Last Friday the Paris agreement on climate change was officially signed in a ceremonial event at the UN headquarters in New York, after being formulated and agreed upon on December 2015.
Expectedly, the triumphant language declaring a historic moment blatantly overlooked various major flaws in it. The Paris convention is far less exceptional, and more of another dot in the same line of failures in the way humanity confronts its greatest challenge ever.
Getting into its details reveals the extent of the oversights, compromises and distortions to the point of data deceptions and modeling manipulations that were required to finally achieve an agreement, after decades of failures to reach one.
International conventions about climate change have been held for 25 years, and up until now the world has failed to finalize them with an agreement. During this period of failures, the emissions of CO2 are estimated to have risen by 60%.
With that legacy of failures in mind, and especially with the disappointment of Copenhagen, the ultimate goal in Paris was to reach an agreement which all of the world’s nation can sign. The signing itself became more significant than the content singed upon, as we’ll explain along this post.
However, in spite of all our arguments (further in the text), we do believe that this development should be taken as a wakeup call for activists who count on the human race destructiveness to finally turn against itself.
Shamefully, Only Voluntarily
The Paris Agreement is actually little more than a statement of intent, as any aspect of actual significance was set as non-legally binding.
The document does not contain any binding obligations with regards to GHG (greenhouse gasses) emissions reduction or financing activities that will reduce them and deal with their consequences. Instead, countries get to set their own voluntary reduction targets called “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDCs). And even after they get to set how far they are willing to go, implementing their commitments is not a legal obligation.
In other words, not only that each country gets to decide what it’s going to do regarding climate change, each country gets to decide whether to do what it decided it should do. None of the countries, no matter their current level of emissions or their historical contribution to climate change, are legally bound even to their own proclamations.
The only thing countries are obligated to do is to submit an “Intended National Determined Contribution”, and present a report on their progress every 5 years.
All the agreement does is establish a legally binding obligation to declare volunteering, but not obligations for results.
And finally in terms of the legal context, a party is free to withdraw from the agreement at any time after three years from the agreement’s entry into force.
Shamefully, Only Shaming
Instead of binding commitments to ensure the implementation of the national contributions, the Paris agreement relies on the instruments of ‘naming and shaming’.
Part of the idea behind this ineffectual mechanism is the claim that so far the legal sanctions path led nowhere, as was infamously showcased in the Kyoto protocol. The obvious thing such a claim misses is that the track record of non-legal voluntary action was no better. Generally, the 70-year history of multilateral UN agreements suggests that countries will avoid their commitments whenever they can.
Surely, all it takes is the excuse of economic or security crises to justify any non-action, especially if the “threat” is only diplomatic shaming.
But obviously the main and unequivocal reason is that many countries refuse to sign a climate agreement that involves sanctions.
For the sake of shaming, and without any other penalties for countries’ inaction, the agreement is left to make do with a system of transparency. That’s why submitting reports is one of the only legally binding clause in the agreement. The term transparency is mentioned and emphasized over and over, exactly because it is the only regulative mechanism in the agreement.
The transparency framework is celebrated as a top achievement of the agreement. What the rhetoric fails to mention is that the establishment of this key mechanism was left for a future date. That goes to show how the main goal of the talks was to reach an agreement everyone can sign, on the expense of actual meaningful content. Going for the lowest common denominator, and omitting or delaying complications for later is the oldest trick in the diplomacy book.
In the same spirit, the little that was agreed upon in the final text describes the mandate of the future transparency framework as “non-intrusive”, “non-punitive” and “respectful of national sovereignty”. Countries are trusted to report on their progress, with no external independent review.
Moreover, the tracking of implementation takes place in 5 years intervals, which might not be a long time in climatic perspective, but very long in political perspective. A lot of excuses can pile up in 5 years. While some countries agree to meet and evaluate the progress in 2018, the first mandatory evaluation under the agreement happens only in 2023.
