Is the Climate Deal Worth the Paper?

After two weeks of discussion, drafts, objections and tweaking, we finally ended up with what many were calling ‘an historic’ climate deal in Paris. With nearly 200 hundred countries involved and everyone from presidents and ageing action heroes putting their four pennies worth on the table, the fact that any agreement at all was reached is a miracle in itself.

Even Al Gore was nearly moved to tears.

But do these 40 odd pages of promises and wishes add up to much more than a hill of beans? While there has been a commitment to keeping global temperatures to well below 2° C and funding for poorer developing countries to help meet their obligations, much of what is in the agreement is voluntary and whether countries can keep to it has got some people worried.

There are some legally binding parts to the agreement such as each country submitting their emissions reductions targets and these being regularly reviewed, but how it is all going to operate in reality still remains to be seen.

Some, of course, have said that it is not an ideal solution but it’s a good start, something that can be worked on in years to come. The problem is that governments have had twenty years of talks and arguments to get this right and we are fast reaching the tipping point, when whatever we try to do will have no effect anyway. Many observers think we are past that stage already.

Others have been very vocal in their condemnation of the agreement. Nick Dearden from Global Justice said:

“It’s outrageous that the deal that’s on the table is being spun as a success when it undermines the rights of the world’s most vulnerable communities and has almost nothing binding to ensure a safe and liveable climate for future generations.”

The draft agreement in Paris was originally twice as long, containing as it did potential amends to the work. This included such time honoured words and phrases such as ‘well below’ and ‘pursue efforts’ in neat and seemingly unending brackets before and after various measures. Most of this wording gives everyone potential wiggle room, particularly if home circumstances change. For instance: One promise is stopping the rise of heat trapping greenhouse gas emissions which should be done ‘as soon as possible’.

Having said that, this agreement is something that all the countries present have felt they could sign, which was the main sticking point in the past. It’s better to have a working document everyone is happy with rather than one that half are not prepared to sign, even if there are reservations.

Key Points of the Paris Agreement

  • To ensure global warm stays well below 2°C and to work to limiting this to 1.5°C. The agreement says also that at some point after 2050 levels of manmade emissions should have reduced to a level that is easily absorbed by oceans and seas.
  • Countries have all agreed to set 5-yearly targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases though developing populations may well find this more difficult than developed ones. Most countries have already put forward their estimates for 2020 so we’ll soon see whether it works as a way of reducing global emissions.
  • Governments have committed to reviewing their targets though there isn’t much pressure on them to do so if they are lagging behind. It is ‘hoped’ that they will review and then make the necessary changes to improve performance.
  • If a country doesn’t meet its emission cutting target, there will be no penalty imposed but all governments have agreed to transparency. Again, there is more flexibility for developing countries (one of the sticking points that China wanted agreement to).
  • Developing countries will need finance to help them to meet their targets and richer governments have pledged some $100 billion annually to cover this but the exact amount for each country is not stated.
  • The main area that smaller countries and islands were concerned about was compensation for loss and damage due to climate change. It was a sticking point for the US who were worried about claims that could get out of control. The issue was addressed in the climate change document but removed the concept of liability or compensation on any particular country.

Whether all this makes a difference remains to be seen. We may all look back at the Paris Climate Change Agreement in a few years’ time and hail it as a truly remarkable document that helped change the world. It could lead to real changes in our emissions, how we approach developments such as renewables, and finally begin to drag back the effects of climate change.

Or we could be looking back and highlighting the last two weeks in Paris as another moment when world governments failed to fulfil their duty, failed human kind, and, more importantly, failed the planet. In all though, the preliminary response from most of the world is that this has been a pretty solid success for the 200 countries that took part. According to Al Gore it’s a monumental moment:

“Today, the nations of the world concluded a bold and historic agreement, clearly demonstrating that the global community is speaking with one voice to solve the climate crisis. Years from now, our grandchildren will reflect on humanity’s moral courage to solve the climate crisis and they will look to December 12, 2015, as the day when the community of nations finally made the decision to act.”

By Steve M

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