The climate talks in Paris provided a rare feel good moment to top off a bewildering 2015. Finally, there is a tangible momentum from the largest polluters: U.S., China, the E.U. and India, a mix of both developed and developing countries, to tackle climate change. The unexpected goodwill and initiative on display in Paris was motivated by palpable fear after another climatically atypical year may foretell more to follow. Sensing the unease and seizing the opportunity, the French hosts decided against the ineffective precedent of binding targets for industrialized countries (only the E.U. has met the agreed on 5% reduction in emissions from Kyoto). Instead, all 196 members were encouraged to bring, potluck style, what carbon reduction schemes they could afford to the table.
What emerged after days of arm twisting was short on detail, but full of positive buzz as a typically fractious bunch showed shared purpose and focus. No small task, considering the chaos six years ago in Copenhagen when developing nations, led by China and India, squared off against developed ones, led by the U.S., scuppering any agreement towards new carbon reduction targets. This time the result was a binding commitment between all members, “to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 ºC above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase 1.5 ºC above pre-industrial levels.” It seems clear, but this momentous statement of intent is anything but- what’s even the target temperature? Realistically, 2 ºC above pre-industrial levels, but the aspirational 1.5 ºC was tacked on to calm panicked island nations, who otherwise will be existent in the abstract.
“One thought will come up time and again: you will be able to say that on the twelfth of December you were in Paris for the agreement on the climate. And you will be able to be proud to stand before your children and your grandchildren.” Contrary to the high flying rhetoric of President Hollande at its close, the accord in Paris has left iceberg sized question marks floating in its aftermath. None, hopefully, too large to sink optimism COP21 is the turning point in our fight to keep Earth the way we like it. One is that pledges are a mixed bag, ranging from ambitious cuts in emissions to promises to merely lower the carbon intensity per GDP point. Another is that pledges were decided as not legally binding, and an effective monitoring scheme was nixed. Finally, concrete financial commitments to poorer countries, most at risk from climate change, were only informally agreed on.
The specifics of the 188 pledges are vague, eminently adjustable, and simply not radical enough to meet temperature targets. Added together they are projected to lower the expected 3.6 ºC temperature increase, but to 2.7 ºC rather than the promised 1.5 ºC or 2 ºC above pre-industrial levels. The promised 28% carbon emission reduction by the U.S. is centered around cleaning up its power plants through the Clean Power Plan, which could be null and void depending on this year’s election.
While China left itself plenty of wiggle room saying it will have reached “peak emissions by 2030”, achieved by shifting to renewable energy sources and planting more trees. The E.U. ambitiously aimed for an economy wide 40% reduction from 1990 levels in greenhouse gases, without mentioning specific industrial sectors this would come from. Avoiding any direct emission cuts, India simply promised to “lower the emissions intensity of GDP to 33% to 35% by 2030 below 2005 levels”, along with increasing non-fossil fuel power generation to only 40% and also increasing forest cover.
Regardless, pledges indicate the progress beyond the orthodoxy that economic growth trumps environment. If, of course, they are actually carried out. They aren’t legally binding, and there is no penalty for failure to implement. Which is why pledges had to be transparent to allow for the press and public to pressure their respective governments. However, in countries that discourage discourse outside of official channels, and tightly muzzle their press, like China, the government is only accountable to itself. Accountability that certainly hasn’t been earned considering the mind boggling levels of official excess its anti-corruption drive continues to uncover. Promisingly in China, even without an official outlet there have been protests in response to worsening air pollution and water quality, which have put the Chinese government on notice that they ignore the environment at their own peril.
At the heart of disagreement in climate negotiations is the accusation by developing to the developed, that their carbon intensive industrialization is the root cause for current climate change, and that they should be financially culpable. Refusing to allow lawsuits for compensation, developed countries instead informally promised to ‘mobilize’ $100 billion of public and private finance for developing countries every year after 2020. There is no guarantee this exact amount will be available for “adaptation and mitigation”, nor is it clear from whom this amount will be collected. This is hardly comforting for countries most at risk from climate change, and who are also the likely source of increasing emissions as they industrialize. It above all failed to set a needed moral precedent of looking beyond narrow national interests, and seeing the broader global need. The consequence is further distrust, in a time is needed.
If anything, the Paris accord is a sketch of a path the world should follow. It also showed a powerful recognition that carbon emissions must come down. In many ways, it was probably the best result anyone could have hoped for. But, we don’t have the luxury of complacency, a fact underlined by the warmest winter on record. The fuzziness of the pledges in detail and accountability demands the our energy and attention to make sure they are fully implemented. And then we need to demand more.