There are a number of problems with the much-touted Paris Agreement, of totemic value to the climate-concerned. These include a lack of an effective process for monitoring compliance, the number of loopholes, and more. But the most fundamental problem seems to be that there is such an obvious lack of true commitment shown by key nations. Whilst this is the problem I wish to focus upon today, the other concerns – and they are many – are too important to ignore and so I may very well return to them on another day.
In short, the Agreement is a failure in its own terms. Don’t take my word for it – here’s what Professor Dieter Helm (now Sir Dieter, thanks to services to “the environment, to energy and utilities policy”) has to say about it:
“The Paris Agreement is, if you believe the political leaders who took an active part, a game changer. It is, on this view, a triumph. As Obama put it, it will save the planet. But you should not believe them: the reality is that Paris demonstrated how big the international failure has been, and provided little by way of comfort that its framework will do the necessary job. You can see it everywhere: climate change has slumped down the list of priorities for companies and governments.
A cold hard reality check on all the rhetoric is needed. Here are the facts. The ambition set out at the Durban Conference was that Paris would see a legal binding global agreement binding the main world players to targets which would jointly keep global warming below 2 degrees. What happened? Most countries came up with their proposed national targets, just as they had for the Copenhagen Agreement. They are voluntary, not legally binding, and they do not add up to the 2 degrees. In the case of the big players, China offered to cap emissions by 2030 (after another 15 years of potential emission growth), India has no real meaningful cap, and the US is embedding the switch from coal to gas. For all three, what will happen has little or nothing to do with Paris. The one bit of good news is incidental: China’s economy may slow down rapidly.
This did not stop the negotiators doing two things: first, making the circus of Paris a regular 5-year event, and thereby keeping all the UN-led bureaucracy and all the NGOs up and running; and setting a target of 1.5 degrees. If you can’t get a legally binding set of targets that add up to 2 degrees, why not set the target at 1.5 degrees anyway?”
So what does the Paris Agreement set out to achieve?
Sir Dieter’s appraisal stands as a sad indictment when one considers the noble aspirations of the Agreement’s architects. In its own words:
“The ultimate objective of this Convention…is to achieve…stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”
One hundred and ninety-three countries are members of the United Nations, according to the UN’s own website. This is more than a little intriguing since, according to the UN, 197 countries are parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (“UNFCCC”). One superficial measure of the success of the Paris Accords is the number of those countries signing up to the UNFCCC who have also signed up to the Paris Accords – 196.
The discrepancy in the numbers does not matter if the important emitters of greenhouse gases (“GHGs”) have signed up, have strong plans to reduce their emissions, and can be legally taken to task via an enforcement procedure for failure to honour the Agreement. Unfortunately, however, as Sir Dieter has noticed, this is not the case. Only the first of those criteria has been met. The main emitters have signed up (and of course under President Biden the USA has re-joined); but many of them – notably China and India, and to an extent Russia – have submitted plans which are not going to result in the reduction of GHG emissions (quite the contrary); and in any event the Paris Agreement is utterly toothless.
Definitely maybe – according to circumstance
Space does not permit a detailed analysis of the Agreement here, but this clause is worth highlighting:
“This Agreement will be implemented to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.”
Different national circumstances, and the long-standing definition of “developing countries”, which include, rather bizarrely, the likes of China and South Africa, also condemn the Agreement to guaranteed failure in its own terms.
Politics is the art of the possible, and clearly the Paris Agreement took some hammering out before it was reduced to a form that the Parties were prepared to sign. But, however hard the lead negotiators tried, and however sincere some of the Parties were, ultimately the fact that other Parties weren’t so committed meant that the Agreement had to be watered down. And it is that watering down which renders it not fit for purpose, other than as a shibboleth. Its language is the language of aspiration, not of meaningful binding obligation. “Parties aim [i.e. completely non-binding] to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible [meaningless in the absence of a specified date], recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties [a total cop-out for those responsible for the bulk of emissions]”.
Aspirational words like “can”, “may” and “should” abound, but the legally mandatory word “shall” is a rare and shy creature within the Agreement, rarely to be seen, and then certainly not in the context of a meaningful obligation. And the Agreement contains absolutely no enforcement mechanism for use against those signatories who breach its rather limp terms or who fail to meet the offerings set out in their (mostly weak) Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
The dragon in the room
Which brings us neatly to NDCs. The Agreement also contains this clause:
“Each Party shall communicate a nationally determined contribution every five years…and be informed by the outcomes of the global stocktake referred to in Article 14.”
