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Analysis: Paris Climate Accord Lacks Legal Commitment

Former Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the United Nations

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA, Dec 23 2015 (IPS) - Over 195 countries gathered in Paris and agreed on a set of broad measures to address the looming threat to human existence of global warming and climate change. A beaming UN Secretary-General, for whom climate change has been “one of the defining priorities of his tenure”, described the Paris Accord as heralding a generation with climate hope and a “monumental triumph for people and the planet”.

The French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, who Chaired COP21, with emotion written all over his face, gaveled the meeting closed. The global web movement Avaaz, described the Paris Accord as a “brilliant and massive turning point in human history”. The 79 member Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Countries group (ACP), most with relatively small economies, enthusiastically welcomed the accord.

In Paris, the international community agreed, by consensus, to curtail GHG emissions and limit global warming to 2 degrees celsius by 2050, with an aspirational target of 1.5 celsius. Importantly, 188 countries pledged to implement measures unilaterally to realise this goal. They have submitted the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) to the Climate Change Secretariat, to be reviewed every five years.

There is also a commitment to provide $100 billion to developing countries by 2020 for adaptation and mitigation and at least that amount afterwards. The most vulnerable countries will receive over $250 million. Some opine that, if sincerely operationalised, the Paris Accord will have the potential for decarbonising the world economy by the middle of the current century.

The Paris Agreement will be open for signature at the UN in New York from 22 April 2016 and will enter in to force upon ratification/accession by 55 countries that account for at least 55% of the global emissions.

While the exhausted negotiators left for their distant homes, after much backslapping, hugs and teary farewells, some doubts continue to remain on whether humanity has really succeeded in meeting this overwhelming challenge to its very existence.

Even with the INDCs faithfully implemented, global temperatures will continue to rise at least till 2030. Comprehensive changes to human economic activity are essential to achieve the target of limiting global warming by at least 2c by 2050.

Past experience does not engender too much confidence in this regard. The Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, concluded by consensus in 1997, was also welcomed with joyous acclaim.

But the US, the biggest emitter of GHGs at the time, having actively participated in the negotiations, signed, but never became party to, the accord. A new administration in Washington ensured that the US would not only not become party but would stridently oppose the Kyoto Protocol.

While the US, now the second biggest emitter of GHGs, played a central role in consensus building in Paris, President Obama’s tenure as president will end in 2016. The Republican Party which has not thrown its weight behind the need to control emission levels, continues to control Congress. Republican presidential hopefuls are anything but sympathetic to limiting GHG emissions. The US policy approach to climate change would provide the excuse for many others to dither.

Canada which also participated enthusiastically in the Kyoto negotiations, formally denounced the Protocol in 2011 largely due to its inability to fulfil its commitments. Australia, another key player in Kyoto, is a major exporter of coal and gas. As to whether countries such as Australia and Canada have the economic ability and the political will to change their fossil fuel export dependent economies will remain a question.

Similarly, harmful industrial agricultural practices, especially large scale animal farming, may present difficult hurdles. Subsidised exports of fossil fuel consuming power plants by developed countries such as Germany, will tie up developing countries to years of fossil fuel use.

Similarly the fast growing economies of China and India which have only recently dragged millions of their people out of poverty, largely through the use of fossil fuels, may face huge challenges domestically in any effort to curtail GHG emissions.

About 60% of GHGs emanate from just five countries, the USA, China, India, Russia and Japan. The EU is responsible for 12% of global emissions. The above countries and the EU can on their own make a significant contribution to decarbonising the world economy.

Furthermore, the Paris Accord contains no legal commitment to curtail emissions in accordance with the INDCs. It requires parties only to meet every five years to review progress. This process could be subject to different pressures, especially from domestic industry.

While some developing countries may be capable of realising the INDCs on their own, many will need funding and climate safe technology to achieve the transition. Much of the climate safe technology is already available although at a high cost.

Developed countries agreed to provide US 100 billion to developing countries till 2020. This figure refers only to funds made available through public sources, although where exactly the full amount will come from is not exactly clear.

