The Paris climate agreement is patently insufficient
The author, an environmental engineer,
attended the Paris climate summit (COP21) in December 2015.
Here he analyzes the basic aspects of the “Agreement” (legally binding)
and the “Decision” (with points still to be worked on)
that came out of that global meeting
and describes the tortuous process
that gave birth to the disappointing results
Victor M. Campos Cubas
Still reeling from the excessive rejoicing and media acclaim that greeted the climate agreement reached in Paris in December, I’ll try to evaluate some details of the process, our expectations as climate justice activists and what was really achieved there. Although it isn’t easy to fully grasp what happened in Paris, I’ll share with you my approach to interpreting the results.
Summarizing, I think the agreement that came out of the summit is patently insufficient, with no real commitment to planetary climate justice, especially for the least protected and most vulnerable peoples of many countries around the world. The pledges by the most powerful economies to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global warming are inadequate to the task, as is the amount of financial resources they agreed upon to try to stop the climate crisis.
The crisis was recognized
by most as early as 1992
Let’s first talk about the long process of global climate negotiations, because this partly explains these disappointing results. We first experienced in 1990 the damaging effects of the increasing accumulation of gases caused by burning fossil fuels and other sources that are progressively heating the atmosphere—a phenomenon known as the Greenhouse Effect. By that time the concentration of these gases had reached 350 parts per million. (It is now over 400 parts per million.) As a result, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted at a Río de Janeiro summit in 1992 and came into force in 1994. Annual meetings, known as Conferences of the Parties (COP), began to take place each year thereafter. The one held in Paris in December was COP21. There have also been discussions in the United Nations headquarters every year since 1995 about how to reach agreements to achieve the Convention’s goal of “stabilizing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”
Although the vast majority of countries in that 1992 summit accepted the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions and the first COP was held in Berlin, Germany, in 1995, it took until 2007 even to establish a peremptory deadline for reaching a global agreement: that deadline was 2009 at COP15 in Copenhagen, with the initiation of the agreed-upon actions to start in 2010.
COP15 was a tremendous failure
That two-year deadline created great expectations that the world was on the verge of reaching a satisfactory global climate agreement. But it didn’t happen. Not only did the Copenhagen meeting fail to agree on important decisions, but the disagreements continued for over a decade despite the ever-increasing gravity of the climate crisis, even calling into question multilateral negotiation as a means for finding solutions to the global climate crisis.
Nonetheless, attempts were made to deal with it in subsequent COPs, and in 2011 what’s known as the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) was approved by the governments at COP17 in Durban, South Africa. Its mandate was to develop “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all parties”—in other words, what should have come out of the Copenhagen summit in 2009 would now be adopted at COP21 in Paris in 2015 and put into effect by 2020, ten long years later. Two working groups, called workstreams, were formed to achieve this: one to establish actions that must be implemented before 2020 and the other with a more long-range vision to design actions for after 2020.
The Durban Platform also established that a draft of the agreement to be adopted in Paris would have to be ready by 2014, at COP20 in Lima. But that didn’t happen either. In fact, the pre- and post-2020 workstreams only handed in their draft to the COP21 presidency on December 5, the day the Paris summit began. And what they submitted wasn’t even a draft of an agreement; it was a compilation of all the different positions, including utterly contradictory ones. It was glaring proof that the methodologies used throughout 21 years of climate negotiations have failed to generate relevant consensus documents with implementable political feasibility. In fact it has been no secret that the official negotiating process has been extremely complex, in part due to the insufficient decision-making authority granted the permanent official delegations.
In view of this, the French government employed very intense diplomacy, spported by other countries, particularly Peru, which had chaired the previous COP. What was called the Paris Committee was quickly formed, with the task of producing an agreement satisfactory to all parties.
Not until Tuesday of the summit’s second week was a draft agreement finally produced, and even it still contained countless brackets, the UN format to indicate that there are still contradictions. The COP presidency gave the delegations 2½ hours to review it before going to the plenary, where delegations that asked for it were given permission to speak.
The indaba method
By the end, several more drafts had been presented. To facilitate the work, the Paris Committee set up working groups for informal consultations about the text using the indaba method, a Zulu term for meetings of people interested in building consensus and resolving matters that concern everyone. They were established by theme, with France’s Foreign Ministry assigning delegation representatives to act as official facilitators and conciliators to gather any country’s concerns on the given issue. For example, the Venezuelan government’s representative was chosen as one of the facilitators on equity, since her government projects its social vocation internationally.
