The national leaders of the world – there are, strictly as yet, no world leaders – have assembled in Paris and offered their wisdom on how to save the climate of planet Earth from humans, in the sense at least of keeping it congenial for humankind, and maybe a few other life-forms.
There is a sense of urgency, which should not come as a surprise since non-linear climate change has already set in and pretty much everyone is discernibly suffering. But there was a sense of urgency in Copenhagen 6 years ago, and this did not prevent failure.
Outright failure in Paris is unlikely. The differences are many: a sobered realisation that IPCC predictions were, if anything, too conservative; the transubstantiation of denialists into prevaricators, the US-China accord to set a new global tone; and the downgrading of the targets from binding to voluntary to suit variegated taste.
The danger of Paris is not the absence of a text. The danger is the dog-whistling, already setting in, about lowered expectations to beguile the global public. Let’s acknowledge a few truths first, at the outset of Paris, and dispel some emerging mythology being disseminated, not least by NZ.
- Paris is actually not the first ‘global agreement’. That was in 1992. The ’92 Rio Convention called for emissions to stabilise to prevent dangerous climate change. It has taken 23 years for all governments to agree to submit national targets. We all need to be ashamed it has taken this long. In 1990, the UNFCCC’s baseline year, global emissions were 38 Gt; today they are 53 Gt. Had we stabilised by, say, 2000, or even the rich developed world had stabilised as Rio called for, we would be safe below 2°C.
- Many, including the NZ Government, now dismiss the Kyoto Protocol. They do so, on specious grounds. The Kyoto Protocol was the 1st child of the Rio Convention. It did what was asked of it – to introduce legally-binding obligations, on developed countries first, to cut emissions by 5%. It successfully achieved that. The welchers in this were two. The US refused to join after having participated in the negotiations; and Canada withdrew when it faced a penalty from exceeding its limit. So much for the strength of international law in the 21st century; so much for the good faith of the (then) Canadian Govt.
- The 2nd child of Rio was to be the global protocol at Copenhagen in which all countries would take on obligations to cut or limit emissions. Following the Copenhagen failure, the EU led the move for a 2ndcommitment period for the developed states under Kyoto, for the critical decade 2013-20. This occasioned the second round of welching. The climate-responsible APEC states (Australia & NZ, Japan & Russia, Canada & USA) refused to join and accept binding targets. They elected to take voluntary targets instead, thereby incurring no strong obligation to meet them, or penalty for not. The Europeans remained staunch; their rich Asia-Pacific cousins baulked. The EU entered 18% (binding) for 2020; NZ entered 5% (voluntary). Bravo!
- The third round of welching is now: the decision that the protocol in Paris should enter non-binding targets for the following decade, 2021-30. New Zealand led the charge for voluntary targets (INDCs) on the grounds that China and the US would not accept anything binding. That game is now over, and voluntary targets are a fait accompli. Given the weak aggregated INDCs, there is a strong argument not to make the specific national figures binding now, so that they can be ramped up quickly. But agreeing to voluntary targets in the multilateral text does not prevent developed countries from individually self-binding their target in domestic legislation as EU states and the EU itself have done, and New Zealand has refused.
- The Paris Agreement will ‘succeed’ in being the first protocol of Rio to require a commitment from all parties to cut or limit emissions. But that should have occurred in Copenhagen 6 years ago. Back then, global emissions were 49 Gt., some 4 Gt less than today. We keep losing precious time, taunting the gods.
- The fourth public beguilement is the ponderous formality of the peer review mechanism – the so-called Global Stocktake. This, you understand, will commence only after the Paris Agreement has entered into force, in fact not until 2022. That is too late. And peer reviews will not do it. I’ve had experience with international peer reviews; having defended the NZ aid programme 27 years ago before the OECD. That year our ODA/GNI was about 0.28%. Following successive peer reviews since then, what is New Zealand’s figure today? It is 0.28%. A peer review of inadequate voluntary targets that starts several years after the scientists say global emissions are meant to peak virtually guarantees failure to stay under the 2°C threshold.
- The fifth beguilement is that the aggregated targets resulting in a 2.7°C temperature rise is a ‘good start’. This is misleading. We need to distinguish defiant resolve from a false optimism. The ‘good start’ meme, a decade too late, requires two caveats:
- The global emissions level estimated for the 2.0°C threshold rests on a 66% probability level. If we wish to be close to 100% confidence of remaining below 2.0°C, we must aim lower, closer to 1.8°C. Current INDCs will produce 54 Gt in 2030. Yet we need to aim, not for 42 Gt (the 2.0°C threshold at 66%) but about 40 Gt. That is a massive task; and you do not hear national leaders shouting it out.
- Second, pre-Paris pledges were estimated to cause 3.6°C. The considerable progress in shaving 0.9°C off (3.6 – 2.7) through the latest INDCs masks the fact that this is very much low-hanging fruit. It will be an increasingly steep challenge to shave the second 0.9°C off (2.7 – 1.8). Yet this is what we must do.
So yes, Paris must succeed, and providing the Americans can get over themselves and accept the trials and tribulations of a ‘treaty’, we must be satisfied. But it is only a circumstantial satisfaction, in the sense of obtaining a temporary, and conditional, reprieve. Proof of success, just like proof of innocence, is more exacting.
Proclaiming that we have broken the back of climate change at Paris will be the purgatory of a fool.
11/30/2015 – 19:00