14 Dec 2015 20:02 IST

Paris climate accord is all hot air

Christiana Figueres (Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), Ban Ki-moon (United Nations Secretary-General), Laurent Fabius (French Foreign Affairs Minister) and Francois Hollande (French President) react during the final plenary session at the World Climate Change Conference   -  Reuters

It is a soft, touchy-feely document where the final draft was acceptable because “should” was replaced by “shall”

Reasonable people are generally amenable to agreeing with fact. If the question to six diners at a table is to name the capital of India, there wouldn’t be too much of an argument.

But when fact slowly morphs into opinion, obtaining agreement is more difficult. Which ice cream flavour tastes the best? Which Indian city is the most liveable? Which modern day world leader has contributed the most to humanity?

To critics of the environmental movement, climate science is as much fact as it is fiction. Wikipedia maintains a list of scientists worldwide who have published scholarly, peer-reviewed papers, questioning various aspects of the climate change theory. Some contend that sea levels are not rising at all; others contest the idea that human actions are causing global warming, providing evidence to the contrary, showing how natural processes are more responsible.

Given this scepticism, a major accomplishment of the Paris climate accord was that 195 countries agreed not only that humans were responsible for climate change, but also offered to commit to steps, local to their countries, to combat this change.

But this is where the accomplishment ends. Drawing up a plan is one thing. Implementing it over a period of time, taking into account numerous course corrections which are integral to any initiative, is quite another.

How fair is it?

The 195 countries have pledged to cut greenhouse gases through limited burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels. Countries like India have a legitimate need to keep burning fossil fuels because major parts of the country still do not have electricity. Is it fair to choke India’s essential growth for the betterment of the world?

Note that the per capita consumption of fossil fuels for a developing country is far less compared to wealthy nations, who burn a lot more.

Take the question of daily commutes in two major metro areas of the world, Los Angeles and Chennai. Los Angeles commuters are more likely to drive big, hulking SUVs, one person to a vehicle and long distances given the sprawl of the metro LA area. The average Chennai commuter, on the other hand, probably takes a crowded bus or train to work. Per capita, the Chennai individual is contributing a lot less to global warming, even if the bus is assumed to spew toxic fumes. So, which country should cut down its greenhouse gas emissions more?

Laughable statements

This is why the accord’s language is so non-binding and kid-gloved that it is almost laughable. The delegates could not agree on how soon each nation should cut greenhouse gas emissions, so they decided to cut emissions “as soon as possible”, with no fixed date set.

Consider this: “Parties are encouraged to take action… relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation…” Just encouraged?

And this: “Parties recognise the importance of averting, minimising and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change.” Really? I thought everyone did that going in, or why else did they even make the trip to Paris in the first place?

There are specifics in the agreement but they mostly don’t mean much. For example, regarding global warming, the goal is to “limit the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.”

How in the world does this language translate into how much each country’s emissions should be? For example, how much would India’s greenhouse gas emissions impact the island of Sri Lanka? Or Madagascar?

Meaningless pledges

To get to individual country goals for cutting emissions, they allowed each nation to set individual pledges. But pledges without enforcement are meaningless. I can pledge to lose 10 pounds of excess body fat in a year but if there’s no enforcement mechanism (that is, carrots to motivate my behaviour and sticks to punish), the pledge is most likely to stay unmet. Countries were quick to agree to reconvene at some exotic locale five years from now to review where they would be with their pledges and come up with new pledges for coming years.

Oh, well.

There was a lot of talk about how rich countries, like the US, would subsidise poorer countries like India and China with technology, financing and know-how to limit greenhouse gases. The preamble contained language creating a $100 billion pot from which these funds would be disbursed.

But the final agreement dropped this commitment from becoming legally enforceable because the rich countries balked. The US is $19 trillion in debt already. Efforts to subsidise American companies to switch from coal to clean natural gas or wind power were met with extremely stiff resistance from the coal lobby in the US. Why would Congress authorise American tax dollars to be given to India or China so that these countries would burn less coal?

No answers

The accord is a mirror reflection of the hubris of its leaders. Remember candidate Obama’s boast in 2008? “We are the ones we have been waiting for”, he said. The last two weeks were an exercise by governments to go home and gloat that they accomplished something. In the US, the media is celebrating how the accord “secures President Obama’s legacy”, as though this was a primal question over which the other countries’ representatives were losing sleep every day.

The Paris accord is not a treaty that has to be ratified by the governments of the 195 countries — like the nuclear non-proliferation agreement was. It has no teeth. It is a soft, touchy-feely document where the final draft was acceptable to many countries in part because the word “should” in many places was replaced by the word “shall”.

In summary, it is nothing more than hot air, the kind that is not created by greenhouse gases.

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