Rather than each theme group contacting the different delegations, this mechanism consisted of receiving from them their own presentation of the respective differences found within their proposals. Because it was a place where countries could go if they felt their interests weren’t being represented in the document, it facilitated discussion and consensus-building. It must be recognized that this method, which was a search for consensus to strengthen the agreements, greatly expedited many of the discussions.
With the results of this process, another draft of the agreement was presented on Thursday, with fewer brackets. The summit was due to end on Friday at 5-6 pm, but a third draft was still being circulated at that time.
The main issues raised
One of the main issues raised in the groups was that of differentiation, as countries have been classified differentially since 1992 according to their greater or lesser responsibilities in emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but the 1992 classifications are outdated. We all know the industrialized countries are primarily responsible, but back then China was not the main emitter of such gases it is today.
Yet another subject noted in the groups was that of “ambition”: the term used to define how much we should aim to reduce greenhouse gases. Put another way, what is the maximum temperature increase we can permit the atmosphere to reach?
Another had to do with ways to finance the agreement’s implementation and transfer technologies from the more industrialized countries to the less industrialized ones. Still another was that of loss and damage from the effects of climate change and issues of compensation.
And, naturally, there was also the issue of pre-2020 actions, especially crucial because everyone is already thinking about post-2020 even though we still have five years to go and so much to do before reaching that date.
Where the real
negotiating took place
Contrary to expectation, it became apparent that all the preparatory formulation of documents didn’t really contribute to the drafting of the final agreement. All the prior years of negotiations, their results, the compilation of inputs and proposals growing out of the work of the two groups created by the Durban COP were no more than a reference point. It was in the indaba groups, receiving input on these issues, where the negotiations moved forward, not in the plenaries.
In the end, of course, the real negotiations in Paris took place between the heads of State. Moreover, the negotiations on Sustainable Development Goals held last year in a Forum on Financing for Development—outside of and prior to the Paris Convention—paved the way to negotiations that came to fruition in an agreement acceptable to and signed by all.
How much do we dare
raise the temperature?
Using scientific criteria, we already know that a commitment to prevent global temperatures rising by more than 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) isn’t enough to halt the damaging effects of climate change, which is why most countries proposed not going over 1.5°C (2.7°F). Yet what does the Paris agreement say? It sets the goal of keeping the increase in average global temperature to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and “pursue efforts to limit the increase to not more than 1.5°C.” Cutting through such slippery language as “pursue efforts,” etc., we see that the only obligation is not to exceed 2°. This allows governments to say: “As long as we don’t go over 2°, we can raise it over 1.5°!” Just to put this in perspective, average global temperatures have risen by over 0.85°C—with fluctuations of course—between 1880 and 2012, with over half of that rise, more than 0.4°C,
The only concrete part of this aspect is that it can’t now go backwards, which makes us wonder what the difference is between Paris and what was agreed to in Copenhagen and the previous COP. We really don’t see much difference.
Variable INDC pledges
All the world’s countries were expected to present their pledges in Paris for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to halt the rising global temperatures. These pledges are known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) and for obvious reasons they became one of the key points in the negotiation. How the industrialized countries manipulated it is key to understanding Paris’ insufficient outcomes.
The Convention on Climate Change states that the contributions of the industrialized countries—those most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions—will be compulsory while those of less responsible countries will be voluntary. The Paris agreement, however, ended up diluting that content, making all countries’ contributions voluntary. This was unquestionably a fundamental point in the negotiation process and one of the most disappointing in the agreement.
Almost every country presented its INDC but there was no unifying methodology, so very different kinds of contributions were expressed. Some countries made their contribution conditional on receiving financial and technical support for their implementation. Still others pledged to reduce emissions back to those of a specific previous year but not all countries used the same year; for example, the United States announced that it will reduce its emissions relative to those it emitted in 2005, even though the generally accepted terms are to reduce them relative to 1990 emissions. Others pledged to reduce their economy’s energy intensity, i.e. the amount of carbon emitted per unit of its Gross Domestic Product.
