A Weak Agreement Could Delay Strong Action Until It’s Too Late
The Paris Agreement
- All 196 countries signed — even OPEC and Russia.
- It contains NO mechanism to make it binding.
- Figueres has declared that all pledges are just self-interest.
- And she says emphatically, they are “not to save the planet.”
- (code words for, “do not take the climate into account”)
- The 2°C goal is disconnected from any proposed mechanism.
Any one of these points is enough to make it clear that almost nothing was achieved. Nevertheless the agreement has some good points:
- It isolates US Republicans and makes them slightly less powerful.
- It got the US and China talking about climate.
- It got people’s hopes us with talk of 2°C, so when these hopes are dashed, people will get upset and perhaps will do something.
- It got countries to think about climate change for a while.
But the enormous over-statement of its achievement will continue to undermine (obliterate?) any sense of urgency for years to come. Also the “rule” that countries must increase ambition every five years will cause countries to backpedal and water-down their next pledge as much as possible to leave room for future improvement.
Here’s my prediction:
Has COP21 found the magic bullet? So they are saying, but consider this:
- Current pledges leave us much worse off in 2030.
- China only pledged what it was going to do anyway.
- UN climate chief says pledges are just “economic self-interest” (greed), and they are not about saving the planet (the climate).
Something’s a bit off, so we’ll take this step by step.
Step 1. If pledges work perfectly, they make all 2°C scenarios impossible.
Tweet this graph:
What’s going on? The black line shows global CO2 emissions, including China’s CO2 burst from 2002 until about 2011. The green line shows the UN’s most optimistic prediction for the Paris pledges. This is less steep mainly because China is ending its CO2 burst to avoid killer smog in its cities. But CO2 emissions continue to increase through the end of the pledges in 2030. The red line shows what’s required to stay under 2°C, given the situation in 2030.
Climate science estimates that to have a 66% chance of warming less than 2°C, we must emit less than 1000 more gigatons of CO2 after 2011. By their end in 2030, the UN says the pledges would use up at least 723 Gt of that and would increase emissions to 40 Gt per year. At that rate, the rest of the CO2 budget would be gone in seven years. MIT estimates that pledges won’t be perfect, and so five years is more likely.
Impossible. The graph shows us reducing the rate of emissions before we run out, so then we would have 14 years before the world had to completely stop CO2 emissions. This would be impossible now, and after 15 more years of building new coal plants in China and India and more cars everywhere, it will be beyond impossible.
The graph shows current pledges are pretty terrible.
But, the story is “We will ratchet up ambition with more negotiations.”
That sounds good, but …
♦ Current pledges are only pledges to follow economic self-interest.
♦ And that’s how Figueres wanted the agreement.
So how do you pull ambition out of the self-interest hat? Let’s take a look.
Step 2. Can pledges be improved before 2030?
This is the $64,000 question. If the pledges are dramatically improved, we stand a chance. If they are improved only a little, the graph above shows we will likely miss the mark dramatically. So the hope is that there will be 5-year reviews during which ambition will be ratcheted up. Will this work? Here are the two reasons given for optimism:
Are either of these correct? We check them in Step 3 and Step 4.
- Paris pledges show a big increase in ambition, so this will likely happen again and again.
- Countries will see that others are ambitious and they will try to outdo them, resulting in a “ratcheting up” of ambition, a “race to the top.”
Step 3. The Paris pledges are not ambitious. Paris is not yet working.
Climate ambition means doing something for the climate — doing more than you would do if you ignored global warming completely. It means more than just looking out for your own economic self-interest; it’s doing at least a little to “save the planet.”
This could mean giving money to poor countries so they can afford renewable energy (instead of fossil energy). Or requiring more expensive fuel-efficient cars even though 95% of the carbon benefit goes to other countries.
Everyone, from Al Gore to UN climate chief Christiana Figueres has said we need countries to be more ambitious.
But here’s the shocker: Christiana Figueres says the pledges are just economic self-interest and none are intended to help “save the planet.” They are not ambitious at all.
- “They’re doing it [their pledges/INDCs] for what I think is a much more powerful political driving force, which is for the benefit of their own economy.”
