The Paris Climate Agreement – a first look

The Paris Climate Agreement – a first look

In between the financial and economic policy chaos in South Africa, there was also that little business of a global climate conference in Paris involving 195 nations and the future of the planet. And miraculously, they largely agreed on the terms of this agreement that calls for lowering carbon emissions to – in turn – lower global temperatures and that richer nations are going to help the others to make technological adjustments. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a first look at the result.

Scenes of celebration as the global climate conference in Paris drew to an end on Saturday in the Le Bourget conference centre were beamed around the world. Or maybe they were sounds of relief that the conference didn’t have to go into some really serious overtime as weary negotiators finally got a chance to get some sleep. By Saturday, some delegates had taken to complaining publicly that they had not had chances to lie down in their own hotel beds since Tuesday night. That immediately led this writer, at least, to wonder if the whole thing hadn’t been organised wrongly, right from the start.

Even as conferees gathered in Paris, many international news channels were also reporting on the most extraordinary sight from Beijing, China, where there was a thick, miasmic, greenish-yellow air – an air that looked far too much like pictures of chlorine gas attacks during World War I to be very reassuring. This appalling air quality triggered red alerts and urgings from the Chinese government for people to stay indoors.

Video footage showed people wearing masks and scarves as they wandered through the unearthly atmosphere – but they might have been better served if they had worn space suit helmets with sophisticated air filters. That air (speaking charitably) would have driven the conferees to finish their business as soon as possible so they could get out of Dodge by sunset, lest all of the gathered throng’s collective lungs been injured irreparably, had that Paris conference been moved to Beijing instead.

Or perhaps it might have been held in the lovely beachfront hotels in the Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives, where the fear there is that global warming threatens to wipe out (or wash over) the very existence of that idyllic island chain, as well as similar nations like Vanuatu in the Pacific. That, too, might have triggered even more energy to wrap up the meeting’s business at hand before the sea started to lap at the manicured gardens of the hotels used by the foreign visitors for their conference.

In the case of China, of course, the air quality has reached truly wretched levels in many cities and, far too often, as a combined function of auto exhausts, and the use of coal for heating, factory power and electrical generation – together with relatively routine winter weather conditions that keep the air stationary over places like Beijing for days on end. So much coal is being used there, in fact, that China has now moved ahead of the US in terms of total carbon emissions (although not yet, of course, as high as the US on a per capital basis). And in fact, “Environmental issues have become much more important to the Chinese public and therefore to the Chinese government,” said Dimitri de Boer, head of China Carbon Forum, a Beijing-based non-profit.

Similarly, while scientists squabble over how much the seas will rise and how fast, depending on the amount of global temperature rises, even relatively small rises can have quite catastrophic effects on low-lying nations like those island groups – and the coastal zones of Europe, the US and East, South and Southeast Asia where literally billions of people now make their homes. (Picture the negotiations taking place like that snarky art installation and comment on global warming that has statues of bureaucrats dealing with climate issues while they are half submerged in a large pool of water, or, alternatively, if the delegates had been wearing breathing apparatus in order to survive the very air around them. Nothing like sending a message.) Either certainly would have been great television and a fine international teaching moment on a grand scale!

Regardless, in the end, in spite of being meeting in a ridiculously pleasant city like Paris, the representatives from 195 nations actually did reach an agreement. Advocates of the agreement – and there are many, now, globally – insist that this agreement, a kind of global promise to be really good in future, and to become even better (but without the kinds of sanctions that would be in place in an actual treaty). As such, it does represent a collective global decision in which everyone on the planet got something (a better chance to slow down global warming), and every nation had to agree to do something to help. As the AP reported from Paris after the agreement was reached, “In the pact, the countries pledge to limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally, beginning at some point between 2050 and 2100.

In practical terms, achieving that goal means the world would have to stop emitting greenhouse gases — most of which come from the burning of oil, coal and gas for energy — altogether in the next half-century, scientists said. That’s because the less we pollute, the less pollution nature absorbs. Achieving such a reduction in emissions would involve a complete transformation of how people get energy, and many activists worry that despite the pledges, countries are not ready to make such profound, costly changes.

The deal now needs to be ratified by individual governments — at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global emissions — before taking effect. It is the first pact to ask all countries to join the fight against global warming, representing a sea change in U.N. talks that previously required only wealthy nations to reduce their emissions.” Getting every nation to join in the reductions of carbon emissions – including countries like China and India – has come at the price of agreement that richer nations will help fund the technologies that make this happen.

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Key points of the Paris Climate Accord (from the AP)

Full text found here.

LONG-TERM GOAL: The long-term objective of the agreement is to make sure global warming stays “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and to “pursue efforts” to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Temperatures have already increased by about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times. To achieve that goal, governments pledged to stop the rise in heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible.” By some point after 2050, the agreement says, man-made emissions should be reduced to a level that forests and oceans can absorb.