The outcome was a wide variety of pledges, making it hard to quantify and verify what the real gas reduction commitment is. But when everything that was voluntarily offered was calculated based on the INDCs presented at the summit, it was concluded that the temperature in 2100 would be up by between 2.7° and 3.5°C (4.86° – 6.3°F)!
Global financing and
loss and damage compensation
Moving on to the global financing to tackle climate change, the amount asked for was US$100 billion annually starting in 2020. The agreement defines this amount as the committed baseline but doesn’t include any language proposing or even suggesting that it could grow, making it unlikely that it will. President Obama asked for $60 billion just for one country and one event: to recover from Hurricane Sandy in the US. That’s 60% of what’s pledged for the entire planet from 2020 onwards. Will $100 billion be enough for everyone and everything to come? We don’t think so.
I want to address the specific issue of loss and damage, one of the points that stayed in the agreement, albeit without force. It began to be considered years ago when some countries said that climate change was already causing them irreparable loss and damage and asked who would be responsible for compensating them for it…. There were intense discussions at COP19 in Warsaw, Poland, in 2013 and at COP20 in Lima the next year, with the affected countries claiming compensation for such loss and damage, a claim that’s only fair. All that now remains is that this issue is “still to be worked on.” But the language states that no country is obliged to recognize a compensation claim and nothing is earmarked for it in the global financing. In other words: we can continue talking about loss and damage but not about money…
Ironically, this was considered progress because the US was emphatically opposed to it being included at all. Considering it progress that the subject of loss and damage got into the documents feeds the hope that, within the framework of discussions in upcoming COPs, resources to compensate it could be included at some time. But this seems illusory to me because all members of the “umbrella group,” comprising several of the world’s most powerful economies—the United States, Canada, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand—are unwilling to provide resources for this purpose.
What’s legally binding
in this agreement?
We were hoping for a legally binding agreement to emerge from Paris, as had been established in Durban. And indeed part of it is, but only part. The results are now divided into two documents, referred to as “the Paris package.” One is the “Paris Agreement,” which contains the supposedly legally binding points, those that would have been able to change the Earth’s climatic situation but ended up far short of that because of the limitations I’ve mentioned. The other is the “Paris Decision,” which contains all the most difficult issues that will “continue to be worked on.” Even though the pledges to reduce emissions are fundamental and the only guarantee of tackling climate change, they are not in the binding agreement, particularly as they’re now defined as voluntary. From that perspective, the Paris package is an empty shell stripped of legal obligation and instead based largely on good will.
Yet while much of what came out of Paris isn’t binding, it was presented as if it were, thus ensuring wide acclaim and enormous media effect. There was virtually no acknowledgement of the fact that the countries with more economic power wouldn’t commit themselves either compulsorily or legally, even to what they think they can do voluntarily in the coming years. Nor does the agreement establish any penalty for noncompliance with the emission-reduction pledges presented. I can’t but acknowledge the brilliant way the whole thing has been handled, from the Durban COP to presenting utterly insufficient outcomes to the world as if they were positive.
A clever ruse
We must also admit that we in the social movements and environmental organizations didn’t recognize that the process was a ruse, a way to neutralize the goal of obtaining a legally binding agreement. We didn’t realize that the negotiators were working to mediate our main demands, which were nominally included but without the force we had hoped for. I don’t know if it was all coldly calculated, but I do know we didn’t see it coming.
Today, the jubilation so many people demonstrated is turning into disappointment and a sense of deception. The social movements are still trying to assimilate the agreement and understand its gaps and we in the environmental organizations are in a reflection process, wondering if it’s worthwhile to remain linked to these negotiation processes, asking ourselves what we ought to do.
Central America’s priorities for COP21
I’d like to briefly mention the priorities Central America took to the summit. Like many other countries, we wanted the meeting to result in a binding agreement, a protocol, a legally enforceable instrument.
More particularly, we wanted our region to be recognized as having an elevated level of climatic vulnerability. That vulnerability is indisputable; two or three Central American countries always rank high in the top ten of any climate risk index. Before now, the region’s governments hadn’t reached consensus about proposing Central America as a highly vulnerable region, as their civil society organizations have continually demanded both because it increases the possibility of obtaining financial resources to tackle climate change and because it’s important to make our people aware of the high climatic risk in the region where we live.
