Paris Climate Change Conference

Paris Climate Agreement Adopted: New Central Plan for the World's Economy and Climate

Last Dispatch: What could possibly go wrong?



A universal climate agreement has been adopted. And the folks here at the Paris climate change conference are, for the most part, elated. The media center erupted in applause when conference President Laurent Fabius gaveled the adoption of the Paris Agreement.

"We have a historic deal," declared Senior Climate Advisor for the group Christian Aid Mohamed Adow. He added, "Today is a new deal that ushers in a new era. The transition to a low carbon future is inevitable; the global economy must be transformed." Global Director of the Climate Program at the World Resources Institute Jennifer Morgan is similarly enthusiastic, "Countries here united around an agreement that marks a historic turning point in the climate crisis." Senior Adviser for the New Climate Economy project Michael Jacobs said, "This agreement sends a signal about how the future of the world's economy will be shaped. The world is on an irrevocable and inevitable path to a low carbon economy."

In an emailed statement, Nicholas Stern, Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment declared, "The Paris Agreement is a turning point in the world's fight against unmanaged climate change…. The Agreement creates enormous opportunities as countries begin to accelerate along the path towards low-carbon economic development and growth." In an email from the anti-fossil fuel group, its Executive Director May Boeve asserted that despite "some serious gaps" the Paris agreement "marks the end of the era of fossil fuels. There is no way to meet the targets laid out in this agreement without keeping coal, oil and gas in the ground. The text should send a clear signal to fossil fuel investors: divest now."

So what are the targets that will kill off coal, oil, and natural gas? The agreement styled as "enhancing the implementation" of the already ratified U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) sets the objective of "holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels." 

The Paris Agreement then adopts as its long-term goal the "aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible" and thereafter "undertake rapid reductions… so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century." What does that mean?  The goal covers the emissions of the main greenhouse gas carbon dioxide along with others such as methane and nitrous oxide. Currently carbon dioxide emissions account for 77 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The basic idea is that emissions of greenhouse gases would be brought as close to zero as possible after 2050 and those emissions that are not eliminated will be balanced with an equivalent amount of removals, for example, by planting forests to absorb carbon dioxide.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) done some rough calculations about what achieving greenhouse gas neutrality would mean. To keep future modeled temperatures below 2°C, carbon dioxide emissions have to fall to net zero between 2060 and 2075 and total GHG emissions need to decline to net zero between 2080 and 2090. If the goal is set at an increase of no more than 1.5°C, the pace of reductions would have be faster; carbon dioxide emissions would have be net zero between 2045 and 2050, and total GHG emissions would need to get to net zero between 2060 and 2080. The WRI adds that pursuing the goal of keeping global average temperature below 2°C by 2100 means that the electricity sector must increase its share of low-carbon energy from the current level of 30 percent to more than 80 percent by 2050.

The Agreement also urges that countries "should take action to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases." In the Agreement sinks and reservoirs is diplo-speak for forests. In one early study, researchers assumed that 345 million hectares (1.3 million square miles) of land is available for afforestation and reforestation. For comparison, the United States is 3.8 million square miles. That amount of forest would absorb and store approximately 38 gigatons of carbon over the next 50 years. Current annual global emissions of carbon by people are around 10 gigatons (37 gigatons of carbon dioxide).

The idea of using afforestation to absorb excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is controversial. At the conference, representatives of indigenous peoples have strenuously opposed such schemes. They are very concerned that poor country governments would run roughshod over their land tenure rights in order carbon-sink plant forests for which rich country governments would pay as way to achieve carbon neutrality with regard to their emissions. Friends of the Earth International's Food Sovereignty program coordinator, Martin Drago argued that promoting carbon neutrality could displace people and raise the price of land.

What about climate funding? India's apparent temper tantrum threatening to scupper the conference unless it was promised trillions in climate finance is forgotten (if it really happened at all).The finance section flatly states that "developed country Parties shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation." The activists would have clearly liked bigger and firmer climate finance commitments from rich country governments to poor country governments, but they seem to believe that the Agreement will provide them with future opportunities to demand more. The rich country commitment to supply poor countries $100 billion in climate finance annually after 2020 is no longer in the Agreement itself. Instead it is in the resolution that adopts the Agreement where it "strongly urges" rich country governments to scale-up their promised climate finance from $100 billion. In addition, at the U.N. climate change conference in 2025, the $100 billion commitment will serve as floor for higher future commitments.

Climate activists are happy that the Agreement recognizes climate change loss and damage as part of an international accord for the first. Loss and damage is defined as adverse effects of climate change that cannot be adapted to and which are irreversible. They are unhappy that the rich countries managed to get the decision resolution that implements the Agreement to state that the loss and damage section does "not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation." Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo said, "In terms of liability we are not going to rely solely on the words of the document. Liability can be obtained in many other ways." He specifically cited the case where the Philippines Human Right Commission is now investigating whether the world's 50 biggest fossil fuel companies are guilty of violating the rights it citizens for intensifying climate change. Oxfam head of policy for food and climate change Tim Gore also suggested that since the limitation on liability and compensation is in the decision resolution it can be changed easily in later negotiations.

In the decision resolution countries agree to hold meeting in 2018 to evaluate how countries are doing with respect to achieving the long term goal of peaking greenhouse gas emissions. In the formal Agreement countries will convene in 2023 a "global stocktake" to assess how they are doing with regard to cutting emissions, adapting to climate change, and fulfilling their financial pledges. Such stocktake meetings will be held every five years thereafter. In addition, countries will now regularly update and submit their nationally determined contributions every five years to the UNFCCC.

The rich countries got most of what they wanted with regard to being able to monitor, report and verify that countries are doing what they said they would do with respect to greenhouse emissions and finance. Every country has to file a national inventory report of emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases and any information that is necessary to track the fulfillment of each country's pledges.

Notwithstanding the unwitting evocation Soviet Five Year Plans, Jacobs from the New Climate Economy and many others seemed particularly pleased with the new global five year review cycles. "Five year cycles mean that policies will be synchronized," Jacobs enthused. "Policy is now all going to be going in the same direction. That sends a very strong signal to the market."

Central planning the climate and the global economy; what could possibly go wrong?

Note: This is my last daily dispatch from the Paris climate change conference. Further and deeper analysis of the implications of the Agreement will follow. It will be very interesting to see how the Agreement plays out in domestic American politics.