- “The United States or China or Tuvalu … none of them are doing this to save the planet.”
In other words the INDCs are not motivated by climate-change concerns. She is very clear that countries like China are just pledging because “they are listening to their citizens who actually would like to breathe [less polluted] air” or because they want to make money on renewables. And she says that in general, “The United States or China or Tuvalu … none of them are doing this to save the planet.” It’s not for the climate. None are showing ambition in their pledges.
When we look at the UN reports on pledges, we find that she seems to be right. These reports have found significant “effects” of the pledges, but this is only because they ignore what Figueres sees clearly. China’s pledge is pure self-interest, it was planned without any thought for the climate or for the Paris negotiations. China just wrote down what it was doing anyway. But the UN takes credit for it, and pretends that China’s smog reduction was caused by the UN. Absolutely not. It’s just “economic self-interest” as always.
The Paris pledges have not increased ambition detectably. Paris is not yet working. It has not moved countries noticeably beyond what they would do anyway.
This is no surprise. Figueres wants an “agreement that brings all countries on board,” and the only way to get that is the way they did. Any country can pledge anything and change their minds later. Nothing is enforced.
Step 4. Science tells us: periodic reviews will not “ratchet up ambition.”
Step 3 eliminated the first reason to think pledges might become more ambitious and save the world from using up almost all of its carbon budget before 2030. Step 3 showed that Paris has not raised ambition noticeably so there no reason to think doing it twice more will save us.
The second reason for hope, given back in Step 2, was that “Countries will see that others are ambitious and they will try to outdo them.” But now we know they will not see that others are ambitious. They will see exactly what Figueres sees — that other countries are simply following their self-interest. This cannot inspire ambition, it will just make countries more determined to stick to their economic self-interest and do nothing “to save the planet.”
In fact, the behavioral sciences — political science, behavior economics, psychology — have studied this type of situation for 40 years. Researchers have done hundreds of experiments and reviewed hundreds of field studies. Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist, won the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics for a lifetime of study of how this works. So we know what happens with pledge-and-review:
- With individual commitments, like the Paris pledges, players start out about half-way cooperative and then spiral down to almost pure narrow self-interest.
That’s what happens in the laboratory and in observations of real-life situations. Since countries have been pledging and reviewing each other’s actions for over twenty years now, they have already spiraled down.
In fact almost all countries made their initial pledge in this sequence after Copenhagen (2009) or Cancun (2010). So Paris is already a test of the same kind of five-year review being proposed. It has not worked. All the hopeful numbers put out by the EU, UN and others actually apply to the combined pledges (Cancun and Paris). But if you look at the UNEP projections to 2030 just before the Paris pledges and then just after, there is almost no difference. So the first attempt at ratcheting up has been tried and has failed.
Step 5. The danger: When the world wakes up it will be too late
Almost everyone now believes COP21 is a tremendous success. But this is because of (1) optimistic miscalculations by the UN and others, (2) pretending all pledges will be kept, and (3) counting “pledges” that promise big results if they get big bucks.
In reality, the UN climate chief is right. Countries are still just doing what’s in their self-interest and ignoring the climate. Paris is already the first round of review and it failed. The chance of an upward spiral of ambition is nil.
The danger is that the Paris agreement is set up so that the “pledgers” are safe. Their pledges don’t even start until 2020 and cannot be fully checked until 2030. By then we will have used 75% of our carbon budget (according to the UN INDC report) and it will be too late. A 2°C path will be impossible. And we will be emitting more than now and will have locked in even more emissions with long-term fossil-fuel investments.
So the false optimism of the UN cheerleaders is truly dangerous. It is not too late, unless we lock this system in place. But that is exactly what we are doing. We are locking in an agreement that makes sure that no country, not the “United States or China or Tuvalu … none of them are doing this to save the planet [Christiana Figueres, October 2, 2015].”
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Here is a paper giving a more complete explanation.
If you want to read about the scientific approach to climate cooperation, start here: our Nature article. Or you can read our free eBook with many eminent authors including Stiglitz, Weitzman, Stéphane Dion—the Foreign Minister of Canada, and David MacKay, who was the UK’s chief climate scientist.
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