The essential role of transparency goes further than a form of “deterrence”, it is the key for information about the overall global state. The fact that one if not the most important element of the agreement wasn’t formed yet, speaks volumes on the agreement.
The main goal of the Paris agreement is staying well below 2 °C increase in the average global temperature since pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, and even aiming for 1.5 °C.
However, even if the National Contributions of all countries are fully implemented, the goal of the convention would not be achieved. Added together, all the contributions still fall far short of “well below 2 °C”, not to mention 1.5 °C.
The UN body that deals with climate change, the UNFCCC, published an evaluation of these contributions and found that even if all pledges are fully implemented, still global warming would be between 2.7 °C and 3 °C. Other evaluating bodies claim 3.5 °C and above.
An acknowledgement of this shortfall is even written in the agreement which “notes with concern” that the contributions “do not fall within least-cost 2 °C scenarios”.
The convention claims it will achieve its goal since it relies on the assumption that the future contributions (which countries are obligated to submit every 5 years) will include stronger voluntary commitments.
Not only that, but it claims to achieve a major goal in 2016, regarding 2100, despite that its timeframe ends at 2030. They don’t let the 70 years gap between the end of the agreement’s mandate and the target year for its goal to stand between them and “an historic declaration”.
Mockingly Unachievable Goal
One of the most ridiculous gaps between the high rhetoric and actual commitments is the declaration of “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”.
2 °C seems completely beyond reach considering the analysis of policies as stated above, but as for 1.5 °C it is just not an option. For the 1.5 °C limit, the carbon budget (that is the amount of CO2 that can be emitted and still allow to stay within the temperature limit) is 400 GtCO2 starting from 2011. Even before the first mandatory evaluation (global stocktake) which will take place in 2023, the emissions will already exceed that amount. From 2011 to 2014 the emissions were 140GtCO2, and even if we’ll assume no rise in emissions from 2014 onwards, with emissions of 35.5 GtCO2 per year, that budget is going to be used by 2022.
Back to the Future
The claim to reach well below 2 °C is made possible by relying on the not yet existing option of “negative CO2 emissions” by using future technologies that can take carbon out of the atmosphere. It most commonly means vast crops planting to absorb carbon and then harvesting them for energy use, combined with carbon capture and storage technologies that bury it deep in geological strata.
Originally it was thought of as a last resort, but in the Paris agreement negative emissions were promoted to a central pivot of the main plan of action. Mass scale deployment of carbon capture and storage sometime during the latter half of the century was assumed in the framing of the 2 °C and1.5 °C goals.
In the scenario database of the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN scientific research body which informed the negotiations), out of the 113 scenarios with a “likely” chance (that’s 66% or better) of 2 °C, 107 (95% of the scenarios) assumed the successful large-scale uptake of negative emission technologies.
The reliance on these yet non-existing technologies also plays a prominent part in many of the countries’ national contributions.
Unsurprisingly, these premised technologies have been embraced by policy makers. They allow maintaining business as usual, while claiming to do meaningful action. They were simply added to the equations, and then the on-going fossil fuel use seems less dangerous. It is knowingly worsening the problem today, leaving someone in the future to sort it out and find the magic bullet.
Back to the Past
Other than the use of non-existing technologies in the future, the scenarios (the convention uses) also rely on ‘going back in time’, reducing the emissions of the past. That is since one set of scenarios that demonstrate a possibility to limit the temperature to below 2 °C puts 2010 as a peak year for emissions and starting to reduce them from that year on. In other words, for that scenario to be relevant, reduction in the emissions should have started 6 years ago.
And as for limiting the temperature increase to 1.5 °C, there is a need for both non existing technologies and for going back in time. In the IPCC’s words: “Without exception, all 1.5 °C scenarios available in the literature reach net negative CO2 emissions by mid-century, even with stringent mitigation action having started in 2010.”
Someone Else’s Problem
Another reason why it was relatively easy for the politicians to sign is that the core of the agreement is not obligations put on them in the present, but obligations on someone else in the future.
How typical, politicians signed that someone else should take more responsibility in the future than they should now.