There is not space here to look in detail at each of the NDCs. However, in short, all NDC submissions seem to contain the usual genuflections to the great climate religion before making vague and rather meaningless commitments which will see their national GHG emissions increase by 2030, the date to which the Accords are working. However, the NDC of one country in particular – China – is just too important to be ignored. Its NDC was submitted on 30th June 2015. An early flavour of where China is coming from doesn’t provide much confidence:
“As a developing country with a population of more than 1.3 billion, China is among those countries that are most severely affected by the adverse impacts of climate change. China is currently in the process of rapid industrialization and urbanization, confronting with multiple challenges including economic development, poverty eradication, improvement of living standards, environmental protection and combating climate change.”
That’s the background; but then there are the fluffy words:
“To act on climate change in terms of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing climate resilience, is not only driven by China’s domestic needs for sustainable development in ensuring its economic security, energy security, ecological security, food security as well as the safety of people’s life and property and to achieve sustainable development, but also driven by its sense of responsibility to fully engage in global governance, to forge a community of shared destiny for humankind and to promote common development for all human beings.”
Then they tell us what steps they have been taking to date:
“By 2014 the following has been achieved:
- Carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP is 33.8% lower than the 2005 level;
- The share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption is 11.2%;
- The forested area and forest stock volume are increased respectively by 21.6 million hectares and 2.188 billion cubic meters compared to the 2005 levels;
- The installed capacity of hydro power is 300 gigawatts (2.57 times of that for 2005);
- The installed capacity of on-grid wind power is 95.81 gigawatts (90 times of that for 2005);
- The installed capacity of solar power is 28.05 gigawatts (400 times of that for 2005); and
- The installed capacity of nuclear power is 19.88 gigawatts (2.9 times of that for 2005).”
The wind and solar power figures sound impressive, but they don’t tell us what a low base they started from in 2005, though we can work it out – wind power of around 1 gigawatt, (and solar power a tiny fraction of that). They also don’t tell us what their 2014 requirements for energy are or how much is provided by fossil fuels, or how much fossil fuel use increased between 2005 and 2014, so that we can put these 2014 figures into context. It is against that background of partial information, that they tell us what their offer is:
“Based on its national circumstances, development stage, sustainable development strategy and international responsibility, China has nationally determined its actions by 2030 as follows:
- To achieve the peaking of carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 and making best efforts to peak early;
- To lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60% to 65% from the 2005 level;
- To increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20%; and
- To increase the forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters on the 2005 level.”
In other words, and most crucially, the biggest GHG emitter on the planet, by a country mile (not that their NDC alludes to that fact) will continue increasing GHG emissions until 2030, by which date fossil fuels will still account for 80% of primary energy consumption. And if for one moment you were under the illusion that they intend to reduce use of fossil fuels, this section will disabuse you:
“Building Low-Carbon Energy System:
- To control total coal consumption;
- To enhance the clean use of coal;
- To increase the share of concentrated and highly-efficient electricity generation from coal;
- To lower coal consumption of electricity generation of newly built coal-fired power plants to around 300 grams coal equivalent per kilowatt-hour;
- To expand the use of natural gas: by 2020, achieving more than 10% share of natural gas consumption in the primary energy consumption and making efforts to reach 30 billion cubic meters of coal-bed methane production;
- To proactively promote the development of hydro power, on the premise of ecological and environmental protection and inhabitant resettlement;
- To develop nuclear power in a safe and efficient manner;
- To scale up the development of wind power;
- To accelerate the development of solar power;
- To proactively develop geothermal energy, bio-energy and maritime energy;
- To achieve the installed capacity of wind power reaching 200 gigawatts, the installed capacity of solar power reaching around 100 gigawatts and the utilization of thermal energy reaching 50 million tons coal equivalent by 2020;
- To enhance the recovery and utilization of vent gas and oilfield-associated gas; and
- To scale up distributed energy and strengthen the construction of smart grid.”
The key issues (apart from the open admission that GHG emissions will increase until 2030) are the lack of transparency regarding the scale of their emissions currently, the amount by which they will increase, and the amount of current energy generation from fossil fuels, combined with the amount (in real terms as a hard figure) by which they will increase by 2030 (even if the proportion of a greater amount of energy generated by fossil fuels might decrease slightly).
Recently much of the western media became very excited when China’s President Xi offered a few crumbs in the direction of the climate-concerned. They were turned immediately by the Guardian and the BBC into a solemn pledge to reduce GHG emissions by firm dates (which they weren’t, in reality). But now China has produced its latest five year plan. And so the scales lift from the eyes and the Guardian realises that China has no intention of reducing its GHG emissions any time soon:
“China has set out an economic blueprint for the next five years that could lead to a strong rise in greenhouse gas emissions if further action is not taken to meet the country’s long-term goals.
