Baby Steps in Paris

Global warming

By Sam Hampsher

Until now a worldwide consensus regarding global warming has escaped us. Initially, the voices of those wealthy enough to worry about global warming were drowned out by those who either denied climate science or valued economic opportunity over ecological integrity. Even as evidence supporting man-made climate change increased, and public awareness of environmental problems grew, international environmental accords have repeatedly failed. The Kyoto Accord in 1997 (COP7 – the seventh annual Conference of the Parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) exempted developing nations such as India and China (now the worlds biggest emitter of CO2), and Kyoto was never ratified by the United States. The 2009 Copenhagen Accord (COP15) failed to produce legally enforceable targets. Only 23 of 144 ratifications required to bring the 2012 Doha Agreement (COP18) into effect were ever secured.

Broadly, these environmental accords failed for two reasons: developed nations were reluctant to tolerate greater restrictions than those of developing nations (despite greater historical responsibility); and developing nations were unwilling to limit their progress with environmental sanctions that would prevent them achieving the same living standards enjoyed elsewhere. Too often, the biggest potential emissions reducers (big businesses and developed nations) falsely considered their interests immune from effects of environmental damage, as if global warming were the concern of future generations living in foreign countries. Observers of the environmental debate would have been forgiven for believing that the ecological crisis presented international politics with a unique and insurmountable challenge. Certainly technological innovation makes better press and a less depressing subject for scholarship than the torrent of failed political attempts to manage this behemoth problem.

However, last month in Paris (COP 21) 195 national representatives signed the Paris Agreement, stating that global warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels, and committing to limiting temperature rises to 2°C above pre-industrial averages. The signatories agreed upon a series of requirements that demand increasingly stringent policies. This agreement will be legally binding (if ratified by 55 of the 196 signatory nations) and requires signatories to monitor their progress using a common system to measure their emissions reductions and report publicly on this progress every five years.

The agreement received a warm reception from the international press and from world leaders such as John Kerry: “We have 187 countries, for the first time in history, all submitting independent plans… for reducing emissions…in my judgment… [it creates] a uniform standard of transparency… [from which reductions can be measured].” However, the COP21 also has its critics, and not only in the community of industrialists and career politicians who cheerfully proclaim “I’m not a scientist but…” before denying global warming on the basis of a recent frost in Florida. Among COP21’s strongest critics is James Hansen, former NASA scientist and devoted environmentalist, for whom the COP21 amounts to an empty promise. Hansen argues that a meaningful agreement needs to have a tax on greenhouse gas emissions, rather than setting a lofty goal and “try[ing] to do a little better every five years.” The Accord doesn’t provide a single common scheme for reducing emissions (instead individual nations submitted voluntary plans). It doesn’t describe how nations’ plans will be policed, or a timetable for emissions reductions. Crucially, the agreement will only be legally binding for the 195 signatory states if it is ratified by at least 55 of the 195 signatory nations, and if those 55% are collectively responsible for at least 55% of global emissions. There is some concern (justified in light of Kyoto) that the US will not ratify, in which case it is unlikely that other major polluters such as India, Russia and China will. Without the majority of these big polluters it will be almost impossible to reach the 55% target and then the agreement will be worthless.

The structure of the agreement however is also its strength. Because the agreement is primarily voluntary the accord bypasses the US’s Republican-controlled Senate, which would almost certainly have blocked any proposal for a fully-binding agreement, as they have historically. Recent warming of relations between Beijing and Washington (exemplified by the November 2014 agreement between President Obama and General Secretary Xi Jinping to limit greenhouse gas emissions) seems to have fostered compliance among other big polluters. President Obama’s recent rejection of the Keystone Pipeline XL in November 2015 may have reassured the international community that America was, at last, committed to preventing the worst effects of climate change before it’s too late.

COP21 does not provide a one-size fits all solution for the world’s environmental crises. Nor does it even detail a specific solution to the problem of man-made climate change caused by the global economy’s 200-year carbon habit. But every 12-step program will tell you that recognizing the problem and accounting for it are vital steps towards recovery. What the Paris agreement does is twofold. It signals universal recognition of a universal problem, and it creates mutual accountability in our nations’ unified efforts to address it. For better or worse it is a policy to make policies. Embittered climate scientists who have endured a career marked by the disappointment of failed environmental agreements might react with skepticism, but the Paris Agreement affirms the hope that politics still has a role to play in the addressing the environmental crisis.

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