Less than two months away, 200 governments will join the U.N. Paris talks where an international agreement might be reached seeking to limit the amount of greenhouse gas emissions for each country. The goal is to eventually level emissions significantly relative to 1990 levels for developed countries and cap emissions as soon as possible for developing countries like India and China. Each country, however, wants to get the best deal and many critics are weary that we’re simply heading for another Copenhagen bust like six years ago, or worst even – another Kyoto which failed miserably.
The U.N. summit will take place between November 30 and December 12. Here, many cherish hope that the world will finally bind together and set forth realistic targets aimed to steer the climate away from a potentially catastrophic 2 degrees Celsius warming past industrial age levels. In the run-up to Paris, the U.N. has asked each individual government to submit pledges detailing how they plan to restructure their energy mix and cut emissions one way or the other. These pledges are known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs, and cover an action plan for 2020 (when the agreement should start to apply) to 2030. That’s already a decade – far too little (and too late, possibly) for any significant contribution to curbing global warming being made, some critics voice. “It is clear that if the Paris meeting locks in present climate commitments for 2030, holding warming below 2 degrees could essentially become infeasible,” Bill Hare of Climate Analytics, a think tank, said during preliminary negotiations held in Bonn, Germany, earlier.
Almost all countries who have expressed their willingness to participate at the talks have submit pledges, including the world’s largest emitters – China and the U.S. China vowed to peak its emissions, the highest in the world in absolute numbers and on a rapid growth trend for the past decade, around 2030. It also promises to increase its forest cover substantially to absorb more CO2 and reduce emissions per unit of GDP by 60 to 65 percent. The U.S. pledge to cut its emissions by up to 28 percent between 2005 and 2025. The world’s third largest emitter, the European Union, is already locked in a separate in-house agreement destined to reduce emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
Brazil says it will cut emissions by 37% by 2025 from 2005 levels by reducing deforestation and boosting the share of renewable sources in its energy mix. It also indicated an “intended reduction” of 43% by 2030. Indonesia, one of the world’s biggest carbon polluters, said it would cut greenhouse gas emissions 29% by 2030, but only if it received financial and technological support from industrialised countries worth $6 billion. India, a country where 500 million people lack access to electricity and basic sanitation, pledged it would reduce its emissions relative to its GDP between 33 and 35% by 2030 relative to 2005. India will still continue to emit more CO2 in absolute numbers, but since it has a double responsibility – providing basic services to its citizens and reducing carbon emissions – its pledge sound acceptable.
The ambitions of the U.N. fall short of its stated goal
The goals are noble, but far from ambitious though. Brazil already achieved significant emissions cuts in the past decade primarily because of efforts to reduce deforestation in the Amazon. The E.U. is more than half way there, same for the United States. Then there’s the issue of enforcing any deal that might be locked at Paris. Namely, there is no enforcing mechanism. Yes, a commission will review progress each government made every five years, but if the targets aren’t made there won’t be so much as a public scorn. Some feel the absence of a legal punitive measure is a big flaw which will stand in the way of these targets being made. Each country will go on with business as usual and Paris won’t be anything but fluff talk. Of course, everyone will reduce emissions eventually but not because of Paris, but rather out of economic reasons. Pollution and emission cost money in terms of public health and in many areas it makes economic sense to install solar or wind farms instead of fossil fuel-based power systems.
A solution might be instating a International Climate Justice Tribunal, as proposed by Bolivia. Countries that break their commitments would be penalized with international sanctions, analogous to the ones imposed by international trade courts. Such climate shepherds aren’t on the table in Paris, though. Prof David MacKay of University of Cambridge says there’s another inherent flaw to the Paris framework. Each country made its INDC by only looking inside and not outside. MacKay says:
“The science of cooperation predicts that if all you are doing is naming individual contributions – offers that aren’t coupled to each other – then you’ll end up with a relatively poor outcome.”
“We have the history of the Kyoto agreement as an example of this. Initially, the approach was to find a common commitment, but eventually it descended into a patchwork of individual commitments… and that led to very weak commitments and several countries leaving the process.”
“If you make a treaty that is based on reciprocity, so ‘I will, if you will’ and ‘I won’t, if you won’t’, then you can end up in a very different position,” explained Prof MacKay.
“If people make a common commitment that they will match what others do, then it becomes in your self interest to advocate a high level of action because it will apply not only to you but also to others.”
Indeed, an internationally binding carbon cap-and-trade scheme – systems that let companies buy and sell the right to pollute – sounds like one of the best solution, only if countries could agree to it. A federal level cap-and-trade emission scheme is impossible today in the U.S., for instance, where Congress would refuse to pass such a law. Instead, cap-and-trade emissions are applied locally and by federal agencies, without legislation. But the global market is growing, even though these are dispersed and don’t follow a common framework. Japan, South Korea, dozens of U.S. states and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec will soon have their own carbon trading scheme. Worldwide, carbon markets reached $34 billion in volume last year, up $2 billion from the year before, according to the World Bank.
“We see a carbon price as a mechanism for driving innovation,” Glen Murray, Ontario’s environment minister, told a conference on emissions trading in New York in September. “We now have a critical mass of governments. We’ve passed the tipping point.”
“While emissions trading was for some time only a European thing, times have changed, and we have an increasing number of national and regional schemes,” saidIngo Ramming, the London-based co-head of commodity solutions at Commerzbank AG. “We believe that this trend will continue, carbon pricing and emissions trading will play an increasingly important role.”
At Paris, though, governments won’t discuss any legally binding agreement, as overseen by an international court, nor will there be any international cap-and-trade system. Instead, the compromise each government makes is set to a minimum or, at most, moderately ambitious. Basically, the U.N. is trying to maximize the chance counties accept to reduce their emissions, but in doing so promotes emission targets that are not sufficient to reach the stated goal (less than 2 degrees C warming). Nobody imagines global politics at this level is easy, but let’s just hope something good will come out of it.