Just before Paris, our governments and civil societies finally reached considerable consensus on this point in order to take it to the negotiations. Only Belize didn’t agree because, while it isn’t an island, it’s a member of the “small island States” that run the greatest risk from climate change. The Dominican Republic did join with Central America.
We also agreed on wanting the Paris commitment to limit increases in the Earth’s temperature to no more than 1.5°C of its 1990 temperature. We were especially concerned about this because the European Union stated in Copenhagen and ratified in Cancun the following year that it wanted a higher temperature increase ceiling: 2°C. But we in the tropics know that if the Earth’s average temperature increases by 2°, this can reach over 3° and even as much as 4° at certain times of the year. We also had a common position on our respective countries’ contributions to reducing emissions.
So what happened to our goal of international recognition for the region’s vulnerability? When Central America presented its demand in Paris to be recognized as a highly vulnerable region, other groups of countries argued the same, which complicated negotiations as more geographical regions began to be added: the island states, Central American countries, African countries, mountainous countries… With the list getting ever longer, the discussion ended with the decision not to recognize any country as highly vulnerable.
What finally remained on this point? The Paris Agreement refers to the 1992 Convention on Climate Change, which indicates which countries are at greater risk: those with the lowest coastlines, those with deficient water resources… Without officially recognizing any specific country or region, it says that those that meet the conditions established in the Convention are highly vulnerable, and Central America meets almost all of them.
Africa did manage to get a working group formed, to be followed up on by the presidency, to advance the discussion about whether the whole African continent could be considered highly vulnerable, although we already know that Africa isn’t homogenous as some countries have strong economies, such as South Africa. Although Central America didn’t get recognition on this occasion, we think it should continue pressing for it, even if the current political correlation in the negotiating groups isn’t propitious to achieving it.
Now let’s look at Nicaragua’s participation at the Paris summit. Paul Oquist, President Ortega’s minister for public policies, headed Nicaragua’s delegation in Paris as he has at all COPs since the 2010 meeting in Cancun, Mexico. The Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (MARENA) has a focus group on the Convention on Climate Change, but doesn’t operate internationally. Others we knew in the delegation were MARENA’s deputy minister, who deals with Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), and a Nicaraguan delegate to the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Six representatives from Nicaraguan civil society organizations participated as observers at the official COP: five from the Nicaraguan Alliance on Climate Change (three from the Pacific and two from the Caribbean Coast), and one from the Federation of Rural Cooperatives. Another six people, including two youths from the Rama people, participated in the unofficial area. In total, approximately 30 attended from different areas of civil society, outstanding among them representatives from the Vulnerable Central America United for Life Forum, the Regional Risk Management Concertation, the Central American Indigenous Council, the Sustainability Watch observatory (SUSWATCH), the Mesoamerican Campaign for Climate Justice and coordinated national arenas for climate change.
Common but differentiated responsibilities
We had the opportunity to meet with the head of the Nicaraguan delegation, who informed us about its position: it would insist on the historical responsibilities of the countries that have most contributed to global warming, demanding what in climate change jargon is known as “the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities according to national capacity.” This principle, which is the bedrock of the Kyoto Protocol, means that all countries are responsible for what’s happening, but some are more responsible than others and we’re all obliged to find solutions according to our respective national capacities.
There was certainly an attempt in the Paris summit to evade this principle, including by the G-77 countries. This umbrella group was founded in 1964 by developing countries, but now represents a broad array of interests given its wide range of economies—from those of Brazil and China to those of Mali and Nepal. While the power wielders in G-77 particularly fought in the negotiations against maintaining differentiation, the Nicaraguan government did indeed defend it. Its position wasn’t only that the principle should be upheld but that it should be complied with: that the industrialized countries should responsibly assume compulsory reduction of their emissions and shouldn’t demand the same from countries with little or lesser responsibility.
Many of us also demanded that the emerging and powerful economies, such as those of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), assume compulsory reductions. But the struggle between the large economies with a high degree of historical responsibility (United States, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand) and the BRICS, with only more recent responsibility, ended by not making the reductions obligatory for anyone. In the end, the principle of differentiation remained in place in the Paris Agreement but was completely blurred because it wasn’t translated into a legally binding, verifiable, mandatory commitment as the social movements were asking for in the name of environmental justice. This was yet another point where the progress was more apparent than real.
