The more seriously you take the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, the angrier you should be.
Negotiators from around the world gather in Paris this week to finalize an international climate change agreement, capping a years-long process on which hopes have been riding for global action to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. When those demanding U.S. action speak of the need to show “leadership” and foster international progress, they speak of building momentum toward Paris.
“This year, in Paris, has to be the year that the world finally reaches an agreement to protect the one planet that we’ve got while we still can,” said U.S. President Barack Obama on his recent trip to Alaska. Miguel Cañete, the EU’s chief negotiator, has warned there is “no Plan B — nothing to follow. This is not just ongoing UN discussions. Paris is final.”
But the more seriously you take the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, the angrier you should be about the plan for Paris. With so much political capital and so many legacies staked to achieving an “agreement” — any agreement — negotiators have opted to pursue one worth less than…well, certainly less than the cost of a two-week summit in a glamorous European capital.
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Climate talks are complex and opaque, operating with their own language and process, so it’s important to cut through the terminology and look at what is actually under discussion. Conventional wisdom holds that negotiators are hashing out a fair allocation of the deep emissions cuts all countries would need to make to limit warming. That image bears little resemblance to reality.
In fact, emissions reductions are barely on the table at all. Instead, the talks are rigged to ensure an agreement is reached regardless of how little action countries plan to take. The developing world, projected to account for four-fifths of all carbon-dioxide emissions this century, will earn applause for what amounts to a promise to stay on their pre-existing trajectory of emissions-intensive growth.
Here’s how the game works: The negotiating framework established at a 2014 conference in Lima, Peru, requires each country to submit a plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, called an “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC). Each submission is at the discretion of the individual country; there is no objective standard it must meet or emissions reduction it must achieve.
Beyond that, it’s nearly impossible even to evaluate or compare them. Developing countries actually blocked a requirement that the plans use a common format and metrics, so an INDC need not even mention emissions levels. Or a country can propose to reduce emissions off a self-defined “business-as-usual” trajectory, essentially deciding how much it wants to emit and then declaring it an “improvement” from the alternative. To prevent such submissions from being challenged, a group of developing countries led by China and India has rejected “any obligatory review mechanism for increasing individual efforts of developing countries.” And lest pressure nevertheless build on the intransigent, no developing country except Mexico submitted an INDC by the initial deadline of March 31 — and most either submitted no plan or submitted one only as the final September 30 cut-off approached.
After all this, the final submissions are not enforceable, and carry no consequences beyond “shame” for noncompliance — a fact bizarrely taken for granted by all involved.
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Perhaps not surprisingly, the submitted plans are even less impressive than the process that produced them. In aggregate, the promised emissions reductions will barely affect anticipated warming. A variety of inaccurate, apples-to-oranges comparisons have strained to show significant progress. But MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change calculates the improvement by century’s end to be only 0.2 degrees Celsius. Comparing projected emissions to the baseline established by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change back in 2000 shows no improvement at all.
The lack of progress becomes even more apparent at the country level. China, for its part, offered to reach peak carbon-dioxide emissions “around 2030” while reducing emissions per unit of GDP by 60-65 percent by that time from its 2005 level. But the U.S. government’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory had already predicted China’s emissions would peak around 2030 even without the climate plan. And a Bloomberg analysis found that China’s 60-65 percent target is less ambitious than the level it would reach by continuing with business as usual. All this came before the country admitted it was burning 17 percent more coal than previously estimated—an entire Germany worth of extra emissions each year.
India, meanwhile, managed to lower the bar even further, submitting a report with no promise of emissions ever peaking or declining and only a 33-35 percent reduction in emissions per unit of GDP over the 2005-2030 period. Given India’s recent rate of improving energy efficiency, this actually implies a slower rate of improvement over the next 15 years. In its INDC, India nevertheless estimates it will need $2.5 trillion in support to implement its unserious plan.
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And therein lies thesticking point on which negotiations actually center: “climate finance.” Climate finance is the term for wealth transferred from developed to developing nations based on a vague and shifting set of rationales including repayment of the “ecological debt” created by past emissions, “reparations” for natural disasters, and funding of renewable energy initiatives.
The issue will dominate the Paris talks. The INDCs covering actual emissions reductions are subjective, discretionary, and thus essentially unnegotiable. Not so the cash. Developing countries are expecting more than $100 billion in annual funds from this agreement or they will walk away. (For scale, that’s roughly equivalent to the entire OECD budget for foreign development assistance.)
Somehow, the international process for addressing climate change has become one where addressing climate change is optional and apparently beside the point. Rich countries are bidding against themselves to purchase the developing world’s signature on an agreement so they can declare victory — even though the agreement itself will be the only progress achieved.
An echo chamber of activist groups and media outlets stands ready to rubber-stamp the final agreement as “historic,” validating the vast reservoirs of political capital spent on the exercise. Already, the Chinese and Indian non-plans have been lauded as proof that the developing world is acting and the United States stands as the true obstacle. India won the remarkably inapt New York Times headline: “India Announces Plan to Lower Rate of Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” A formal agreement, notwithstanding its actual contents, will only amplify the demands that we do more ourselves—and, of course, that we contribute hundreds of billions of dollars along the way.
From a political perspective, perhaps this outcome represents “victory” for environmental activists launching their next fundraising campaign or for a president building his “legacy.” But it comes at the environment’s expense. A system of voluntary, unenforceable pledges relies on peer pressure for ambitious commitments and the “naming and shaming” of countries that drag their feet. In this context, true U.S. leadership and environmental activism require the condemnation of countries manipulating the process. Instead, the desperation to sign a piece of paper in Paris has taken precedence over an honest accounting. And once the paper is signed, any leverage or standing to demand actual change in the developing world will be weakened further.
Congressional Republicans, signaling they will not appropriate the taxpayer funds that a climate-finance deal might require, stand accused of trying to “derail” the talks. But opposing such a transfer of wealth to developing countries would seem a rather uncontroversial position. One can imagine how the polling might look on: “Should the United States fight climate change by giving billions of dollars per year to countries that make no binding commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions?” Certainly, President Obama has made no effort to even inform his constituents that such an arrangement is central to his climate agenda, let alone argue forcefully in favor of it.
The climate negotiators have no clothes. If making that observation and refusing to go along causes some embarrassment, those parading around naked have only themselves to blame.