Opinion

The ultimate Cirque du Soleil

SURYA P SETHI | Updated on: Mar 09, 2018

bl23_factory.jpg | Photo Credit: r.classen/shutterstock.com

The Paris climate change agreement flatters to deceive. It is thoroughly inadequate for a rapidly warming planet

Overcoming recent tragic events, France and its leaders exhibited remarkable resilience and diplomatic finesse in pulling off the COP 21 Paris Agreement. France delivered what most considered the politically impossible task of getting 196 nations to agree to limit global warming jointly.

Like the Cirque du Soleil originating from what was once New France and the many famous Parisian shows, the exhilarating Le-Bourget climate show also delivered an escape from challenges requiring immediate attention based on hard scientific reality. The Paris Agreement embraces heady promises to deliver lofty, though likely unachievable, goals in the future.

Inconvenient truths

As delegates cheered and applauded the gavelling of the Paris Agreement, I marvelled at the human capacity for self-deception. Earth’s ecosystem will hold everyone present in that final plenary as being responsible for the death and misery that the Paris Agreement would unleash upon the bottom half of their fellow humans and countless other species that share the same planet and the same commons.

Ten inconvenient truths expose this act of self-deception.

1. The Paris Agreement crafted language to avoid the requirement of legislative approval for its legal ratification by the US, underscoring the absence of broad political commitment and support for tackling climate change in that country. What does the ratification of the Paris Agreement by the US really mean then? Currently, the US is the world’s second largest polluter with the highest historical responsibility for about 28 per cent of cumulative emissions and global warming since 1750.

2. China, currently the world’s largest economy and its largest polluter, accounted for about 16.6 per cent of global GDP in PPP terms and 28 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2014. Yet, treating China as a developing nation entitles it with extra time to grow its absolute and relative emissions.

3. The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions volunteered by 155 countries, accounting for over 90 per cent of current greenhouse gas emissions, are short by 17 giga tonnes or 55 per cent of the total mitigation of 30.8 giga tonnes required by 2030 for a 66 per cent chance of remaining below the 2°C warming limit. If the Paris Agreement truly embodies a universal “commitment” to remain “well below” the 2°C warming limit and “pursue efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5°C” then why was this gap not eliminated during the Paris negotiations?

4. The gap in mitigation ambition is especially troubling because it results from developed nations pledging to deliver only 38 per cent of their fair share of the mitigation burden even as developing nations pledged to unconditionally mitigate 126 per cent of their fair burden share. Both the Framework Convention and the Paris Agreement require developed nations to take the lead in mitigation. Yet the Paris Agreement does not require developed nations to immediately raise their voluntary pledges to match their fair share of the mitigation burden in the very least.

5. The Paris Agreement mandates updating of voluntary pledges every five years and the accompanying COP decision encourages countries to do more in the pre-2020 period. However, a formal stocktaking is mandated only in 2023. Given that our current emissions trajectory will take us way beyond the aspirational warming limits agreed, why wait till 2023 to take stock?

6. By not requiring immediate elimination of the mitigation ambition gap and delaying stocktaking till 2023, we would likely completely exhaust the carbon budget for the ambitious 1.5°C warming limit and severely impair the chance for even staying “well below” the 2°C limit. Hence the universal promise, incorrectly dubbed “commitment” by some, to deliver the aspirational warming limits under the Paris Agreement is merely a feel-good statement, at best, and a patently false promise, at worst.

7. The longer we delay effective stocktaking the more we narrow the differentiation between the developed and the developing world especially if we allow China and others with per capita emissions at or above European levels to continue posing as developing countries. By 2023 we would have effectively delayed a meaningful accounting of differentiation by 29 years with perilous consequences for India and other poor nations.

8. By allowing the mitigation ambition gap to persist, the Paris Agreement sanctions the developed countries to usurp much more than their fair share of even the remaining carbon budget/space just as they have done since 1750. This effectively turns the historical responsibility of developed nations into their historical right. Nothing in the Paris Agreement assures, or even seeks, an equitable sharing of the limited carbon space available to humanity.

9. Historical responsibility for global warming has also been negated through the elimination of all notions of compensation for loss and damage resulting from adverse impacts of climate change.

10. The Paris Agreement successfully garnered the support of many countries with wording that addresses their narrow contemporary political interests. However, the legal nature or enforceability of any of the pledges and promises on mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology, capacity building, and support remains debatable.

India lost the most

India might take comfort from the fact that the Paris Agreement: (i) includes references to all relevant clauses defining respective obligations of developed and developing countries under the Framework Convention on Climate Change; (ii) repeatedly commits to equity under the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities; (iii) specifically records obligations of developed countries towards adaptation, mitigation, finance, technology and capacity building; and (iv) records “climate justice” being an important concept “for some”. However, the inconvenient truths leave India in an extremely vulnerable position.

If history is any guide, we are set to continue wrangling over operationalising the goals and good intentions expressed once again in yet another agreement and the accompanying COP decision. This will be further complicated by having to continuously assess and bicker over relative ambition levels of individual countries in respect of their pledges towards mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology and capacity building and measuring them against science-based assessments of what is essential for staying below the aspirational warming limits. And since there is no framework that binds some or all to undertake specific climate actions, a mechanism will have to be crafted that can coax countries to periodically raise their voluntary nationally determined contributions to meet global goals .

Those applauding the gavelling of the Paris Agreement see the above as a solution. To me it is the first act of the proverbial ‘tragedy of the commons’ wherein individual nations acting rationally, responsibly and in good faith, within the context of their national circumstances, end up severely undermining the global best interest of the planet they share.

Even if one is sufficiently optimistic and recklessly ignores history to assume that all of the above will be sorted out by the time of the first stocktaking in 2023 and even if one assumes that by 2023 nations will put global interests above their national interest, would it not be a case of locking the barn after the horse has bolted?

With the current pledges we would, by 2023, likely lose the odds of even delivering the less ambitious goal of keeping global warming “well below” 2°C.

The combined emissions of OECD and China must reduce by 70 per cent from current levels by 2030 to give the bottom half of the world, which includes India, the necessary carbon space to achieve a threshold level of development.

Without such development this half of the world will lack the required adaptation capacity to survive the adverse impacts of climate change. The Paris Agreement does not assure this.

The writer was Principal Advisor (Power and Energy) and Core Climate Negotiator, Government of India

Published on December 22, 2015
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