Nicaragua’s didn’t present its INDC
Despite the validity of Nicaragua’s reasoning, our country isolated itself in the end. First, it and seven other countries (North Korea, Libya, Nepal, Panama, East Timor and Uzbekistan) didn’t present their contributions, their INDC, and Venezuela only submitted its at the end. Admittedly, our country’s contribution to atmospheric warming is only 0.03% and even if it stopped polluting entirely, the atmosphere wouldn’t even notice, but in our view not presenting our INDC wasn’t a politic decision, as evidenced by Venezuela’s contrary decision. Amid all the rejoicing about the agreement, with everyone congratulating the COP presidency, Venezuela’s representative, Silvia Salerno, asked permission to speak. “Mr. President,” she said, “Venezuela also celebrates the agreement and that’s why our contribution, which hasn’t been presented before, was given to the summit secretary five minutes ago.” This political gesture of rectification was well received.
But it wasn’t only the decision not to present our contribution that singled Nicaragua out and isolated it at the end. Here’s what happened. A final document of the agreement, without brackets, was finally presented on Saturday at 7 pm, a long and exhausting two weeks after the summit had opened and 24 hours after the closing date set for it. There were only three requests to discuss it: the third by Dr. Oquist, on behalf of Nicaragua. The French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, gavel in hand, opened the discussion and closed it in less than half a minute. Thus Nicaragua’s representative spoke after the announcement that a final agreement had been reached and the celebrations had started.
Interpreting Nicaragua’s position
In this context of widespread rejoicing, in addition to announcing that Nicaragua couldn’t join the consensus, Oquist argued that the discussion at the summit had been undemocratic, complained that Nicaragua hadn’t been sufficiently heard in the theme groups and asked for suppression of Article 52 in the Paris Decision, which exempts the developed countries from compensating for losses and damages caused to other countries, a claim we totally share.
Nicaragua wasn’t opposed to the total agreement, but criticized the consensus that had made it possible. It was the only country in the world that didn’t join that consensus. In my opinion, Nicaragua’s representative expressed virtually the same demands for climatic justice that global social movements have been making for years, in line with the principle of differentiating the responsibilities of countries’ historical responsibility. While his words could be interpreted as courageous and he had the integrity to tell the truth about the agreement not having the commitments originally accepted at the Convention, Nicaragua’s position was viewed as if it was the villain of the piece
Presenting it at that point in the climate summit, not presenting its INDC and not joining in the consensus can also be interpreted as somewhat disingenuous: asking for environmental justice abroad when it doesn’t comply with it at home, where its environmental performance is quite deplorable. It’s not only at odds with best practices but the government is promoting projects that threaten our country’s environmental integrity, such as the interoceanic canal project, which Dr. Oquist staunchly advocates. Looked at this way, we can also view Nicaragua’s position as the government wanting to put up a smokescreen so it isn’t asked to account for its environmental performance and can avoid any future commitment.
The belligerent position Oquist took at the last moment was inopportune into the bargain, painting Nicaragua as the spoilsport who arrives late only to rain on the parade. During the first week of the summit Oquist had made a presentation about the canal project, offering figures to suggest that it would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by streamlining large merchant ships’ maritime transportation. But the public attending this presentation was unrepresentative and the message had very little impact. I attended an exhibition by the Central American Commission on Environment and Development (CCAD) at which someone asked about investments in Central America and, although Oquist was there and it was the right time to talk about the canal’s great “benefits,” he chose to remain silent.
There’s also another interpretation of Nicaragua’s posture: that it was a last-minute grandstand play by sectors of Nicaragua’s government wanting to curry favor with social movements and historical solidarity networks that believe the current government’s official discourse is a continuation of the 1980s revolution.
Where do we activists stand
on climate change adaptation?
What we’re now demanding of Nicaragua’s government isn’t its pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emission but that it make climate change adaptations. We’ll continue to demand that our country present its pledge to adaptation because we need to know what it’s committed to from 2020 onwards in that regard. This matters to us because whether Nicaragua’s position is right or not, whether it was politically correct or not and whether it leaves us outside of funding for adapting to climate change, I think we should send out the message that the solutions won’t come to us from abroad. That would remain true even we optimistically believed that all that’s planned concerning resources will actually materialize. Even a global allocation of US$200 billion worldwide would fall way short of ensuring all the processes needed to be developed to tackle climate change. Furthermore, people in Nicaragua aren’t waiting, they’re already adapting; in fact they’re not even paying attention to global negotiating processes.
