Clean Tech

Promises, and little else!

M Ramesh | Updated on: Mar 10, 2018


With so many ifs, buts and no legal binding, the Paris Agreement on climate will be honoured in the breach, says M Ramesh

The biggest thing about the Paris Agreement is that it is, well, not an agreement at all. It is not binding on the parties. In essence, it is a joint statement of good intentions.

What each country will do towards the goal of limiting rise in the average temperature of the earth to 2 degrees over pre-industrial levels, is left to that country. All a country “shall” do is to declare its voluntary commitments, or Nationally Determined Contributions, to a committee of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Article 15 of the Agreement says that the committee “shall be expert-based and facilitative in nature and function in a manner that is transparent, non-adversarial and non-punitive  (emphasis added).”

There is no penal provision to guard against a breach in the Paris Agreement — countries are expected not to renege to avoid shame.

One Western news website described it like this: If I offer to pick up kid Sarah from her school on Thursday afternoon — you can’t sue me if I failed to honour the commitment, but you can socially ostracise me.

But the moot point is, with the Paris Agreement being so loaded against the developing world, will countries honour their commitments, which they are not legally bound to?

The bucket list

Climate actions basically fall in three buckets—‘mitigation’ or reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to limit future global warming; ‘adaptation’, or building defences against climatic events that may have already become unavoidable; and ‘loss and damage’ or rehabilitation after a climate event occurs.

The aim of the Agreement is to limit global warming to 2 degrees, with an ambition of 1.5 degrees. This is ‘mitigation’. Developing countries will need to expend their resources on not only mitigation, but also on adaptation. Small nations and island nations are more vulnerable to climate events and will have to deal with ‘loss and damage’. Developing countries are resource constrained. It is illogical to expect countries to spend on mitigation when they have more pressing needs to spend for ‘adaptation’ and ‘loss and damage’.

With developed countries not agreeing to provide finance or transfer technology, it is obvious that it will be very difficult for the developing and poor nations to make meaningful commitments and stick to them. Indeed, many commitments — such as India’s endeavour to have 40 per cent of installed power capacity of non-fossil fuels by 2030 — are contingent upon finance being available. The Agreement speaks, rather ambiguously, that developed countries should “take the lead in mobilising climate finance”. A lot of bickering is likely to ensue. “You didn’t give me the money, so I couldn’t keep my emissions under check,” might well be the refrain of the developing world. Many experts seem to think so. “It (the Agreement) is not enforceable,” says Bill McKibben, a well known environmentalist and climate activist, who runs the activist website The Agreement “will only matter to the extent that peoples’ movements around the world can try and hold their leaders accountable,” McKibben told Business Line in an email.

To McKibben, the Paris Agreement “does send an important signal, perhaps most of all to investors, that the fossil fuel age is coming to an end.” In other words, the Agreement sends the signal: don’t burn coal and oil.

Now, that is a deal-breaker. Many economies—China, Russia, India, Poland, Australia, the Philippines, the Arab world, to name some—depend upon coal or oil, and can’t be weaned away from fossil fuel without truck loads of money.

Many commentators in the developed world are grumbling that many countries, notably China and India, have not rolled back plans to put up coal-fired power projects.

The US issue

In the US, the Republican Party openly rejects human-caused global warming. A Republican president is a real threat to the Paris Agreement. (The Agreement will come into force only when 55 countries, representing 55 per cent of emissions, ratify it.)

Thus, with so many ifs and buts, and given that it is not legally binding, the Paris Agreement might only be honoured in the breach. As such, there is little substance in the agreement. “It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises,” Prof James E Hansen of the Columbia University, and a former NASA scientist has told  The Guardian  newspaper, calling the Paris Agreement a “fraud”.

Published on December 22, 2015
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