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Paris Climate Summit: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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Rally before the Eiffel Tower
Rally before the Eiffel Tower
(image by Benoit Tessier/Reuters)


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 two hundred 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 degrees C increase in global temperatures over pre-industrial levels, a recipe for disaster. (Note 1). Consider the effects already felt around the world with the present 0.8 degrees C increase. If emissions are left unchecked, predictions are for 4.5 degrees 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 Good

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 degrees 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 degreesC above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degreesC above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change" (Article 2).

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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.

The Bad

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 recognized 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 recognizing 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 degrees 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 weatherized. (Note 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).

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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. (Note 3) Divvying up what still can be consumed--considering how early industrializers constrained the carbon space of late industrializers--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 degrees C. (Note 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 Ugly

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 degrees 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.

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Steve Breyman teaches peace, environmental and media studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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