Saturday, January 02, 2016

Paris: Hope or Hype?

The final Paris document consists of a twelve-page “Agreement” and a twenty-page “Adoption” text. The former outlines most of the substantive steps that were agreed to by the 195 countries represented in Paris and the latter describes just how they will be implemented.

Francois Hollande praised the Paris Agreement as “ambitious,” “binding,” and “universal.” Ban Ki-moon said it ushers in a “new era of global cooperation,” and UN climate convention executive secretary Christiana Figueres described it as “an agreement of solidarity with the most vulnerable.” Barack Obama waxed triumphant and proclaimed the outcome a testament to American leadership in diplomacy and technology.

Friends of the Earth International, on the other hand, immediately denounced the agreement as a “sham of a deal,” adding that the most vulnerable people around the world would “feel the worst impacts of our politicians’ failure to take tough enough action.” The renowned elder climate scientist James Hansen called it a “fraud,” adding, “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words.” British climatologist Kevin Anderson, among the most politically forthright of current scientists, described the agreement as “weaker than Copenhagen” and “not consistent with the latest science.” In the Agreement is the omission of any steps to regulate rising pollution levels from international shipping and aviation. This was one of the key issues cited by Anderson when he compared the Paris outcome unfavorably with Copenhagen’s. While these emissions now amount to only 4.4 percent of the world’s total, according to the Wall Street Journal, they are projected to grow rapidly, even as other emissions sources are beginning to decline.

More moderate in their criticisms were key figures such as Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace International, who described the agreement as “one step on a long road …, but it is progress,” and’s Bill McKibben, who emphasized the agreement’s underlying challenge to the supremacy of the fossil fuel industry. “This didn’t save the planet,” McKibben wrote, “but it may have saved the chance of saving the planet,” in part by challenging the growing climate justice movement to keep moving forward. Guardian columnist George Monbiot view was that “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.”

Those who are praise the Paris Climate Change agreement and those who point to its shortcomings live in almost entirely different worlds. One world is dominated by the protocols of international diplomacy, a world that couldn’t be farther removed from the places where the impacts of continuing climate chaos are felt the most. In that world, people are working harder year by year to grow food and sustain their lives in the face of an increasingly unstable global climate. They struggle through seasons of devastating floods, droughts and wildfires that become more intense every year. The groundwater in numerous small island nations is increasingly contaminated by saltwater from rising seas and some Arctic communities are literally collapsing into the melting permafrost.

The means for limiting average global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees are largely aspirational, and this is reflected in the agreement’s language throughout. Words like “clarity,” “transparency,” “integrity,” “consistency,” and “ambition” appear throughout the text, but there’s very little to assure that these aspirations can be realized. UN staff are to create all manner of global forums, working groups and expert panels to move the discussions forward but, as was clear prior to Paris, the main focus is to instill a kind of moral obligation to drive diplomats and their governments to take further steps. Article 15 of the agreement proposes a “mechanism to facilitate implementation and promote compliance,” but this takes the form of an internationally representative “expert-based” committee that is to be “transparent, non-adversarial and non-punitive.” This compliance “mechanism” is described in three short sentences in the main Agreement and another couple of paragraphs in the Adoption document; as predicted, there’s nothing to legally pressure intransigent countries or corporations to do much of anything. Paragraph 17 of the Adoption document admits that current national “contributions” fall considerably short of a 2 degree goal, much less 1.5 degrees and a later paragraph “invites” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to study the specific impacts of warming above 1.5 degrees. There is no explicit goal of “decarbonization”, even though it was part of the pre-Paris conversation for a time. Article 4 of the final agreement, however, stating that total emissions should peak “as soon as possible,” fall rapidly thereafter, and aim for a “balance” between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases sometime after 2050. This represents a substantive step back from the goal of decarbonization and echoes the IPCC’s 2014 policy report, which promoted highly speculative carbon capture technologies as a means to compensate for continued fossil fuel use. This approach also bolsters largely fraudulent carbon offset markets (see below) and could enable a host of outlandish geoengineering schemes that would only further destabilize the earth’s climate systems.

