We have a climate deal. In Paris 195 countries with very disparate levels of development, interests and agendas have all agreed in “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 ºC and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 ºC above pre-industrial levels” (UNFCCC 2015, 22) — the most ambitious goal ever formalized. In other words, the deal aims to reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions in the second half of this century by reaching global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible” (Ibid., 22). However, as the Parties highlight in their draft decision (Ibid., 3), cuts resulting from the intended nationally determined contributions still represent a potential global warming of more than 2 ºC this century. As a consequence, the agreement invites countries “to take stock of the collective efforts of Parties in relation to the long-term goal” in 2018, and requests them “to communicate or update by 2020 a new nationally determined contribution” (Ibid., 4). Then, every five years parties will meet and present their renewed nationally determined contributions which will have to represent a progression on their previous one (Ibid., 22). Progress will be monitored by a technical expert review. In a nutshell, this new deal is based on a bottom-up system inasmuch as each country is free to determine its own path in cutting emissions. And this is exactly why the Paris agreement was so successful in gathering so much support.
Is there anything in this deal which ensures that countries will present in 2020 the necessary targets to avoid the scientifically agreed potential catastrophic effects of a rise in global temperature of more than 2 ºC above pre-industrial levels? The answer is no. So, what are the guarantees? Why should one believe that suddenly the Parties will act differently? The fact that the deal does not present any means to achieve this until 2020, as well as the lack of tools to punish the Parties that do not do their part, may indicate that in fact the countries will not ambitiously revisit their contributions. Moreover, there is no fixed date for them to achieve their peaks. The expressions “as soon as possible” referring to the global peaking of emissions, and “second half of this century” regarding net zero emissions, mentioned in Article 4, paragraph 1 of the draft decision, seem too vague given the urgency of the climate challenge. Therefore, the agreement appears too fragile. As Bjorn Lomborg (2015) observes, “to say that Paris will get us to 2C (…) relies on wishful thinking”. The lack of a determined schedule and of an ambitious mitigation target, as well as the simple invitation to review cuts in emissions seem to be synonymous with an ongoing diplomacy of resistance and delay.
It is a fact that humanity has to act “as soon as possible” if it wants to fight the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. Apart from a couple of persistent skeptics, who does not agree on that? Theoretically, the Paris agreement is, indeed, a historical deal since it binds all countries to reduce their emissions. But in practice does it really mean something so different than what we have seen since 1992? Despite all enthusiastic applause, I am afraid not. The mere Parties’ good intentions have proven not good enough and this deal keeps on relying on them. Besides, the establishment of the demanding goal of 1.5 ºC coupled with the absence of immediate means to ensure the various countries ambitiously revisit their national determined contributions may pave the way to a future based on a more strong need of “purposeful interventions in the climate system to counteract anthropogenic climate change” (NRC 2015), i.e. geoengineering, namely Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) methods. One cannot neglect that, even for the achievement of the 2 ºC target, a scenario where traditional answers are not sufficient is considered a pretty likely one by many scientists and was clearly assumed in the last IPCC Assessment Report (IPCC 2014) with the integration of CDR methods in various mitigation scenarios. Not taking a position for or against the technologies commonly labelled as geoengineering, I warn to the need for a broad debate on these solutions, one which is specifically oriented to each method in particular and not under the “reducing hat” of the concept of geoengineering (Heyward 2013). Additionally, and beyond the geoengineering label, the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) directly at fossil fuel power plants and the role of future generations of nuclear power are also important measures which should be largely debated. As a consequence, I believe that a greater detail in mechanisms and a concrete schedule which could, in a more clear way, enable the 2 ºC target would have been much more fruitful for the future of humanity, instead of the introduction of the new 1.5 ºC Paris goal (although this target can be very important for the most vulnerable countries).
Moreover, the excessive enthusiasm which has been surrounding the agreement since it was released may have a wicked effect. The widespread idea that something exceptional and impressive was reached (something that even points to a target “well below 2 ºC”) may eventually translate into a larger inertia in the essential path towards increasing public awareness on the extent of the climate challenge. This is very relevant and problematic because political discourse and public opinion work as a “feedback effect” — political discourse influences public opinion and the degree of public awareness on the dimension of the climate challenge is one of the most important aspects which might affect and pressure policymakers in their future decisions. Barack Obama recently addressed this when he was asked about how to deal with climate skeptics in the US Congress: “The science is overwhelming but what will move Congress will be public opinion. Your voices will make them open to facts” (Phillips, 2015).
I would say that the best of the COP21 does not lie in the climate agreement or in the new ambitious (unrealistic?) 1.5 ºC target. The best of it is in the engagement of cities, companies, private citizens and so many others in the fight against anthropogenic climate change. For instance, it was announced that about 400 cities have committed to the Compact of Mayors coalition in order to monitor and reduce emissions (The Climate Reality Project 2015); the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, “a global group of private investors who will support companies that are taking innovative clean-energy ideas out of the lab into the marketplace” (Gates 2015) was also announced and it is one of the most exciting initiatives coming out of the Paris event. Additionally, as members of The Climate Reality Project (2015) observe, there was “an unprecedented show of popular support for a strong agreement all around the world (…) [with] over 6.2 million people together to demand action in Paris”. Much more is needed, but this seems a pretty good sign.
In lieu of conclusion, I must say that I do not believe that a much different climate deal would have been possible to achieve in Paris. Differences are still too profound and national interests are still above global interest, even though both are two sides of the same coin in a globalized world. But I take issue with the 1.5 ºC target and the effusive political celebrations, and I warn to the possible negatives consequences associated with them. Nevertheless, I also stress the very positive signs coming from non-governmental actors and civil society groups. As Margaret Mead once brilliantly asserted, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.
Gates, Bill. “A Big Win for Cheap, Clean Energy”, Gates Notes. November 29, 2015. Accessed December 10, 2015. http://www.gatesnotes.com/Energy/Investing-in-Energy-Innovation?WT.mc_id=11_30_2015_09_EnergyRD_BG-LI_&WT.tsrc=BGLI
Heyward, Clare. “Situating and Abandoning Geoengineering: A Typology of Five Responses to Dangerous Climate Change.” PS: Political Science & Politics 46, no 1 (2013): 23-27.
IPCC. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Papers I, II, III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Geneva: IPCC, 2014.
Lomborg, Bjorn. “We Have a Climate Treaty — But at What Cost?”. Forbes. December 13, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2015. http://www.forbes.com/sites/bjornlomborg/2015/12/13/we-have-a-treaty-but-at-what-cost/
Phillips, Amber. “We watched President Obama’s Twitter Q&A so you didn’t have to”, The Washington Post. May 28, 2015. Accessed November 21, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/05/28/obama-takes-climate-change-questions-on-twitter-things-inevitably-turn-to-basketball/
NRC. Climate Intervention. Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration. Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth. Report in Brief. Washington: The National Academy of Sciences, 2015.
The Climate Reality Project. “This Is a Turning Point: Three Things You Need to Know About the Paris Agreement”, The Climate Reality Project. December 12, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2015. https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/cop21-paris-agreement
UNFCCC, Adoption of the Paris Agreement, Draft decision -/CP.21 (12 December 2015). http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09r01.pdf
Joana Castro Pereira, Assistant Professor at Lusíada University — North (Porto, Portugal); PhD in International Relations — Globalization and Environment