Words without action: Seven takeaways from the Paris climate deal

The Paris Agreement on climate change has been hailed as a 'turning point for the world'. But it is long on rhetoric and short on real commitments, finds Oscar Reyes

December 14, 2015 · 14 min read

Activists at the Climate Action Zone in Paris.

1. It sets an ambitious target that is sure to be missed

The headlines tell an inspiring story: ‘Euphoria as landmark Paris climate deal adopted’; ‘With landmark climate accord, world marks turn from fossil fuels’; ‘”A major leap for mankind“: world leaders hail Paris deal on climate.’

The celebratory tone is partly relief at the fact that 195 countries managed to agree 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.

Even if all of these promises were met, the world would be heading for 3 degrees or more of global warming

The new Agreement only takes effect from 2020, by which time the chance to achieve 1.5°C warming will have already gone, unless all of the world’s largest economies dramatically change course. But big polluters like the USA 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 – refusing 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 degrees or more of global warming. Leaving Paris, that is still the case.

3 degrees or more of climate change takes us into extremely dangerous territory, with sea level rises inundating coastal cities, and setting off some chain reactions (called ‘tipping points’) 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 possible the Paris Agreement. While the Kyoto Protocol set binding targets for rich countries related to their share of causing climate change (admittedly, with quite some loopholes), 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 5 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. A number of rich countries have form here: the United States, Canada and Australia all missed their targets under the Kyoto Protocol, which makes their claim to be ‘high ambition‘ champions this time around ring particularly hollow.

James Hansen, a former NASA scientist dubbed the ‘father of climate change awareness’, is fairly blunt about what this means in practice:

‘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 ‘climate finance’ is not aid or charity, but is better thought of as a form of debt or reparations. Imagine it this way: you hosted a party in a friend’s house, things got out of hand, and now you are paying for the clean up. There are even some things that will never work the same way again – so you had better pay a bit more to patch those together or replace them too.

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 that can’t simply be ‘adapted’ away (more on this below).

Rich countries have repeatedly failed to provide climate finance on anything close to the scale needed. Back in Copenhagen, they promised that they would ‘mobilise’ $100 billion (£65 billion) per year of climate finance by 2020. Using some highly creative accounting they now say they are already providing $62 billion, and that new promises made in Paris could take that total to $94 billion per year. 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. Other decisions accompanying the main deal are a step in the wrong direction. Developing countries have long complained about the lack of funding to help build their resilience to the climate change that is happening already, but rich countries snubbed efforts led by African negotiators to set a target for adaptation funding over the next five years.

And while rich countries now ‘intend to continue’ efforts to provide $100 billion in climate finance until 2025, the wording of the deal is deliberately vague about their obligations after that. You do not have to be a lawyer to see how weak that commitment is. Even though I intend to continue this sentence to a conclusion, I might no…

4. Climate reparations are off limits

‘The idea of even discussing loss and damage now or in the future was off limits. The Americans told us it would kill the COP [climate summit],’ said Leisha Beardmore, chief negotiator for the Seychelles.

Other developing country diplomats reported the same message. Floods, typhoons or droughts costing you billions? Tough luck. Climate change melting the glaciers that provide you with water? Don’t look to the United States for help, or the other developed countries who were supporting the same position with less fanfare.

‘It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises.’

Let’s be clear: the United States 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.

The US even sought to go further, proposing that the Paris Agreement should ensure that would ensure against any future claims for ‘liability or compensation’ for the loss and damage caused by climate change. That phrase was kicked out of the final Paris treaty, although it remains in the accompanying guidance on how it will be implemented.

5. It does not tell oil, gas or coal producers to leave them in the ground

Avoiding runaway climate change means leaving over 80 per cent 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.

The language that replaced the call for ‘decarbonisation’ should raise more than a few eyebrows. 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.

‘Removals by sinks’ can mean protecting or even regrowing the world’s forests, but it hints at a variety of other damaging and outlandish ideas too. ‘Reforestation’ is sometimes so loosely defined that it means replacing forests with plantations and kicking indigenous peoples and forest communities off their land. ‘Sinking’ carbon by burying can also be a way of saying Carbon Capture and Storage, an unfeasibly expensive (and leaky) scheme that oil companies and dirty industries invoke whenever they want to avoid cleaning up their act. Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BeCCS), the latest fad in carbon sinks, proposes that we burn biomass as an energy source and then bury the carbon that releases deep in the ground. The science behind this is contested, at best.

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, a planet-sized flop that established a target for reduced greenhouse gas emissions far below what science suggested was needed, and 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 reducing 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.

Carbon markets do not merit even a single mention in the Paris deal, but the idea of trading emissions has not gone away. The Agreement explicitly allows countries to count emissions reductions 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. To keep the diplomatic silence on carbon markets, this is referred to as “a mechanism to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable development” (MCMGGESSD?). It is based on a joint proposal from the EU and Brazil, who clearly intend it to be a carbon trading scheme. But the length of the acronym and the obscurity of the language reflects the controversy surrounding carbon international carbon markets, with Bolivia and its allies in the ALBA group of Latin American countries raising particularly strong objections.

The last time the UN climate conference established a ‘new market mechanism’ it was stillborn, and agreeing on the rules required to get a new carbon market mechanism off the ground will not be put in place without a fight. Those battles will likely take place at the next UN climate change conference in Marrakech – the same city that hosted the 2001 summit that agreed rules for the CDM and the other UN carbon trading mechanisms.

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 entirely predictable. A similar hole was worked into the Kyoto Protocol, which gave responsibility for emissions cuts in those sectors to the International Civil Aviation Organisation and International Maritime Organisation respectively. In the 18 years since Kyoto, those bodies have shown themselves incapable of taking meaningful action.

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