EMISSIONS TARGETS: In order to reach the long-term goal, countries agreed to set national targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions every five years. More than 180 countries have already submitted targets for the first cycle beginning in 2020. Only developed countries are expected to slash their emissions in absolute terms; developing nations are “encouraged” to do so as their capabilities evolve over time. Until then, they are expected only to rein in the growth of emissions as their economies develop.

REVIEWING TARGETS: The initial targets won’t be enough to put the world on a path to meet the long-term temperature goal. So the agreement asks governments to review their targets in the next four years and see if they can “update” them. That doesn’t require governments to deepen their cuts. But the hope is that it will be possible for them to do so if renewable energy sources become more affordable and effective.

TRANSPARENCY: There is no penalty for countries that miss their emissions targets. But the agreement has transparency rules to help encourage countries to actually do what they say they will do. That was one of the most difficult pieces to agree on, with China asking for softer requirements for developing countries. The agreement says all countries must report on their emissions and their efforts the reduce them. But it allows for some “flexibility” for developing countries that “need it.”

MONEY: The agreement says wealthy countries should continue to offer financial support to help poor countries reduce their emissions and adapt to climate change. It also encourages other countries to pitch in on a voluntary basis. That paves the way for emerging economies such as China to contribute, even though it doesn’t require them to do so. Actual dollar amounts were kept out of the agreement itself, but wealthy nations had previously pledged to provide $100 billion in climate finance by 2020.

LOSS AND DAMAGE: In a victory for small island nations threatened by rising seas, the agreement includes a section recognizing “loss and damage” associated with climate-related disasters. The U.S. long objected to addressing the issue in the agreement, worried that it would lead to claims of compensation for damage caused by extreme weather events. In the end, the issue was included, but a footnote specifically stated that loss and damage does not involve liability or compensation.

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As the AP added, “The main dispute centred over how to anchor the climate targets in a binding international pact, with China and other major developing countries insisting on different rules for rich and poor nations. The agreement struck a middle ground, removing a strict firewall between rich and poor nations and saying that expectations on countries to take climate action should grow as their capabilities evolve. It does not require them to do so.

Some scientists who had criticized earlier drafts as unrealistic praised the final pact for including language that essentially means the world will have to all but stop polluting with greenhouse gases by 2070 to reach the 2-degree goal, or by 2050 to reach the 1.5-degree goal.”

And so, what are the real consequences of an international agreement signed by 195 nations? Despite the cheers for the agreement, the deal is just a first step on the road to fixing the problem. Ice sheets are starting to melt, coastlines are flooding from rising seas, and some types of extreme weather are growing worse and the agreement is aimed at reducing temperature rises to under 2 degrees globally – and hopefully to as little as 1.5 degrees. Nevertheless, at least some of the more apocalyptic consequences of an overheated planet might be avoided, or at least slowed, if this agreement reduces carbon emissions sufficiently. And, perhaps crucially, since the deal requires regular reviews of the levels of carbon emissions and temperatures, it sets up a baseline for stronger actions going forward. The agreement sets a goal of getting global greenhouse gas emissions to start falling “as soon as possible”.

Not surprisingly, not everybody was in total raptures over the Paris accord. Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo argued, for example, that while the agreement might be a good start, it simply wasn’t enough. “Today the human race has joined in a common cause, but it’s what happens after this conference that really matters. This deal alone won’t dig us out the hole we’re in, but it makes the sides less steep.”

Per AP reporting on it, the agreement “says wealthy nations should continue to provide financial support for poor nations to cope with climate change and encourages other countries to pitch in on a voluntary basis. That reflects Western attempts to expand the donor base to include advanced developing countries such as China.

In a victory for small island nations, the agreement includes a section highlighting the losses they expect to incur from climate-related disasters that it’s too late to adapt to. However, a footnote specifies that it ‘does not involve or provide any basis for any liability or compensation’ — a key U.S. demand because it would let the Obama administration sign on to the deal without going through the Republican-led Senate.

The adoption of the agreement was held up for nearly two hours as the United States pressed successfully to change the wording on emissions targets from saying developed countries “shall” commit to reducing emissions to they ‘should.’ Experts said that means the deal probably won’t need U.S. congressional approval.”

The run-up to the agreement also generated some very interesting alliances as developed nations in the European Union joined up with Pacific island nations and China and the United States to push for joint action to cut fossil fuel emissions. Conceivably, this coalition might even move start moving the needle on the balance of power on energy issues away from the developing world and towards the industrialized countries.

