Lauded as both an unmitigated success and no more than worthless words, the world’s first comprehensive climate change agreement has divided opinion. Between 30th November and 11th December, 196 countries came together in Paris to agree the global action needed to curb rising temperatures. But thoughts on the agreement are not as black and white as they seem. Even when applauded there is acknowledgement that it is not perfect and even when criticised there is some hope that this is the start of something bigger, a united global front in addressing climate change. In this sense the Paris Climate Accord is thought of as:
- Our best chance to save the planet: World leaders claimed the deal is the “best chance we have” of saving the planet from catastrophic climate change. Both developed and developing countries are required to limit their emissions to relatively safe levels, holding global temperature increases to no more than 2⁰C above pre-industrial levels with an aspiration of 1.5⁰C. In terms of finance, money will be provided to poor nations to help them cut emissions and cope with the effects of extreme weather and during climate-related disasters. $100 billion per year has been pledged by 2020 to help poor countries adapt their economies and prepare for the goal of net zero emissions by later this century. While the emissions targets are not legally binding, some aspects of the agreement are, namely the obligation of countries to set emissions targets.
- An historical turning point: Failing to agree has prevented any meaningful climate agreement from being reached prior to Paris. So the fact that this attempt has been successful in reaching some sort of agreement is historic, particularly when compared to the utter failure of Copenhagen 2009.
- A fraud: This is what leading climate scientist, James Hansen, called the agreement, stating that in the agreement there is “no action, just promises”. He believes the agreement to be essentially meaningless unless greenhouse emissions are taxed. Without such incentive to reduce emissions it will likely be business as usual. The deal, in seeking international agreement, is filled with compromise, caps on emissions do not go far enough and if achieved will still lead to temperature rises of 2.7 to 3⁰C, money committed to poor countries is unlikely to be enough and since not all of the agreement is legally binding, countries can renege on their commitments. Even with the obvious flaws, this is assuming the current conditions laid out in the deal will be met and there much cynicism that this will come to pass.
- Costly: Reaching the targets laid out in the deal will cost an estimated $16.5 trillion, an amount needed by 2030 largely to replace coal and gas-fired power stations and improve energy efficiency.
- Our hope for the future: acknowledging that this is a long road ahead of us. It is the outcome of the hard work of millions of people in campaigning and researching climate change and is a basis on which to build momentum, awareness and action. The treaty is not the final say on climate change, having provisions for review every five years starting from 2018. The hope is that countries will drive more ambitious change over time. Unfortunately, scientists say, if we wait that long, even until 2020, to make drastic changes it will be too late to stay below the 2⁰C boundary.
- Unrealistic and unable to save the planet: The agreement had been criticised for being both too ambitious but also falling short. Cuts are insufficient and actions needed to keep accelerate the reduction in carbon emissions have no mechanism of enforcement. The agreement is also criticised for undermining the rights of vulnerable communities and putting them at risk of damaging climate change.
- A message that fossil fuels are a thing of the past: Despite the transition to from fossil fuels to clean energy being drawn out in the deal (and too long a period to prevent damage by climate change), the message that the end of fossil fuels is coming is clear.
- A trade agreement, nothing more: As claimed by Alberto Saldamando, human rights expert and attorney, the deal could actually cause harm, providing through such mechanisms as REDD+, the opportunity for polluting countries to off-load their pollution onto poorer countries. In the United States’ climate change plan, for example, some 250 million megatons of carbon are to be absorbed by oceans and forest offset markets. As Mr Saldamando states “Essentially, those responsible for the climate crisis not only get to buy their way out of compliance but they also get to profit from it as well.” The climate agreement not only supports but relies on such technocratic solutions failing to address the underlying social and economic drivers of climate change. It also assumes countries which may have violated human or ecological rights or been vocal about prioritising financial gains, will suddenly reform to tackle climate change, a very naïve belief.
Despite the success in reaching an agreement and despite the ambitious aims of the agreement, it all comes down to whether governments, businesses and society are willing to change and are willing to make immediate sacrifices to ensure a safer future. Something that remains to be seen. The climate talks and resulting agreement have certainly generated significant discussion and disagreement but also insight and hope. We’d love to hear your perspective on the Paris Climate Accord.