On Saturday, the final version of the Paris Climate Agreement was released to the public. Some, like President Obama, say this heralds a bright new day for sustainability. Others are not so keen.
“By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle,” wrote author George Monbiot in the Guardian. “By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.”
COP21: What Does the Final Text Say?
As we learned on Friday, negotiators decided to commit to the middle-of-the-road threshold for global warming by 2100. That means the 196 global leaders agreed that “temperatures should be kept well below 2°C and include efforts to limit them to below 1.5°C, with the understanding that there are high climate risks even at that level.” Island nations, who remain the most vulnerable to climate change (particularly sea level rise), lobbied passionately to bring the threshold below 1.5°C, but were unsuccessful.
On the surface, this seems like a victory. Back in November, I wrote about the numerous climate disasters that are predicted to occur should global warming increase average temperature 2°C by century’s end. To name just a few: Much stronger hurricanes, less food, less marine life, more droughts and floods, and a 400 percent increase in wildfires at minimum. The biggest goal at COP21 was to get nearly 200 countries to agree to make efforts to keep the global temperature from rising those precious two degrees.
Under the agreement, countries must begin making efforts to accomplish this goal by 2020. A five-year review was also included in the final text, which requires countries to report their progress on greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction. Ken Berlin, President of the Climate Reality Project, told Planet Experts this will be the real key to reducing climate disasters.
The final text also calls for the provision of $100 billion a year to developing countries to adapt to climate change, for nations to reach peak GHG emissions as soon as possible and for nations to achieve a balance between carbon sources and sinks by the second half of the century.
President Obama certainly views COP21 as a win. Obama is widely credited for working hand in hand with COP21 President Laurent Fabius to get every nation in line.
“Two weeks ago in Paris, I said before the world that we need a strong global agreement,” Obama said on Saturday. “An enduring agreement that reduces global carbon pollution and sets the world on a course for a low-carbon future. We came together around the strong agreement the world needed. We met the moment.”
Monbiot, writing in the Guardian, disagrees. “I doubt any of the negotiators believe that there will be no more than 1.5C of global warming as a result of these talks,” he wrote. “As the preamble to the agreement acknowledges, even 2C, in view of the weak promises governments brought to Paris, is wildly ambitious.”
James Hansen, former NASA scientist and leading climate change advocate, completely dismissed the agreement as a climate victory.
“It’s a fraud really, a fake,” he told the Guardian. “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C 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 continued to be burned.”
In Paris, Hansen argued that an international agreement is toothless without a carbon tax. He suggests a plan that charges emitters $15 per tonne of CO2 with an increase of $10 each year.
On Saturday, Planet Experts met up with John Cook, the founder of Skeptical Science, who took a cautious but optimistic view of the Paris Agreement. “It’s like facing an oncoming bus,” he said, referring to the 2C warming target. “We could’ve jumped out of the way, but instead we’re taking a step out of the way.”
In both cases, the planet misses the worst outcome (though in this one it’s a very near thing).
What’s the Worst That Could Happen?
According to Climate Action Tracker, the Paris Agreement will not put the planet on course for less than 2°C of warming. If countries did nothing, they estimate that the planet would warm 4.5°C by 2100. Yet based on the pledges made at COP21, the world is still on course to warm by 2.7°C.
National governments, however, are not the only actors taking initiative. The biggest news from COP21 may not involve the Paris agreement at all but the fact that 1,000 cities have pledged to go 100 percent renewable and/or reduce GHG emissions by 80 percent by 2050. The Paris City Hall Declaration, coupled with the sustainable efforts of the business sector, will likely result in the most rapid and significant climate actions.
What may prove to be the most damaging result of this year’s COP is the sheer volume of compromises undertaken to accommodate the USA. Before official negotiations even began, it was almost certain that COP21 would not result in a legally binding treaty. This is due to the fact that the Republican-held Congress is still opposed to the idea that man-made climate change is even real, let alone a threat to national and international security. The current Congress will not approve any treaty Obama brings home.
Thus COP21 has concluded with an agreement rather than a treaty, which is non-binding and does not require the approval of Congress. That said, there are a few legally binding requirements that are built into it: Countries need to reconvene every five years to share their updated plans for emission reduction; starting in 2023, they must also report how their reduction goals compare to their actual reductions; and the monitoring and reporting of emission levels will be held to a universal accounting system.
Of course, the UN’s ability to penalize countries for failing to follow these requirements is limited beyond “naming and shaming” the offenders. There’s also the fear – shared by the entire international community – that Republicans will take the White House in 2016, walking back any progress made in Paris this year.
Some Republicans aren’t even waiting for November. “The United States is not legally bound to any agreement setting emissions targets or any financial commitment to it without approval by Congress,” said Oklahoma Senator (and fervent climate change denier) Jim Inhofe in a statement.
Meanwhile, Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell is still trying to get states to reject the President’s Clean Power Plan, the keystone in Obama’s climate initiative. “Before his international partners pop the champagne, they should remember that this is an unattainable deal based on a domestic energy plan that is likely illegal, that half the states have sued to halt, and that Congress has already voted to reject,” said McConnell.
McConnell has also said that the Paris agreement “is subject to being shredded in 13 months,” no doubt because every single Republican presidential candidate is either a climate skeptic or denier.
It’s Not Over
In his post-COP21 address, Obama said that the American people can be proud because “this historic agreement is a tribute to American leadership.” A controversial statement, considering that US negotiators (along with those from Britain, Norway and other developed countries) are responsible for removing language from the final draft that deals with human rights.
The removal of all references to climate change as a human rights issue in the final draft has been criticized by several environmental and civil rights groups as a way to eliminate developed countries’ culpability for climate damage. Without this language, it will be difficult for weaker and more climate vulnerable countries to seek compensation for the increasingly-dangerous ravages of global warming.
Every activist I spoke to, and many in the business sector, emphasized that COP21 is a beginning, not an end, to global climate action. Fossil fuels remain the biggest hurdle to overcome and have skillfully managed to outmaneuver any indictment from the Paris agreement. To Monbiot, this is no accident, and it has caused the world too much time.
“Two decades of procrastination, caused by lobbying – overt, covert and often downright sinister – by the fossil fuel lobby, coupled with the reluctance of governments to explain to their electorates that short-term thinking has long-term costs, ensure that the window of opportunity is now three-quarters shut,” wrote Monbiot. “The talks in Paris are the best there have ever been. And that is a terrible indictment.”
But progress, however slight, has been made. COP21 has pushed the needle that much farther towards global acceptance of anthropogenic climate change. Mayors, businesses and several heads of state, are actively transitioning away from fossil fuels right now. Stopping global temperature from rising two degrees is now the ostensible priority of every nation on the planet, and that cannot be derided.
Could this all have happened earlier, faster and with a modicum of fuss, given what we knew and when we knew it? Absolutely. But this is not the best of all possible worlds. It’s a sick world that needs help. Humanity will either be the cure or the symptom that lasts as long as the Earth survives.