Why the Paris Climate Change Agreement Will Fail

World leaders are looking in all the wrong places for a solution


The "historic" agreement just concluded in Paris was supposed to be the humanity's last chance to save the world from catastrophic warming. If that's the case, then the world is surely doomed. Notwithstanding the giddy talk, not a

Polar Bear
Christopher.Michel via Foter.com / CC BY

single major polluter offered anything resembling an adequate plan to slash emissions. In fact, literally every country gamed the process—demonstrating, yet again, the utter folly of trying to save the world by putting it on a collective energy diet.

But the good news is that once this "last chance" fails—and fail it will—the world will still have plenty of time to explore workable solutions.

Every major climate change initiative to date has gone up in smoke. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which sought to cut emissions 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, was doomed from the start. India and China, even then among the world's top five polluters, refused to even participate. Meanwhile, President Bill Clinton supported the treaty, but he didn't have a prayer of getting it past the U.S. Congress, so he didn't even try. Canada ratified the deal but blew its target cuts by 25 percent and eventually quit. Japan and New Zealand similarly faced a compliance gap. Europe met its target but not because its cap-and-trade program was a roaring success, as environmentalists would have you believe. Rather, it was because the industrial emissions of former Soviet bloc countries were so awful in 1990 that minor access to better Western technology produced major gains. Also, Europe's 2007 recession helped!

The 2009 Copenhagen conference to hammer out a Kyoto sequel was an even bigger debacle. India and China participated—but only to play spoilsports. They rejected America's proposed emission cuts as small potatoes that didn't even come close to atoning for America's historic role in causing the problem in the first place. The whole thing ended on a sour note with global leaders unable to muster anything beyond a statement noting the need to keep global temperatures 2 degrees centigrade below industrial levels.

Paris was supposed to reverse this beggar-other-countries-before-committing-yourself dynamic by taking what The New Yorkers' John Cassidy has dubbed the "potluck dinner" approach. Instead of imposing legally binding emission cuts top-down, every country was asked to put its own good faith plan on the table. Even the notion of common metrics to evaluate each country's plan was abandoned, as was all talk of "punitive sanctions." Instead, the hope was that ambitious targets by a few countries would put "peer pressure" on others to match their pledges and over time generate, as President Obama put it, "a race to the top"—just like Microsoft's Bill Gates decision to give away a bulk of his wealth has now inspired Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to give away his.

But the crucial difference, of course, is that heads of states are not committing their personal resources but their citizens'. They score political points at home not by giving away the store but by protecting it. Even the most committed leaders in Paris were not immune from such pressures.

Consider President Obama, who is nothing if not a crusader on the issue. He issued a lofty philippic claiming, "climate change could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other." But this champion's Paris offer to reduce America's emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels in 10 years is lower than the Copenhagen target of 30 percent. And he'll have difficulty pushing even this through a Republican Congress which is also, incidentally, fighting tooth-and-nail Obama's $3 billion pledge to the U.N.'s Green Climate Fund to help defray poor countries' mitigation costs. Indeed, developing countries' insistence (led by India) that the $1trillion Western aid over the next 10 years be made "legally binding" almost derailed the talks with Secretary of State John Kerry threatening to walk out.

There was much high-fiving among global warming activists when, ahead of the Paris talks, China pledged to implement a cap-and-trade program in 2017 to limit emissions. But what was papered over in order to get the final agreement was the fine print noting that China won't reach peak carbon-dioxide emissions till 2030. Until then, it is proposing only to reduce emission intensity—or emissions as a percentage of its GDP—by 60 to 65 percent. This is a less ambitious target than even business-as-usual scenarios, suggesting that China is building a lot of cushion for itself to meet its phony cuts.

India, which vociferously condemned Western pressure at Paris as "carbon imperialism," has refused to even set a peak emissions target. It is willing to commit only to cutting emissions intensity by 33 to 35 percent, arguably a slower rate of improvement than it's seen over the last 15 years. Meanwhile Russian President Vladimir Putin, who remains firmly in the global warming denialist camp, has offered an emission reduction plan that is actually an emission increase plan.

Observing all of this, a frustrated Bill Gates lamented, "It's nice for people to talk about two degrees, but we don't even have the commitments that are going to keep us below four degrees of warming."

But if Paris' "voluntary" model of climate change negotiations is going to work no better (and possibly worse) than the earlier coercive one, do we all have to resign ourselves to being fried to golden tamales?

Not really.

The Paris talks were suffused with a false sense of urgency. The vast majority of scientists agree that the earth is warming but the severity and pace is hotly disputed given that world temperature has increased only half as much as climate models predicted in 1990. In fact, the two-degree centigrade tipping point being peddled is based less on science and more on the political need to spur action.

This target has led the world to radical solutions that intensify the fight for the scarce carbon spoils. But if we have more time to deal with a less severe problem then maybe we can relax a little and implement cost-effective solutions that don't require putting each country on some kind of a carbon budget. We can explore other mitigation strategies such as forest sinks to sequester excess carbon dioxide. Or adaptation strategies to deal with the effects of climate change, such as helping low-lying countries erect canals and barriers against rising water levels. Or search for technological fixes such as geo-engineering to reflect sunlight away from the earth's atmosphere. Or await the new generation of nuclear power plants with less prohibitive upfront capital costs to come on line, making the whole approach of emission cuts moot by providing an unlimited supply of clean-burning, safe, and low-cost energy.

The sense of panic driving the global warming conversation has actually made realistic solutions more difficult to achieve. But perhaps when the Paris agreement fails to deliver, the world can finally approach the problem with a cooler head. It might be another decade — but fortunately, there is time for the world to try everything else before doing the right thing.

A version of this column originally appeared in The Week.