Is the Paris agreement a breakthrough in the struggle to limit the risks of climate change, as weary negotiators claim? Or is it just another way station on the road to calamity, as critics insist. At this stage it is neither. It is far more than the world could have reasonably expected a year or two ago. But it is also far less than the world needs.As it stands, it will at best slow the pace at which the world reaches a possible disaster. Whether it averts disaster depends partly on how the climate system works, on which much uncertainty remains.
But it also depends on what happens in the near future. Is the agreement the beginning of revolutions in policy, as well as the energy system? Or is it yet another piece of paper that promises far more than it delivers? The answer depends on what happens now.
The achievements of the negotiators, ably chaired by the French government, are far from nothing. They showed that it is possible to get the world’s countries to agree to action in response to a shared danger, even one that seems both remote and uncertain to many of those now living.
These agreed that all countries must participate in the effort. They agreed that the rich should help the poor meet their decarbonisation objectives. They also agreed on the goal of keeping global temperature rises well below 2C and even to “pursue efforts” to keep them below 1.5C
Yet these are, on the face of it, largely hollow achievements. The provision of needed finance is an aspiration, not a bankable commitment. No limits are to be imposed on emissions from aviation or shipping.
No mechanism is to be established for setting a global carbon price. Countries are above all committed only to communicate and maintain plans — described, in slippery language, as “nationally determined contributions”.
No sanctions will fall on any country that fails to live up to these intentions. Worse, the intentions themselves, even if implemented (on which much doubt must be expressed) fall far short of what is needed to deliver the 2C goal, let alone a lower one. Average global temperatures have risen by nearly 1C since the industrial revolution and limiting warming to 1.5C would require another revolution.
So why should an agreement that is not only toothless, but falls far short of what is needed to reduce the risks to manageable proportions, be taken seriously? One answer is that it forces each country into a process of peer review.
Every country will need to resubmit their plans every five years. Moreover, the reporting and monitoring system is to be more transparent and comprehensive than ever before. In particular, emerging and developing countries that now dominate emissions (China, above all) will be part of that system. In the end, it was decided, monitored aspirations would be more effective than any binding commitments that could (or, more probably, could not) be achieved.
Above all, with everybody committed to producing a plan (because everybody agrees the challenge is important), it will be far more difficult for any country to argue that failure to meet its promises does not matter.
(An FT Extract 2015)