The Paris Climate Change Agreement is an Epic Failure

Ein Gastbeitrag von Will Denayer

One thing is certain: as long as the same people are in power we will get nowhere. The expectations for COP21 within the climate change science community were not high to begin with (see, for example, here), but nothing prepared for the disappointment that is being felt now. The conference is over and there is an agreement (see here for the text). Art. 2 states the intention of keeping global temperature rise below 2° C and mentions that ‘efforts’ will be made to limit the rise to 1.5 ° C. In order to reach this goal, CO2 emissions have to peak ‚as soon as possible‘ (Art. 3). A ‘mechanism’ will contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gases (which one is never explained – it probably refers to the reviews that will be made every five years). Art. 4 sets the global goal of ‚enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability‘ (how this will happen is never explained). Art. 6 stipulates that the developed countries ’shall provide new/additional/adequate/predictable/accessible/scaled-up finances to assist developing countries’ (this is according to the text of the final draft from Saturday afternoon – how, how much and to accomplish what and where is never explained). Art. 7 states that the developed countries ‘shall strengthen cooperative action of technology development and transfer’ to developing countries. Art. 8 deals with ‚capacity building with countries with the least capacity.‘ The rest deals with ratification and with the ratchet mechanism that will evaluate ‚progress‘ every five years. The words ‚fossil fuels‘ or ‚coal,‘ ‚oil‘ and ‚gas‘ do not occur. There is absolutely nothing concrete, nothing precise, there are no strategies, no instruments, there is no timetable and, as I will explain, there are no realistic goals.

What about the 1.5 ° C? Isn’t this unexpected? As Chris Mooney explains in The Washington Post, it may well have to do with a paper that Hansen and his colleagues published last July (see here). Hansen considers the 2 ° C limit to be sheer madness. It may cause a sea level rise of up to 5 metres (see here for the extremely detailed paper). As ice sheets are melting much faster than expected, a 2° C rise is highly dangerous and, as it turns out, because of a series of physical factors, it is especially dangerous for the US. Mooney speculates that this is the reason why the Americans joined forces with the small island states. There is no doubt that sea level rise will be disastrous for the eastern US coast and the Gulf of Mexico. These coastlines are already committed to 5 to 7 feet sea level rise. But that is only the beginning. The West Antarctic ice sheet is unstable, so rise will become much higher. If (or rather, when) there is major ice loss from West Antarctica, the US will suffer considerably more from sea level rise than the global average. The ocean is currently tilted upwards towards Antarctica. It is drawn to the gigantic ice mass by gravity. If the mass becomes smaller, the ocean will slosh backwards towards the rest of the world. But this is not all. Climate change could slow down the Gulf Stream. If the conveyor belt that transports cold water from the north to the south and warm water from the south to the north were to stop or slow down, the result would be added sea level rise for the U.S. east coast. The reason is that waters to the east of the Gulf Stream (in the direction of Europe) are warmer than those on its west. Warm water takes up more volume than denser cold water, so sea level is higher to the right side of the current and lower on the American side. But if the Gulf Stream slows down or shuts off, this temperature contrast is lost. Coastlines and delta’s are threatened by a combination of global sea level rise (due to warming oceans and melting land ice), a slowing Gulf Stream, the gravimetric impact of Antarctic ice loss (the ocean sloshing back) and glacial isostatic adjustment (as Antarctic ice falls into ocean, the land beneath the ice rebounds upwards and pushes water away). So, says Mooney, by helping the small island states, the US helps itself. This looks like a reasonable (and probably too reasonable) explanation, except for the fact that writing up limits in an agreement does not help anyone. In fact, the whole agreement doesn’t make the slightest sense.