Prominent in Their Absence
Unsurprisingly the ones who are always absent from humans’ discussions over the planet, are the rest of the species living on it. That is despite that even according to the minimal estimations, greenhouse gases produced by industrially exploited animals represent 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gasses emissions. The famous 2006 UN report Livestock’s Long Shadow estimated it as 18% of global greenhouse gases, and WorldWatch institute place the figures at around 51%.
Last month, Oxford University researchers projected that by 2050, food-related greenhouse gas emissions could account for half of the emissions the world “can afford” if global warming is to be limited to less than 2°C. Adopting a vegan diet would cut these emissions by 70%.
A Similar 2014 research from the U.K found that vegetarian and vegan diets had 32% and 49% lower greenhouse gas emissions, respectively, than medium-meat diets. Compared to high-meat diets, the difference was even higher, with vegan diets emitting 60% less greenhouse gasses.
However, expectedly, the agreement doesn’t mention any of it nor does it recommend even a gradual global shift towards a plant-based diet. Animals were totally absent from the table of discourse and appeared only on the dinner table as courses.
Flown and Shipped Away
If global aviation and shipping were a country, they would rank among the world’s top 10 emitters. In addition, they have grown twice as fast as the general emissions in recent years, and are expected to further increase by about 300% until 2050. However, the Paris Agreement and the related decisions do not mention aviation and marine transport emissions even once.
Unlike a climate agreement, international trade agreements, present and future ones (TPP and TTIP which are currently formulated), are legally binding, reminding us what really takes precedence.
Developed economies, with only a fraction of the global human population, use about half of global resources and continue to cause the bulk of environmental degradation, overwhelmingly impacting the rest of the world and particularly the poor and vulnerable populations living in Asia, South America and especially Africa who accounts for less than 4% of the greenhouse gas emissions yet according to estimations will, as early as 2020, face an even worse water shortage caused by climate change.
So after centuries of global plunder and being utterly the main contributors to climate change, the industrialized countries were asked by the developing countries, to take full responsibility for their share of the issue, meaning that at least their part would be legally binding commitments without any conditions attached, while mitigation contributions by developing countries would be voluntary and conditional on the provision of financial support by the industrialized countries.However, the agreement does not make developed countries’ contributions legally binding as the developing countries requested, nor does it bind the developed countries with the provision of support the developing countries as they demanded. It only recognizes “the need to support developing country Parties for the effective implementation of this Agreement.”
Show Me the Money
Disgraceful as much as it was predictable, the finance part of the Paris Agreement is non-legally binding. The agreement calls for rich countries to help in providing poorer countries with the finance needed both to adapt to climate change and mitigate emission, but all financing is voluntary.
An annual sum of 100 billion dollars has been promised, starting from 2020. While it may sound impressing at first glance, the amount must be placed in the correct context:
100 billion is a tiny fraction in relation to the developed countries’ collective annual budget, and a tiny fraction of the profits of their polluting corporations. These sums are in their trillions, and obviously were made while releasing the vast portion of CO2 already in the atmosphere.
100 billion is a tiny fraction compared to the support corporations receive in the form of the subsidies. Considering the fossil fuel industries alone, the IMF estimated their global subsidy (direct and indirect) at about 5.3 trillion dollars in 2015.
100 billion is a tiny fraction in relation to the historic and present day profits developed countries make of plundering the vulnerable parts of the world, making them even more disadvantaged and lack the ability to make investments to protect themselves.
100 billion is a tiny fraction compared to the sums the global south countries require. For example, India estimates that at least US$2.5 trillion are required as a total cost for its intended contributions, while Morocco’s INDC require about US$45 billion of investment, and Ethiopia’s INDC requires expenditure which exceeds US$150 billion.
Lastly, it’s the rich players who are calling the shots. No agreement has been reached on what constitutes “climate money”, how it should be counted, when or to whom it should be delivered, or to what it should be directed. And to top it all, there is no independent system reviewing the process. So far it has essentially been the contributor countries unilaterally deciding what they think should count.
