“Real hope, if it is to arise at all, will do so from a bare assessment of the scale of the challenge we face.” - Professor Alice Bows-Larkin and Professor Kevin Anderson
Unlike in photographs, the colours of morality sharpen over time. Arguments reasoned in the past appear unthinkable today. The ethical confusion that reigned around issues such as slavery, suffrage or the acceptance of Jewish refugees, seems absurd in a modern light. Dissident and “radical” voices, marginalised at the time, become uncontroversial as years pass.
We look back at history, often in amazement at its blindspots: how could people think that way? How did they not realize?
We look back, often with certainty, confident that we have learnt the lessons and corrected our myopias. Yet the lessons are evasive. The ethical clarity afforded to the past rarely translates to the present. Our moral instincts persistently fail us.
The Paris Agreement has been widely lauded by politicians, media outlets and commentators as a milestone, a landmark, a major victory in the struggle to thwart extreme climate change. But it is worth scrutinising the triumphalism, and appraising what the agreement actually entails:
Temperature and Ambition
The largest source of praise for the Paris Agreement is its inscription of an aspiration to keep “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C” and “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”. But aspirations are of meagre worth without concrete steps to fulfill them. The agreement contains no binding obligations, numbers, policies, or standards, that outline a route to stay below 1.5°C, or 2°C for that matter.
A few days after the summit, UK Secretary of State Amber Rudd admitted of the 1.5°C goal: “how we will get there is going to be a challenge for us all.” She’s right. That’s because staying below 1.5°C requires drastic and deep emissions cuts starting years ago. Five years’ worth of current emissions exhausts the carbon budget for 1.5°C degrees.
Staying behind the 2°C guard rail is no easy feat either. The action pledges submitted by countries take us far above 3°C of warming, and actually taking the 2°C threshold seriously will require sharp emission reductions, that no high-emitting country is currently willing to contemplate. The European Union for example, would need to cut emissions by 80% by 2030.
These flagrant deficiencies make the agreement little more than a ruse of rhetoric, with perilous implications. As climate scientist Kevin Anderson noted,“[t]o the poor, climatically vulnerable…, typically non-white, living in the southern hemisphere, the current [Paris agreement] is somewhere between dangerous and deadly.”
The End of Fossil Fuels?
The agreement has also been extensively heralded as the “end of fossil fuels”, the “nail in the coffin” for the hydrocarbon era. But this is disingenuous. Here’s what the text actually says:
“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.”
The language is purposefully murky, but what it fundamentally translates to is that parties aim to reach what is known as “greenhouse gas neutrality” or “net-zero emissions”. This means balancing what we emit with what we remove from the atmosphere.
So countries will continue to emit in a decreased way, but what they emit will be compensated by “sinks of greenhouse gases” that will absorb emissions. Sinks can be natural (such as oceans or forests) or artificial (such as carbon capture and storage).
What governments are really banking on are artificial sinks, otherwise known as “negative emissions technologies”, that could actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere during the second half of this century.
The problem is that none of these technologies actually exist or work yet at the scale we need them to. Yet a reliance on these untested, inexistent techniques is implicitly embedded in the agreement, and in the scientific projections underpinning it.
In other words, we are allowing countries to exceed emissions targets and overshoot carbon budgets, hoping that future technologies will then clean up the mess they’ve made. Rather than accept the imperative of decarbonisation (reducing emissions to zero), we have instead furnished an arrangement that enables polluters to continue burning fossil fuels, and empowers governments to further procrastinate on addressing the root causes of climate change.
To illustrate the staggering absurdity of the situation, its worth examining one of the potential “negative emissions solutions”. The solution most courted by governments is BECCS (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage), a technique which doesn’t exist yet. BECCS involves planting and harvesting copious amounts of plant mass (such as trees or tall grasses), burning that biomass in power plants to convert it into fuel and energy, capturing the carbon released in the process, and then storing the carbon underground for millennia.
Deploying BECCS at the scale necessary to tackle climate change would require 500 million hectares of land, an area more than one and a half times the size of India. Assuming it’s even possible, there are significant indications that such an endeavour would severely threaten food security, the safety and land rights of people, biodiversity conservation, soil quality, and water availability.
This reckless methodological gamble is highly telling though. We clasp at false solutions and imagined breakthroughs, we move the goalposts, because we are simply not prepared to implement policies that drastically reduce our emissions now. We are so fearful of challenging the high-carbon status quo, of staring the sun in the eye, that we resort to wishful, techno-utopian thinking, with perfunctory regard for the potential consequences.