China apparently moved this way as it came to see the severe environmental challenges it is facing during the Paris conference when the capital, Beijing, issued its first red-alert for pollution under a two-year system because of heavy smog. The city ordered limits on vehicles, factories and construction sites and told schools to close. In comparison to its stance in earlier years, China began to push much harder for a stronger deal because the effects of climate change are becoming clearer each year, explains Jiang Kejun, senior researcher at the Energy Research Institute under the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planning agency. The message on climate change “is very clear — we must do something — and in the meantime the domestic policymaking process is getting more environment-oriented,” Jiang said.

Conceivably, too, the new agreement may serve as a boost for the high technology economies like the United States and Japan as they see growth possibilities for new solutions for the generation and distribution of renewable energy, and it might even – eventually – create economic growth spurts for a group of poor, sun-drenched, windy nations since they have those inexhaustible reserves of renewable energy. On the other hand, all those major oil producers like Russia and Saudi Arabia, already weakened by the slide in the price of oil, could even be hurt more, going forward. Now that outcome was not an expected one from this conference, for sure.

Pretty much everybody who attended the conference or who spoke at it will attempt to claim some credit for the outcome. For example, the Paris accord has been described as a good showing for President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who both lobbied hard for it. However, Republicans – who control both houses of Congress and thus have the budget in their hands – are likely to feel rather upset by it. Despite the mounting evidence, many Republicans remain sceptical of the primacy of human impact on climate change and they are likely to see this accord as one that favours a despised, tree-hugging, radical environmentalism that upends businesses.

Still, environmental concerns and climate change have not, so far at least, been major factors in recent US elections and, at least at this point, certainly are not likely to outweigh international security and terror as primary electorate concerns. And Republicans will certainly attempt to play concerns over economic growth against those radical Democrats who want to wreck the petroleum, coal and automobile industries to cater to some unproven scientific theory by the Birkenstock Brigade of radical environmentalism. While the agreement is an international agreement, as the New York Times explained, “The Republican-controlled Congress can do little to stop the deal, which is not considered a treaty under United States law, though Congress would need to sign off on any new money to help other countries adapt to climate change — an important aspect of the American commitment to the accord.” And that could become a bun fight of major proportions. In addition, should the Republicans actually win the presidency, it may well be with a candidate who has vowed to rescind American accession to this accord – and that would really set the cat among the international pigeons.

The New York Times went on to describe the likely impacts on business, saying, “The ambitious targets included in Saturday’s deal for limiting the rise in global temperatures may help companies involved in renewable energy and energy efficiency by expanding their markets. Setting a high bar may also make the energy industry attractive for innovators and venture capitalists, increasing the chances of sweeping shifts in what has been a conservative business. The agreement may make life difficult for some of the incumbent companies like electric utilities and coal producers, whose product emits high levels of carbon dioxide.”

Meanwhile, assuming that nations hew to their promises to scale back carbon emissions, individuals may eventually find impacts on a stronger emphasis on more efficient electrical products, homes and vehicles. Moreover, new jobs may come along from the building a new energy infrastructure, the maintenance of new solar power fields and even transportation systems that are less dependent on petroleum products. Less benignly, however, developing economies that have less stringent targets may grow at the expense of developed nations.

Finally, of course, in domestic political terms, the agreement will have to undergo legislative scrutiny in many nations where they have a well-established role in scrutinizing policies and budgets – most especially for payments to other nations. In countries like the US or the UK where opposition parties have no compunction about attacking presidential or prime ministerial governments or in attempting to block spending or altering budgets (as opposed to the parliamentary processes in a place like China), one can be assured this agreement will be sharply debated as those industries likely to be harmed by the agreement begin to lobby intensively for exemptions or changes in the way the agreement is to be implemented.

Finally, even as the details were just coming out from Paris, the Economist argued, “Genuine concern about the climate, public opinion and international pressure produced the pledges that were made for Paris. The hope is that similar bottom-up processes, rather than unenforceable UN mandates, will drive up the level of action in decades to come. The process should be helped by a more predictable stream of money from richer countries to poorer ones—as should efforts to adapt to the climate change that is not avoided. The Paris agreement requires a flow of $100 billion a year from developed countries to developing countries by 2020, with the sum to be revisited in 2025. It also requires them to make their plans for this money clear every couple of years.”

Besides everything else, the real challenge for turning this agreement into a new global political reality may come about from new global pressures on governments to carry out their pledges of new regulations and funds transfers. This may put such pressures in opposition to dealing with short-term economic pressures. DM

Photo: Two banners read ‘Stop Climate Crimes’ and ‘Debout et Determines pour le Climat’ (Raised and involved for Climate) as thousands of people demonstrate in front of the Eiffel Tower for climate change in Paris, France, 12 December 2015. EPA/ETIENNE LAURENT


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