The 14th five-year plan, published in Beijing on Friday, gave few details on how the world’s biggest emitter would meet its target of reaching net zero emissions by 2060, set out by President Xi Jinping last year, and of ensuring that carbon dioxide output peaks before 2030.
China will reduce its “emissions intensity” – the amount of CO2 produced per unit of GDP – by 18% over the period 2021 to 2025, but this target is in line with previous trends, and could lead to emissions continuing to increase by 1% a year or more. Non-fossil fuel energy is targeted to make up 20% of China’s energy mix, leaving plenty of room for further expansion of the country’s coal industry. Swithin Lui, of the Climate Action Tracker and NewClimate Institute, said: “[This is] underwhelming and shows little sign of a concerted switch away from a future coal lock-in. There is little sign of the change needed [to meet net zero].”
And that’s before it revises its NDC, which will surely be linked to the five year plan’s stated objectives. Watch this space.
There is also a strong argument that the developed world, while claiming to reduce its own GHG emissions, is simply outsourcing them to China. More on that another day, perhaps. None of these issues are dealt with by the Paris Accords, of course.
The China problem is just the start
I have focused upon China here because theirs is the most obvious, and most significant, example of toothless commitment. I could continue in this vein, but rather than swamp you with detailed dissections of other countries’ NDCs, I shall leave you with some general observations regarding their nature and how they serve to undermine the noble aspirations of the Agreement:
a) Less is more
With a few exceptions, the shorter the NDC, the more meaningful the offer; the longer the NDC, the more likely it is that a small impoverished country with negligible emissions is seeking to demonstrate how signed-up it is to the process, how seriously it takes it all, what terrible problems it is already encountering from climate change, and therefore why it really should be given all the money it is asking for.
b) The worst offenders are the least committed
Some of the signatories, who were among the first to submit their NDCs – Switzerland, EU, USA, Norway etc., really do seem to be serious about the whole thing. Unfortunately, even including the US, only countries responsible for up to 30% of global GHG emissions were offering real reductions. Some of the main emitters of GHG emissions (most notably China, but also India, Russia, down to the likes of South Korea, and Bangladesh) have not engaged with the process at all. They talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk. China, most obviously, is the rock on which the Paris Accords break. But there are others.
c) Fossil fuel export is blithely ignored
The rules for accounting for fossil fuel extraction and export let the countries who gain most from this totally off the hook. The Middle East oil producing countries are the ones most obviously to benefit from making the right noises whilst in reality making no meaningful commitment to the process whatsoever. But they’re not alone. As is the case with Canada, they make a virtue in their NDC about their GHG emissions, but they’re remarkably coy about their fossil fuel extraction and export, and how dependent their economies are on it.
d) The sums don’t add up
The sums required by the NDCs of some undeveloped countries are quite modest, especially on a per capita basis, while others are truly staggering, most notably India and somewhat cheekily South Africa. In total, however, I would suggest they are unaffordable, especially in view of the financial carnage caused by coronavirus and the world’s reaction to it. Even if the money can be found, so that conditional, as opposed to the much less ambitious unconditional, targets are achieved, the net effect is that GHG emissions are on target to grow massively – just not as massively, perhaps, as would otherwise be the case. Should people who claim to be concerned about AGW therefore really have been so hysterical about Trump’s decision to take the USA out of the Accords? Personally I think not. Unless China, India and Russia can ever be brought on board, and unless rapidly growing populations in developing countries can somehow be controlled, The whole thing is hopeless, not least in view of the perfectly understandable desire of developing countries to industrialise and raise living standards, and a growing tendency to the urbanisation of the populations of such countries.
e) Developing countries want to eat their cake and have it
Many developing countries are, perfectly understandably, seeking to use the Paris Accords to lever large sums of money from the international community to improve the lot of their people. In many cases, they seek to develop renewable energy to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels (some of the island countries are almost entirely dependent on imports of fossil fuels). I suspect this is more about saving money and increasing energy independence than it is about “saving the planet”. In almost every case they seek to improve GDP alongside increasing populations. Inevitably, whatever they do, GHG emissions are going to increase, and the idea that the Paris Accords can do anything about this is a sham.
A room too full
This article has already referred to the dragon in the room, but the dragon shares the room with several elephants, which space has not permitted this article to look at. The elephants can destroy the purpose of the Agreement as effectively as any bull in a china shop, and they all deserve scrutiny – perhaps in another article.