Is “Success” in Paris a Trap?
Five years ago, the UN’s Cancun agreements promised “to keep the global average temperature rise below two degrees.” And Christiana Figueres, the UN Climate Chief, tells us the coming Paris agreement will keep that promise.
She assures us that the Paris pledges are like a “down payment” on that goal, and are like getting to Philly when traveling from Washington DC to New York. A UN Newsroom headline boldly announces, “Global Response to Climate Change Keeps Door Open to 2 Degree C Temperature Limit.” But, Figueres’ threat to “chop the head off the person” who questions this at the Paris conference gives us pause.
A closer look reveals a story that is a bit too perfect. Until now climate change has been the most difficult challenge our species has ever faced. A month from now it will be virtually solved by ordinary national self-interests and a just-in-time rescue by technology. Nothing as unpleasant as carbon pricing will be needed. World leaders can bask in success of Paris, and your grandchildren are now safe.
But the UN headline is about a report by UN scientists analyzing the Paris pledges. And that report does not at all agree with Ms. Figueres or the UN headline. The report says, that if the pledges hold perfectly, by 2030 we will be further from the 2°C goal than we are now. It will be more like being in Atlanta headed south than in Philly headed north to New York, where it’s only 2°C warmer. We will need to reverse direction and go twice as fast as if we had headed the right direction starting now.
Now 2°C may not be the right limit, and climate science says keeping below it is a matter of probabilities. But that cannot explain the contradiction between the glib interpretations and what the report actually says. In the global climate discussion, the 2°C limit is taken to mean that the world will only emit another 1,000 Gt of carbon dioxide. [They seem to use this as a proxy for GHGs, but we need Ottmar’s help here.] The EU and UN reports say unequivocally that keeping under that limit will be far harder when the Paris pledges end in 2030 than if we took the cheapest path starting in 2020, when the pledges take effect. And that’s assuming perfect compliance, a questionable assumption.
Currently our task is essentially to cut emissions by 50 Gt in the next 73 years. After the most optimistic Paris outcome, we will need to cut emissions by 52 Gt in the next 37 years. Making a “down payment” means it’s easier to pay off your mortgage, not twice as hard. Reality has been turned upside down.
A related mystery is found in Figueres’ claim that “the self-interest of every country is what is behind all of these measures [pledges]. It’s not because they want to save the planet.” And for emphasis she adds, “Maybe it surprises you that I say that. Let’s be realistic here.”
Perhaps this should not be a surprise. This is exactly what the tragedy of the commons predicts in the face of uncoordinated commitments. To check this prediction, we examined China’s pledge when it was first announced in December 2014. The announcement contained no mention of saving the planet and not even a mention of climate. Instead we found that everything China pledged had been discussed long before as necessary to clean up local environmental problems.
As Ms. Figueres explains, “China is very, very clearly moving in that direction [slowing emission growth]. Why? First, because they are listening to their citizens who actually would like to breathe air without having a negative impact on their lungs. Secondly … if they want to continue being competitive in the global economy, they need to be their first.” This is why we agree with Ms. Figueres that China’s pledge is just narrow self-interest and was not caused by concern for the climate or by their pledge for Paris. China’s pledge simply records what they were planning to do anyway. Paris played no role at all.
But we think Ms. Figueres is actually a bit too pessimistic and that the UN negotiations have nudged a few countries beyond narrow self-interest, for example, Europe, the Obama administration, and Canada, but not India. It is clearly in India’s narrow self-interest to be paid $2.5 trillion to reduce their emissions per dollar of GDP by 35% over 25 years. After call China cut their emissions intensity by 45% from 1990 to 2005, without any climate policy at all.
So what’s the connection between pledges that are pure self-interest and missing the 2°C target? A primary goal of the Paris conference is to manufacture the appearance of success. This requires getting most if not all countries to sign on—even OPEC is now climbing on board.
To get this broad an agreement without any arm twisting, it is, of course, necessary to let everyone agree to do exactly what they want. Most will pursue their narrow self-interest, which is what countries always do anyway. And so it is exactly what led to global warming in the first place. It is not surprising that continuing down the same path will let the problem continue to grow—and lead us well passed 2°C.
Of course Ms. Figueres understands this, and so she has persuaded herself that, “Technology has definitely come to our rescue”—just in time to make the conference a success. But if renewable technology were really the inevitable wave of the future that she claims it is, India would not need $2.5 trillion to ride that wave to more jobs, cleaner energy and vast reductions in the cost of energy.
But one puzzle remains. If the pledges really do just reflect self-interest, as we and Ms. Figueres claim, why then is the UN reporting that emissions will be 5% to 10% lower than business as usual by 2030? Unfortunately both the EU and the UN are keeping secret their evaluations of individual country calculations, but their general discussion is quite revealing.
Apparently they are assuming that China would not have curbed their deadly coal emissions if they had not made their Paris pledge. So the UN calculations take credit for what China had to do anyway. And the most optimistic UN and EU predictions take credit for all the conditional pledges that have yet to find financing. Naturally this makes it look like the Paris pledges have had an impact.
None of this would matter except for the missed opportunity that may now be lost until 2030. Paris could have been the start of global carbon pricing. This is favored by the Word Bank, the IMF, the top three U.S. economists focusing on climate change (Stiglitz, Nordhaus, and Weitzman), and is now even accepted by hundreds of companies, including some big oil companies.
Moreover, what has recently come to light due to the work of Harvard’s Martin Weitzman is that agreeing on a single global price would actually cut through the free-rider problem, which is the deadly heart of the climate change dilemma. This fits perfectly with the findings of Elinor Ostrom, the political scientist who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 for her work on solving the tragedy of commons.
Unfortunately, the science of cooperation has not informed the UN negotiations, and Ms. Figures has said that investment “would be so much easier with a carbon price, but life is much more complex than that.” So there will be no talk of pricing carbon.
But even at this late date, significant first steps could be taken in Paris by having countries pledge to publically track and share their carbon price. They could also name the global carbon price they would be happy to apply to themselves in 2025 if 80% of world did the same, this would help negotiators see how a common commitment reduces free riding.
But that is not to be. All we have learned since Copenhagen is to deceive ourselves into believing that cooperation is not required, because technology and national self-interest have definitely come to our rescue.