The next step consists of the usual self-congratulating. Obama and other world leaders are happy. Miguel Canete, the EU’s climate commissioner, said that ‚this was the last chance for the UN process and we have taken it.‘ Even Greenpeace look at the positive side of it: while the wheel of climate action turns slowly, at least in Paris is has turned and now, at last, we have an imperative to limit temperature rise to 1.5° C (see here). But we will not limit temperature rise to 1.5° or to 2° C. It is pure illusion. The more than 180 countries had until last July to submit their climate pledges to the UN. According to UN analyses, those pledges would still see the world warm by 2.7 – 3° C (see here). Here are the predictions from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact research (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.

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No one came back on these pledges. No re-negotiations took place. We now have a mechanism that reviews temperature and CO2 rise every five years, so what? Those who say that politicians are following scientific insights are mistaken, but it is also not the case that the scientific results are beyond criticism. There is ample reason to suspect that the state of science under-estimates climate change effects. This is so for two reasons. First, climate change science is complicated. There are no simple, deterministic relations between emissions and anthropogenic climate disruption (see here and here). Almost everything in climate change is non-linear (see here on non-linear dynamics). The second reason has to do with how science works in the social and the political world. It has often been remarked that the IPCC under-estimates climate change effects (see here). The reason for this has to do with the IPCC model. The IPCC reports consist of a selection of the most relevant science. This selection is sent to almost all governments in the world. Civil servants then make further selections, effectively vetoing what they do not like. There is enormous pressure on the scientists to exclude anything that sounds too alarming or too maverick. They feel the bad breath of the climate deniers in their neck. Any mistake can cause a major public back clash, especially in the US. The process also takes way too long.

Jason Box’s work is good example. According to Box, the general public has been betrayed by the reluctance of climate researchers to speak about the dangers of climate change with sufficient urgency (see here and here). In 2009, Box announced that the Petermann glacier, one of the largest in Greenland, would break up. Most glaciologists disagreed. In 2010, Petermann began to calve and two years later it was shedding icebergs. In early 2012, Box predicted that surface melting across the entirety of Greenland would occur within a decade. Many scientists dismissed this as alarmist claptrap. But, as Rolling Stone wrote, if anything, Box was too conservative. It all started to happen a few months later. Box is now recognised as one of the best glaciologists in the world. Many people wish that he would not be so argumentative. Box said that the science was not settled, that people underestimate things. He warned that if even a small fraction of the Arctic sea floor carbon is released into the atmosphere, mankind’s time will be up. He concluded that an utterly incredible 70 foot rise (21.3 metres) in sea levels over the next few centuries is probably already baked into the system. This is crazy stuff, but, so far, no study proved him wrong. In fact, more and more researchers are taking his side. A warming between 2 and 3 degrees – which is what the UN analysis of the national pledges for Paris projects – would lead to irreversible ice loss in Greenland. If the Greenland ice sheets melt, every coastal city on the planet will be destroyed. Yes, this will take hundreds of years. Is this a reason not to act now?

The diplomats in Paris came up with a new term, ‘greenhouse gas emissions neutrality.’ What is it? According to Steffen Kalbekken from the Centre for International Climate and Energy Policy, we will have used up the carbon budget for the 1.5° C rise by 2020. The problem with the term neutrality is that it suggests that emissions can be compensated with negative emissions: the storing of CO in forests or through carbon capture storage. But most forests in the world are already under pressure and CCS is untried and dangerous. According to Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Manchester, Paris will achieve even less than the (failed) agreement of Copenhagen in 2009, because, among other reasons, and as by miracle, the emission of international aviation and shipping completely disappeared from the final text. International transportation is responsible for over 1.500 million tonnes of CO2 per year. How will ‘neutrality’ be achieved? Who or what will make CO2 emissions peak ‘as soon as possible’? There is not one global policy in place that deals with contraction. The EU Commission admitted that the TTIP will cause many more millions of tonnes of CO2: there will be more trade and more shaling and fracking. The EU negotiators were under strict instructions not to engage in any discussions about the TTIP or trade in general (the memo was leaked by the Corporate Europe Observatory – see here). But trade and climate change do not take place on different planets. The memo makes also clear that no patents will be discussed (what then about Art.7?). Furthermore, once the TTIP becomes law, individual countries lose their capacity to implement renewable energy policies or CO2 policies in general: if any such policy obstructs a global corporation the country will be sued and fined.