But unless the exigencies of science and justice genuinely displace the seductions of short-termist politics, then a viable solution is out of reach.
“Imperfection” as the Enemy of Good
There are gaping absences in the agreement. There are missing words: refugees, fossil fuels, agriculture, carbon budget. There are missing sectors, exempt from the accord: shipping, aviation, the military. There are missing commitments: duties to protect Indigenous rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, human rights.
And overall, the most glaring absence is a dimension of justice. Since the outset of UNFCCC negotiations, equity has been a bedrock of the process. The recognition of the disproportionate historical responsibility of rich countries for causing climate change, the necessary transfer of rights to emit from rich to poor countries, and the obligation of rich countries to provide financial resources to support poor nations in climate change mitigation (cutting emissions) and adaptation (coping with the effects of extreme weather), have been pillars of the international climate regime. But due to the efforts of the richest countries, the Paris Agreement weakens that very regime.
The framing of “historical responsibility” has been excised from the text, weakening the already tenuous obligations of the richest countries.
Climate finance is in a state of limbo. The petty $100bn rich countries have committed to providing each year from 2020 onwards is just 1.8% of the total subsidies fossil fuels received in 2015, according to a study by the International Monetary Fund. Climate finance is not a technicality; it is the money needed to weave safety nets for the poorest and most affected communities.
Other elements of justice are also ignored. When it comes to loss and damage (reparations for affected communities), a clause has been included to ensure that there is no “basis for any liability or compensation”; in other words, the most vulnerable countries have been stripped of their right to seek indemnification from the biggest polluters.
The deal also contains virtually no measures to ensure protection for current and future refugees, fleeing the furies of climate-fueled disaster, conflict and poverty. Given the context in Europe, with barbed walls erected and vicious xenophobia, it is shuddering to think what kind of ruthless politics might greet the refugees of the future, who will far outnumber those fleeing their homes today.
Across history, racial, gender, disability and economic justice movements have ceaselessly raised questions around human disposability: who sits where in the hierarchy of care? In the eye of politics, who has worth and who doesn’t? Whose voice is heard, and whose dismissed? Whose priorities are heeded, and whose downplayed?
If we want to decipher the justice of a decision, we have an obligation to listen first to the voices of those most affected by that decision. As Cornel West says, “the condition of truth is to let suffering speak”. Our stances should be grounded in the urgency of the afflicted.
The missing elements of the deal, crucial to the world’s most vulnerable people, have been interpreted by many officials, commentators and civil society groups as “imperfections” of a largely positive agreement. This “it’s not perfect but” approach, suggests that there are some legitimate concerns about the agreement, but that in the large scheme of things, they’re not what matters.
But whose considerations define what is vital and what isn’t? Political pragmatism for some is morally impermissible for others.
After the text of the Paris Agreement was released, Ethiopian activist Azeb Girmai described it as “the saddest day for all the poor people in the world facing loss and damage day-in and day-out.” A few hours later, in nearby halls, many delegates and observers watched Fabius’ gavel fall, and jumped in joy.
Our memory is short-lived. As time passes and the urgency of climate change becomes ever more apparent, we forget that widely-held expectations and demands around international negotiations have weakened.
This can be best understood by examining the architecture of the Paris agreement, which rests on a system of ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDCs). These are voluntary pledges with no basis in science or justice that are made individually by governments to cut emissions.
In 1991, during early negotiations around the initial UN Convention, a Pledge and Review agreement was proposed by Japan. It was swiftly dismissed, given a broadly held consensus that any agreement on climate change must firmly incorporate the historical responsibility of developed countries and contain legally binding obligations. As former Indian negotiator Chandrashekhar Dasgupta observed: “[A]n approach that was summarily rejected as inadequate at the outset of the climate change negotiations, is being hailed today as a great advance!”
Optimism is a potent, and often necessary, form of coping. It sutures our doubts, and eases our fears. In politics, it can allow us to exchange honesty for narrative, accountability for strategy.
People cannot live on gloom alone, and there is a undeniable role for shrewd optimism. But we cannot fail to recognise that many of the explanations for our inaction on climate change lie in our abject failure to confront the dimension of the issue. Twenty-five years on from the first report of the IPCC, we are still dangerously distant from a path to safety.
A month on from Paris, the honeymoon has ended. The ink has dried and the gushing rhetoric has quietened. Countries have returned to familiar habits. Purported climate leaders are struggling to meet their own deficient targets. New fossil fuel projects have been unveiled, and environmental programmes shelved.
Sometimes, the drafted epilogue trembles: “armed with the knowledge, we weren’t able to.”