The World Bank estimates the funding requirement to facilitate the transition to low carbon and climate resilient economies by developing countries to be in the trillions of Dollars. For its part, it will increase the proportion of funds available to 28% of its portfolio. The Bank hopes that once financing from partners and associated private sector funders are included, the grand total available would be a potential $29 billion per year by 2020.

The World Bank will use the INDCs to develop country specific programmes for its client countries. The US has pledged $800 million. What has been offered still falls far short of the $100 billion that has been agreed to be made available by 2020.

The rapidity with which the developed world produced trillions to rescue the staggering banking system after the financial crisis prompted the present High Commissioner For Human Rights, and the then Permanent Representative of Jordan to the UN, Prince Zeid, to suggest that the climate crisis be described as a banking crisis.

An insurance mechanism for loss and damage and population displacement, relocation, etc., is recognised in the accord but may not be adequate to deal with the emerging crisis. Vast population displacements and climate refugees could be a consequence of global warming. Some writers have alluded to the possibility of Europe’s present refugee crisis, at least partly, having its roots in climate change.

The Paris Accord does not refer to “new and additional funding”, leaving room for official development assistance to be mixed up with climate assistance. Already private sector lending is being counted by some countries as development assistance. Efforts to hold historic polluters responsible for the current crisis have been effectively quashed.

One recalls the abortive effort by Palau and Trinidad and Tobago to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on responsibility for global warming. Funding for the Sustainable Development Goals, despite the Addis Ababa Accord on funding for development, will remain a competing challenge. With climate change adding to the burden, some needs will miss out.

One bright spot might be the encouragement that the renewable energy industry will receive from the Paris outcomes. China, today’s leading emitter of GHGs, with a long term policy approach guiding its industry, is investing heavily on renewable energy in an apparently targeted manner. This has resulted in specific industrial sectors, such as the manufacture of solar panels and wind turbines, booming. The environment will benefit.

Given the complexity of the problem of climate change, the enormous estimated cost of addressing it comprehensively and the inevitable resistance from vested interests, consideration should be given by governments to approaching the challenge through key economic sectors, including power generation, motor transport, railways, etc.


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  • Asteroid Miner

    Fee and dividend is not a tax. As recommended by the scientists, 100% of the fee on fossil fuels would be returned equally divided to 100% of the US citizens + up to 2 children per family. The government would keep zero dollars and citizens would have the money to pay the higher energy cost. Citizens who use little energy would get back more than their own extra price for energy and citizens who use a lot of energy would not get back as much as the extra they would pay for energy. There would be an incentive to use less energy.

    The problem enters when politicians do not follow this formula.

    “Fee and 100% Dividend” works better than “Cap and Trade” or a tax because:

    1. The people who make less than $250,000/year benefit from Fee and 100% Dividend. People who make more than $250,000/year benefit from Cap and Trade.

    2. Cap and Trade is a FLOOR rather than a CEILING. The cap will never be lowered to zero.

    3. Tax will be limited to a value too low to put an end to coal.

  • Asteroid Miner

    Renewable Energy mandates cause more CO2 to be produced, not less, and renewable energy doubles or quadruples your electric bill. The reasons are as follows:

    Since solar “works” 15% of the time and wind “works” 20% of the time, we need either energy storage technology we don’t have or ambient temperature superconductors and we don’t have them either. Wind and solar are so intermittent that electric companies are forced to build new generator capacity that can load-follow very fast, and that means natural gas fired gas turbines. The gas turbines have to be kept spinning at full speed all the time to ramp up quickly enough. The result is that wind and solar not only double your electric bill, wind and solar also cause MORE CO2 to be produced.

    We do not have battery or energy storage technology that could smooth out wind and solar at a price that would be possible to do. The energy storage would “cost” in the neighborhood of a QUADRILLION dollars for the US. That is an imaginary price because we could not get the materials to do it if we had that much money.

    The only real way to reduce CO2 production from electricity generation is to replace all fossil fueled power plants with the newest available generation of nuclear. Nuclear can load-follow fast enough as long as wind and solar power are not connected to the grid.

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