It is, basically, for all these reasons that James Hansen, the ex chief of the climate change unit at NASA and perhaps world’s best known activist, calls COP21 ‚a fraud and a fake. These are just worthless words, no action, just promises‘ (see here). As Hansen explains, the negotiations were about two major issues: whether the world should aim to contain temperature rise to 1.5 or to 2 degrees and how much funding the rich countries should make available to developing nations. None of this deals with the real issue. According to Hansen, the international jamboree is pointless if greenhouse gas emissions are not taxed. He argues for a CO2 tax of $15 a tonne that would rise by $10 a year. This does not need to happen globally – that just makes it unfeasible. It would be sufficient if two or three of the largest countries were to impose escalating carbon prices. If they add $10 a tonne to the price, fossil fuel energy use would decrease by 20 % in ten years and by 50 % in 20 years.

Hansen is certainly right. Without a CO2 tax, we are doomed. According to an estimate by the IMF, fossil fuel companies benefited from global subsidies of $5.3tn in 2014, the equivalent to $10m a minute (see here).The sum represents 6.5% of global GDP. It is more than four times the value of subsidies to renewable energy and more than four times the amount invested globally in improving energy efficiency (see here). This subsidy is greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments. The sum is largely due to polluters not paying the costs imposed on governments by the burning of coal, oil and gas. These include harm caused to local populations by air pollution as well as to people that are affected by floods, droughts and storms that are being driven by climate change and income lost because of ill health and premature deaths. But here is the real problem. After the publication of the IMF report, Christiana Figueres, the UN climate change chief, said that ‚The IMF provides five trillion reasons for acting on fossil fuel subsidies. Protecting the poor and the vulnerable is crucial to the phasing down of these subsidies, but the multiple economic, social and environmental benefits are long and legion.‘ Obama and the G20 nations called already for an end to fossil fuel subsidies in 2009. Last April, the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, told The Guardian that ‚it was crazy that governments were still driving the use of coal, oil and gas by providing subsidies (see here). We need to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies now.‘ That is right. Price fossil fuels out of this world. Build a new economy. Uruguay gets 95 % of its energy out of renewables. Vancouver, a city of 600.000 people, will reach zero CO2 emissions by 2020. In Paris, during the negotiations anyway, no word was said about any of it. How is that possible?

It turns out that the climate crisis has been caused for the most part by just 90 companies. Between them they produced nearly two-thirds (63 %) of all greenhouse gas emissions since 1751 (about 914 gigatonnes of CO2 between 1751 and 2010). Half of these emissions were produced in the past 25 years. That is well past the date when governments and corporations became aware that rising greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels were causing dangerous climate change. Naomi Oreskes from Harvard proved that several of these top companies had funded the climate denial movement. Oxfam, from its part, calculated that the world’s richest 10% are responsible for half of all carbon emissions (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Percentage of CO2 emissions of the global population, sorted by income deciles. The top (in dark green) is the top ten percent in terms of income, the bottom (in dark green) are the 50 percent poorest of the world poplation. The percentages indicate the contribution of each income decile to the total CO2 emissions.

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The poorest half (roughly 3.5 billion people) is responsible only for 10% of emissions. The global richest 1% use on average 175 times more carbon than someone from the bottom 10%. The total emissions of the poorest half of the population of China, around 600 million people, are a third of the total emissions of the richest 10% of people in the US (some 31 million people). The climate crisis cannot be solved without addressing the role of these companies and without addressing global inequalities. The US Department of Defence is the greatest polluter in the world. If we do not transform our swords into ploughshares, our time on planet earth is running out.

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