• The first half of December saw the annual meeting of the Conference of Parties of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, meeting this time in Paris.  The meeting was a diplomatic success, having reached agreement among nearly 200 countries on a new framework for dealing with climate change – the first agreement since the deeply flawed Kyoto Protocol of 1997, 18 years ago.  But as several commentators have already said, two cheers for Paris: it was a noteworthy diplomatic success, thanks in large part to skillful management by its French hosts, but in substance it falls far short of what many scientists – and even the conferees – believe to be necessary to keep changes in the earth’s climate within safe limits.  What then were the main features of the agreement? And what were its limitations or omissions?

    The first and most important feature is that it formally broadened coverage to all countries, from only the rich countries in the Kyoto Protocol.  The need to do this was evident to anyone who looked at the magnitudes of greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions by the rich countries have actually declined in recent years, thanks partly to policies but even more to economic recession and weak recovery in Europe, and to the substitution of cheap shale gas for coal in generating electricity in the United States.  In the meantime, emissions in China have continued to rise, and soon will exceed emissions by all the rich countries taken together.  India’s emissions have exceeded those of Japan for several years and are rising rapidly, as India’s impressive growth is fueled mainly by coal-using electricity.  The magnitudes make clear that climate change cannot be stopped or even slowed significantly without active action by developing countries, and at Paris these countries finally and formally accepted that responsibility.

    The second feature was the shift from mandatory negotiated national emission targets to voluntary non-negotiated emission targets, subject to reporting and revision – a “pledge and review” system as recommended by the Nobel-prize economist Thomas Schelling, on the basis of his experience with European economic cooperation under the Marshall Plan in the early 1950s.  Mandatory reports of emissions under common standards will be made by all countries, and targets will be reviewed and if appropriate revised every five years, as we gain more knowledge about climate change, and about the ease or difficulty of mitigating it.

    The third feature was some tightening of the declaratory objective of keeping the earth’s warming “well below” the 2 degrees above pre-industrial level set five years ago at Cancun, with efforts to keep it below 1.5 degrees.  This last is an aspirational target and, sadly, will be impossible to achieve, since by 2015 the earth had already warmed by one degree – although we might be able to return to it on the basis of some future technology to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, after initially overshooting it.  Achieving even 2 degrees will be a major challenge: the International Energy Agency estimated, on the basis of some assumptions to sharpen them, that the voluntary pledges made during 2015, if completely fulfilled, that the earth would warm by 2.7 degrees, well above 2 degrees.

    The agreement failed to include a number of items desired mainly by developing countries.  First, it represents inter-governmental agreement, but is not legally binding.   Many countries, including both China and the United States, would have objected to legally binding targets.  The United States faced a special problem: had it been legally binding, it would have been considered a treaty (or a protocol to a treaty) and would have required ratification by the US Senate by a two-thirds majority, something that the Obama Administration could not have achieved, partly on substantive grounds, but partly also on grounds that the Republican-dominated Senate does not want to award Barack Obama with a “victory.”  So the United States will issue the Paris accord on the authority of the President as an “Executive Agreement,” a statement of official US policy. This weaker route has the disadvantage that it could be abrogated by a subsequent president, although that is unlikely.  

    It also means that the pledge of an additional $100 billion by rich countries to help poor countries abate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change, annually by 2020, is also not legally binding. But it remains declaratory policy, to be satisfied through a variety of sources, public and private.  World Bank president Jim Yong Kim has already pledged that World Bank loans and grants to deal with climate change will double to $29 billion by 2020.  Other new sources will also undoubtedly be forthcoming, although they may not reach the $100 billion target, which is arbitrary and indeed is difficult to justify on substantive grounds unless climate change turns out to be much worse than expected during the next five years.

    Finally, the agreement includes no recognition by rich countries for liability for damages that poor countries might experience as a result of climate change in the coming years and decades, as desired by many developing countries.  Any such recognition would have created a nightmare of attribution: severe storms have existed for centuries, indeed millennia.  They will no doubt continue.  What part of them could be plausibly attributed to man-induced changes in climate?  But the agreement does promise support to vulnerable countries subject to severe storms, especially island countries.  Such help would undoubtedly be provided anyway as humanitarian assistance, as it has been in the recent past, without getting into difficult questions of attribution.

    In summary, the Paris agreement makes a major step forward in international cooperation on climate change; but it also leaves much to be done.


    Image Credit: John Giles/PA