Though the disadvantaged countries demanded during the Paris negotiations that the industrialized countries should provide a clear roadmap for how they intend to meet the 100 billion pledge, one was never drawn.
Another demand was that the financing should come solely from the public purse of developed nations, rather than from the private sector or other sources. The developed countries resisted and wanted private sector money to fulfill a large part of the pledge. Of course, they got their way.
Since rich players are not obligated to the ways and methods of payments, they can use it as funds which are more of an investment than contribution, expecting to gain profits in the future.
Another trick is double-counting of money- taking already existing development assistance or aid flows and then rebranding it as “climate” money, thus getting double the credit.
Since the 100 billion pledge was largely already agreed upon in the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, there’s a 6 year track record to view. A 2015 OECD report quantifying the progress was published in the run-up towards Paris, and it so far indicates that the suspicions are justified, it included double-counting of money, market-rate loans and export credits that benefit actors in rich countries. So there is no reason to expect anything different from the Paris agreement.
Show Me the Business Opportunity
The comfy resolution that the private sector will recruit businesses to solve the climate crisis (and cash profits along the way), was an integral element through the entire Paris conference (same as it was during all the preceding ones).
The total price tag of the conference was estimated at approximately $190 million. Since neither the UN nor the French government could have come close to raising such a sum, the event was financed by corporate sponsorship, which included some of the world’s worst industrial polluters (automobile and aviation companies, energy giants, and international banks financing the dirtiest fossil fuels use).
One example of the means pushed for is the carbon offsetting market, which has a history of failing to cut emissions while enriching polluters. It gives corporations the green light to continue polluting, while they pay for dodgy offsets which are highly serviceable for industry lobbying and are prone to accounting tricks, and are deemed environmentally insufficient, causing more harm along the way (planting monoculture “forests” for example).
The prominent presence of the privet sector was both during the Paris conference itself and in the formation of countries’ “Intended National Determined Contribution” (different business groups actually boasted about taking part in the consultations when governments were writing their emissions reduction plans), which is another sign of policy makers lack of commitment.
The market-solutions the corporations offer, fit governments which must appear to be doing something, while more effective policies such as renewable energy (which are low on carbon, but still harm the environment of many non-human individuals in various other ways) or national energy efficiency programs, are found less appealing, as they are much too costly.
Despite All of the Above
The Paris agreement isn’t really different than the former ones. It mainly proves how easy it is for politics to overtake science, equality, fairness and historical justice (within the human race only of course), and how the self-congratulatory talk is detached from reality. Bottom line, the achievement is mainly due to having strived low enough to finally reach an agreement.
The entire process is typically human in its indifference. Apart from being an empty declaration with no plan how to reach it, the celebrated 2 °C rise condemns to suffering an innumerable number of sentient beings. Hundreds of billions are trampled in the name of the sacred goal of keeping corporate profits, and allowing mainly the richer humans to maintain their luxurious lifestyle.
In its humanlike brutal selfishness that is all too familiar to any animal liberation activist, this agreement is in itself another illustration why the moral stand should be aiming for an un-inhabitable planet.
It should be noted however, that despite that the Paris agreement is feeble, and that even if all the declarations and promises are implemented, the declared goal wouldn’t be achieved, the Paris agreement is nevertheless a sign of change in awareness. Based on this agreement, humanity has not yet woke up, but it seems that more than in any of the past conventions, it is on its way to. The extent of the media cover of the Paris agreement indicates that this convention is different at least in terms of consciousness, and the signing might change the dynamics around the issue in a way that might push it forward.
If a mitigation of climate change would truly take place in the following few decades, it means that the animal liberation activists who naively rely on “the human problem will fix itself by itself” must step up.
If so far you have laid your hopes on humanity’s selfishness, narrow mindedness and nearsightedness to destroy itself, then this agreement, which as mentioned is not yet an evidence of a dramatic change but is a first serious step in the world’s awakening, should wake you up.