How climate mitigations in the global South will be financed was postponed once again to next year’s planned conference in Morocco, with the document “strongly urging” developed countries to fulfill Obama and Hillary Clinton’s 2009 Copenhagen promise of $100 billion per year in climate-related financing by 2020. By 2025, countries are to “set a new collective quantified goal from a floor of USD 100 billion per year,” but there’s a distinct lack of agreement about what actually counts as climate finance. Global South delegates insist that rich world is obligated to fund non-polluting energy developments in impoverished regions in order to help curtail their continued economic dependence on fossil fuels, but northern diplomats prefer to emphasize “public-private partnerships,” seek credit for existing aid and loan programs, and have proposed countless other loopholes. The documents are full of calls for new information-sharing platforms, but are virtually silent on how rich countries can ever be held to their implied financial commitments.

Even more disappointing was the language on “loss and damage,” i.e. how countries will be compensated for the continuing destruction of life-sustaining infrastructure in the face of accelerating warming. India’s Business Standard reported halfway through the Paris conference that the US had proposed to “recognize the importance of averting and minimizing loss and damage from climate change,” but only “on a cooperative [sic] basis that does not involve liability and compensation.” The final text (Article 8) is a bit more specific in describing those losses and damages, but paragraph 52 of the Adoption text states specifically that “Article 8 … does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”

On the Monday immediately following the Paris conference, the New York Times, “If nothing else, analysts and experts say, the accord is a signal to businesses and investors that the era of carbon reduction has arrived.” Indeed Peabody Energy reported a nearly 13 percent decline in its share value that week and a prominent solar stock index was up 4.5 percent. The Times predicted more bankruptcies in the coal sector and reminded readers of the public support for a carbon tax announced last spring by four leading European oil companies. Major coal-dependent utilities are diversifying into large solar projects and Ford is working to expand its fleet of electric cars. More than $3 trillion in financial assets have been divested from fossil fuels in just a few years. The recent congressional deal on taxes and spending included an unanticipated five-year extension of tax credits for solar and wind projects, and Bloomberg News predicted that this could spur a doubling of current US capacity. But energy markets are fickle and levels of renewable energy investment have fluctuated widely in recent years. The persistent decline in oil prices has helped shut down some of the most troubling new exploration efforts, such as in Alaska, but it also makes investments in renewables appear less favorable. While the expansion of renewable energy promises a boom in “green jobs” and may help facilitate the “just transition” alluded to in the Paris text, large renewable energy projects can be highly resource- and capital-intensive. For example, to meet the ambitious renewable energy goals proposed by Mark Jacobson and his research group at Stanford University would require some 1.7 billion new energy installations worldwide, from modest rooftop systems to massive solar and wind farms. While Jacobson and his colleagues have demonstrated the feasibility of meeting all current energy needs by mid-century with genuinely renewable energy (no nuclear, no biomass, no new mega-hydro), some questions remain as to both the environmental and economic feasibility of an expansion of renewables on that scale.

It appears that most new renewable capacity may still be adding to the total energy mix rather than replacing fossil fuels. A 2012 study suggested that just a quarter of non-fossil energy replaces fossil fuels, and only a tenth of non-fossil electricity; all the rest is simply adding more capacity to the system. When it comes to saving energy, corporations are still reluctant to commit significant capital; a study described in the New York Times concluded that most companies insist on a two-year payback for investments aimed to increase the energy efficiency of their operations. A pre-Paris discussion paper from San Francisco-based Eco-Equity reported that direct fossil fuel subsidies – roughly $775 billion worldwide in 2012 – equal the combined annual cost of a transition away from fossil fuels in developing countries plus the estimated need to fund adaptation, losses and damages from climate change. Clearly, it will require more than statements of ambitious climate goals to corral the overarching capitalist imperative to grow and expand, or even to rein in political pressures to keep diverting public funds to support fossil fuel corporations.

Faced with the disappointment of the Paris agreement, environmentalists must come to realise that the time has come to talk about people, not statistics. Climate change will not be until the question of who controls our future is resolved. The world will continue to wait for meaningful action by those in power. Our ruling class are in fact unable to alter their way of doing things even when they want to.  Some say the corporations will invest in the future (alternative energy) meanwhile others say corporations will hold on to the past (fossil fuels.) Ending capitalism and its over-riding priority of making profits is in fact our only hope and our only solution. The outcome of COP 21 reveals how the planet is subordinate to institutions of profit.

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