Monday, December 14, 2015

Paris Agreement is laudable but alarming vague in its language

The so-called Paris Agreement, the enduring achievement and payback from the recent COP21 Paris climate change conference, is indeed a significant and ground-breaking document, as 195 countries make a commitment to take urgent and concrete measures to reduce carbon emissions. But, when you read some of the main summarizing points, you realize that much of it is couched in alarmingly vague and non-specific language.
On global temperature increases: “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below two degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”
The inclusion of an aspirational target of 1.5°C global temperature increase over pre-industrial levels is to be welcomed (the difference between 2°C and 1.5°C might seem small, but its potential repercussions could be huge), and in large part a testament to the work of the Alliance of Small Island States, but it remains aspirational and non-binding. Even if the 2°C target can be said to be binding, it does not provide any hard targets for the greenhouse gas reductions needed to achieve such a feat. Couching targets in terms of long-term temperature change (which I admit is, after all, the ultimate goal) seems to me a rather nebulous and uncertain way of achieving measurable concrete change in the short term.
On the preservation of forests: “Parties are encouraged to take action to implement and support, including through results-based payments, the existing framework as set out in related guidance and decisions already agreed under the Convention for: policy approaches and positive incentives for activities relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries; and alternative policy approaches, such as joint mitigation and adaptation approaches for the integral and sustainable management of forests, while reaffirming the importance of incentivizing, as appropriate, non-carbon benefits associated with such approaches.”
Also a welcome addition, prioritizing reforestation and discouraging deforestation by means of financial incentives has finally been recognized as an important plank of the overall edifice of GHG reduction. I actually don't know what the "existing framework" mandates, but I sincerely hope that it is specific and prescriptive enough to be of immediate practical use.
On subsidies for developing countries: “As part of a global effort, developed country Parties should continue to take the lead in mobilizing climate finance from a wide variety of sources, instruments and channels, noting the significant role of public funds, through a variety of actions, including supporting country-driven strategies, and taking into account the needs and priorities of developing country Parties. Such mobilization of climate finance should represent a progression beyond previous efforts.”
Again, all good and laudable, but the hard figure of $100 billion a year in contributions from developed countries to the carbon reduction efforts of developing countries was only mentioned in the preamble to the agreement, and so is not legally binding. Neither is it made clear how much each country needs to contribute in order to achieve even that aspirational target.
On transparency and trust: “In order to build mutual trust and confidence and to promote effective implementation, an enhanced transparency framework for action and support, with built-in flexibility which takes into account Parties’ different capacities and builds upon collective experience is hereby established.”
This is taken to refer to the establishment of a single system of progress evaluation for all countries, large and small, an important consideration in the building of trust between so many countries with conflicting agendas and priorities. But, once again, the language seems really very vague.
On peak emissions: “In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.”
This seems like a classic of diplomatic cautiousness, including as it does woolly and contextualized phrases like "as soon as possible", "in accordance with best available science", "on the basis of", "in the context of", etc. What is needed is a much more specific commitment, with definitive target dates. What we are actually left with is a tacit agreement that the fossil fuel industry can continue to pump out emissions for many years to come, with little or no checks other than what individual country governments choose to impose.
On averting climate-related loss and damage: “Parties recognize the importance of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including extreme weather events and slow onset events, and the role of sustainable development in reducing the risk of loss and damage.”
While officially admitting for the first time that climate change will lead to financial loss and physical damage (particularly in the more vulnerable small island states), this clause only calls on the world to "recognize the importance" of such outcomes, and not to accept liability and provide recompense.
On progress reviews: “Each Party shall communicate a nationally determined contribution every five years in accordance with decision 1/CP.21 and any relevant decisions of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement and be informed by the outcomes of the global stocktake referred to in Article 14.”
This clause calls for reporting and evaluation of progress on emissions targets every 5 years, and represents an improvement on what some countries were calling for. It could probably not practicably be improved upon.

So, on the whole, the Agreement has to be seen as a triumph in environmental and international relations terms. But it also serves to illustrate just how far we still need to go, and just how carefully such accords need to tread around national egos and sensibilities in order not to break down completely. The careful, and often lamentably imprecise, language epitomizes this need.
In the absence of legally binding commitments and punitive for transgressions, the accord essentially relies on international peer pressure and domestic public opinion. And we know from the abject failure of 1997's Kyoto Accord, when countries made bold promises and then promptly ignored them, that some countries (and some domestic publics) just don't really care about those things, Canada under the Harper government being one of the most egregious examples.

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