 1.5°C warming will have gone, unless all of the world's largest economies dramatically change course. But big polluters like the United States have been dragging their feet for years — watering down and then abandoning the Kyoto Protocol, which was the last global climate deal, scuppering progress at UN climate talks in Copenhagen six years ago, and then killing off hopes of new global targets in Durban in 2011.

The European Union, which has already met its unambitious 2020 emissions reduction pledge, has been similarly obstructive. It has refused to take on more cuts despite falling a long way short of its fair share of global efforts to limit climate change.

Going into Paris, 176 of the world's 195 countries wrote down what they intended to do to address climate change. But even if all of these promises were met, the world would be heading for 3°C or more of global warming. Leaving Paris, that is still the case.

Such a degree of warming takes us into extremely dangerous territory, with sea level rises inundating coastal cities, and setting off some chain reactions that could fundamentally alter our ability to live on large parts of the planet.

2. There are no legally binding targets to cut climate pollution

There is a big legal devil in the details that made the Paris Agreement possible. The Kyoto Protocol set binding targets for rich countries related to their share of causing climate change, but the new deal takes an anything-goes approach. Countries were free to promise whatever they wanted and there is no penalty if they break these promises.

All a country needs to do to meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement is to come back in 2023 (and every five years after that) and say they will do a little more. But there is a risk that if some countries are clearly not pulling their weight, others might take it as an excuse to call a halt on their own efforts.

James Hansen, a former NASA scientist dubbed the “father of climate change awareness”, was blunt about what this means: “It's just bullshit for them to say: 'We'll have a 2°C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.' It's just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continue to be burned.”

3. No new money is promised to address climate change in developing countries

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the 1992 global treaty that gave birth to the Paris Agreement, gets one thing straight: developed countries should give “new and additional financial resources” to developing countries to cover the costs of addressing climate change.

This is not aid or charity, but a form of debt or reparations.

Climate finance means paying developing countries to move beyond the reliance on fossil fuels that made the US and other developed countries rich. It also means paying for the costs of adapting to minimise the vulnerability of communities and ecosystems to the climate change that is already happening.

And it should cover the “loss and damage” caused by major changes like sea level rises or glaciers retreating, or extreme events like hurricanes, droughts and floods.

Rich countries have repeatedly failed to provide climate finance on anything close to the scale needed. In 2009, they promised to “mobilise” $100 billion per year of climate finance by 2020.

In reality, only $2 billion is actually delivered annually through climate funds, and a maximum $20 billion per year of climate finance is flowing if a broader definition is used. The estimated need is upwards of $400 billion annually.

The Paris Agreement does nothing to improve on this record of failure: no new numbers are mentioned, and it introduces language about a “global effort” that sounds innocuous but is intended to chip away at the liability of developed countries.

Rich countries now “intend to continue” efforts to provide $100 billion in climate finance until 2025, but the wording of the deal is deliberately vague about their obligations after that.

4. Climate reparations are off limits

“The idea of even discussing loss and damage now or in the future was off limits,” said Leisha Beardmore, chief negotiator for the Indian ocean archipelago nation of Seychelles. “The Americans told us it would kill the [deal].”

Other developing country diplomats reported the same message. Floods, typhoons or droughts costing you billions? Tough luck.

The US stopped governments talking about climate compensation in Paris through a mix of bullying and bribery. The carrot was a promise that the US would sign up to a 1.5°C temperature goal, or something approximating that, as long as it was not binding and as long as the US did not have to take on its fair share of meeting that target.

The stick was a threat to bring the whole show crashing down if compensation was mentioned — a failure that would destroy the hopes of poor and vulnerable countries already facing the worst impacts of climate change.

5. It does not tell fossil fuel producers to leave them in the ground

Avoiding runaway climate change means leaving more than 80% of fossil fuels in the ground. Earlier drafts of the Paris Agreement included options that reflect this, suggesting that countries should “decarbonise” over the course of the century. Even this languid approach to getting out of fossil fuels is absent from the final text.

A call to “reduce international support for high-emissions investments” was struck out too, at the behest of the big oil producers. That should not come as a big surprise, since UN climate conferences have never sought to limit the production of fossil fuels.

Instead of getting out of fossil fuels, the Paris Agreement aims only to achieve “a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”. Loosely translated: we'll fake it if we don't make it.

6. It opens the same 'carbon trading' loopholes that undermined the last global climate deal

The Paris Agreement is intended to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which established a target for reduced greenhouse gas emissions far below what science suggested was needed. It then set up a series of loopholes that allowed developed countries to avoid climate action.

The Kyoto treaty created the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a carbon offsetting scheme that allowed rich countries to buy “carbon credits” from poorer countries instead of cutting emissions domestically.

The credits were meant to represent a ton of carbon cuts, but were based on dubious accounting that meant polluting companies got paid for doing almost nothing, or even expanding harmful projects. The market for CDM credits essentially collapsed in 2012 and, since then, a tonne of carbon has cost far less than a cup of coffee.

The idea of trading emissions has not gone away. The agreement explicitly allows countries to count emissions cuts made in other countries as part of their domestic targets, referring to these by the euphemism “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes”.

The Paris Agreement also creates a new mechanism to replace the CDM. This is referred to as “a mechanism to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable development”.

It is based on a joint proposal from the EU and Brazil, who clearly intend it to be a carbon trading scheme. But the obscurity of the language reflects the controversy surrounding international carbon markets, with Bolivia and its allies in the ALBA group of Latin American countries raising strong objections.

7. Carbon pollution from international shipping and flights are not counted

Taking an international plane ride or shipping goods across the world? Don't worry, those don't count as greenhouse gas emissions according to the Paris Agreement.

In reality, carbon emissions from international transport already have as much climate impact as those from Germany or South Korea. This could get a whole lot worse: shipping emissions are on course to quadruple by 2050, while by the same year the climate pollution from international aviation could be triple what it is today.

Excluding shipping and aviation from the Paris Agreement is as scandalous as it is predictable. A similar hole was worked into the Kyoto Protocol.

[Abridged from Red Pepper.]

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