If at some point any resources arrive from the Convention’s Green Climate Fund, which has already approved eight projects, two of them in Latin America, they’ll be in addition to national efforts rural people are already making in their communities to ensure their own survival. Although these efforts are still dispersed, they’re what are really needed to achieve adaptation, not those from the official machinery of the United Nations Convention, which promotes and provides technocratic solutions without considering people as active participants in their adaptation to climate change.
What’s the next step?
After a milestone such as the one in Paris, what’s the next step in the climate negotiation process? How will the Paris Agreement enter into force? The world’s countries are called upon to sign the agreement at UN headquarters in New York on April 23, 2016, and exactly a year later, on April 23, 2017, each signatory country should have ratified the agreement by the approval of their respective parliaments and have incorporated its contents into national law.
The agreement comes into force when 50% of the countries that signed the Climate Change Convention have ratified their endorsement of it and when their combined emission reductions total over 55% of global emissions. When will those voluntary pledges be reviewed? It hasn’t been established.
Reviewing the ambition
The ambition—how much reduction of polluting gases we should aspire to—will be reviewed in 2018, but the only requirement of this review is to verify that the countries aren’t reducing fewer emissions than they pledged. Even though the INDC pledges are voluntary, greenhouse gas reductions must be progressive, they can never decrease, although the agreement doesn’t establish the degree of that progressive increase or set a threshold it should reach with respect to the global total or any other reference.
Once the ambition has been reviewed in 2018, contribution compliance will be officially reviewed every five years, but only starting in 2025, 15 years after urgent measures should have begun to be taken! Why such procrastination? Why so much confidence by the industrialized countries when all of them are already suffering the damaging effects of climate change? I’ve heard some people speculate that they must have technological solutions up their sleeves that we don’t yet know about.
Currently known technological solutions for reducing polluting gases from the atmosphere are counter-productive and are actually worsening the environmental crisis. All involve chemical processes to increase the oceans’ capacity to absorb carbon dioxide, generating many doubts about how this will affect the oceans’ health. Do the countries with important economies have other solutions that explain why they would approve an agreement that doesn’t strengthen the previous ones but actually weakens them to avoid being legally obliged to directly reduce emissions? We don’t know.
Near unanimous rejoicing despite
20 years of an inefficient process
Paris showed that the exhausting negotiating process, COP after COP, didn’t guarantee sufficient outcomes or inputs to achieve a good agreement. How is it possible that 20 years of negotiations haven’t resulted in a better agreement? It’s now been more than demonstrated that the process has been inefficient and must be revised.
Nonetheless, all the preparation and its inefficiencies were forgotten when the COP presidency officially announced that there was an agreement and it was legally binding, had more ambition, no longer talked about 2° and would have US $100 billion annually to tackle climate change… Incredibly, all the voluntary promises expressed in the agreement were taken as firm commitments and the rejoicing was unanimous and statements celebrating the outcome began.
The Chinese representative and John Kerry representing the United States expressed their satisfaction in equal terms. The ruling sheik of Saudi Arabia welcomed the agreement… perhaps because it didn’t so much as mention hydrocarbons or oil... Countries as diverse as Ecuador, Burundi and Tuvalu, a small island that will disappear with climate change, celebrated in unison. One wondered where the interests in climate change of Saudi Arabia—the country with the world’s highest oil yields—coincide with those of Burundi—a country with one of the world’s lowest incomes… We even saw northern environmental organizations with proven environmental commitment applauding the agreement. And we overheard the World Bank president comment that the Paris agreement “will unleash market forces to provide a solution to climate change,” leading us to wonder how a market that caused the problem can now solve it…
Who actually did the deciding
at the Paris negotiations?
We know it’s the governments that negotiate but the transnational companies are the ones that make the emissions. Fewer than 20 transnational corporations are responsible for over half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
What’s been happening so far also happened in Paris: the governments go to the negotiations accompanied by the corporations headquartered in their country. For example, the US delegation consisted of over a hundred people, including representatives of polluting companies. The eternal question is who should do the negotiating: governments or those directly polluting the atmosphere? What happens is that governments represent or are at least beholden to these companies because they are their largest contributors. Making ambitious commitments that would go against the profit interests of these giant corporations is obviously hard for them.
The effects of the terrorist attacks...
Two international events affecting the Paris negotiations need to be considered when evaluating the outcome. The first were the November terrorist attacks there. When we arrived, Paris was a tense, nervous city where all marches and street demonstrations had been banned. Some attempts were made but the atmosphere wasn’t right and few wanted to risk breaking the established order.
Mobilizations for climate justice had grown so massive that more than 100,000 people took to the streets for the previous one in New York, in September 2014. In Europe, environmental activism had shown its ability to mobilize multitudes, inundating the Danish capital five years earlier, during COP15. As Paris is even more geographically central in Europe than Copenhagen, immense demonstrations were called for and expected. But there were none. The lack of any social pressure in the streets left the negotiators feeling much calmer that they would have otherwise.
...and the historic drop in oil prices
The other event was the collapse in oil prices, which reached a historic drop during the days of the summit and cannot be disassociated from the climate negotiation. We arrived at COP21 with prices for crude that took renewable energy out of the competition from a market perspective. Such low prices meant that production costs using renewables are now higher than those using crude.
It’s true that some economies have had an important onrush towards renewable energy. China, which is literally choking because its people can no longer breathe, has made incredible progress in renewables… as has the United States. But the Paris negotiations took place in a climate hostile to renewable energy. It was altruism vs the market. It was to argue for a green economy when the market was going in the opposite direction... In a world as complex as the one in which oil prices are managed, I don’t know if the timing of the plunging price of crude was coincidence or motivated. I only know it had an effect.
Can we meet the scientific timetable?
It’s true that China’s demand for oil is currently contracting but it’s also true that oil consumption has been rising now that prices are so low. Yet according to scientific criteria, humanity must reduce global emissions between 30% and 40% by 2030 if we are to stop global warming from increasing by more than 2°C, which would be seriously dangerous.
To achieve this, the hydrocarbons consumption curve must peak between 2016 and 2020 and from then on begin to descend so we reach 2030 with the reduction science demands: below the emission level we had in 1990. That’s the goal. But with the current reduction in oil prices increasing consumption, despite the contraction in China, it isn’t envisaged that global consumption will begin to fall to significantly reduce emissions in time.
While the international market and the energy sector don’t make us optimistic about compliance with these scientific goals, things are even more complicated now that we have a globally acclaimed agreement that’s legally binding only on matters that interest us least.
While still on the subject of renewable energy, I want to mention that the Paris agreement also endorsed carbon markets. The social movements and environmental organizations consider them a false solution to global warming since carbon captured via this mechanism is only a temporary fix and ends up being incorporated into the carbon cycle.
Moreover, northern countries, which must reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions the most, have financed the planting of trees for many years because trees capture carbon from the atmosphere. But they’ve planted them in southern countries and have been allowed to bill that capture as part of their own reductions. The Paris agreement revitalized carbon certificates, encouraging the industrialized countries to continue promoting these initiatives that only seemingly reduce their own emissions.
Pragmatic vs idealistic negotiations?
Actually, there has been an ongoing dilemma for us in these climate negotiations: whether to continue supporting the multilateral negotiating system on climate change, despite all its limitations, or invest in fighting harder for what we know the agreements must achieve to save the planet. The negotiators always tell us this is the highest common denominator that can be achieved and only within it can the multilateral framework continue working. This is how we’ve had minimum common denominators imposed on us time after time instead of ambitious agreements.
And it happened again in Paris, although I think it was even more serious this time because many of the agreements depend on the good will of those with the longest and greatest responsibility for polluting the atmosphere, the very ones that have as yet shown no desire to effectively commit to overcoming the climate crisis.
One last point to end on
All of us by now know Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Sí, an outstanding document for understanding the commitments needed in caring for our common home. Another, very eloquent way to evaluate that the Paris agreement is patently insufficient is how easy it is to see that it doesn’t even come close to living up to Laudato Sí.
Víctor Campos is the director of the Alexander von Humboldt Center, a Nicaraguan nongovernmental environmental organization founded in 1990 by a group of professionals to meet the challenge of promoting alternative development from civil society. It belongs to various national and international environmental networks.