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Paris climate summit: Any deal reached on carbon emissions simply won’t be good enough

Kevin Rafferty says despite high expectations, whatever the final outcome of the UN conference, it is unlikely to be sufficient to stop dangerous global warming

There is good news and bad news from the circus of world leaders meeting in Paris for the next two weeks to try to save the planet and all of us on it from rising temperatures that will make life on earth unbearable.

The good news is that there is increasing hot air about a global agreement to reduce carbon emissions to try to slow global warming. The bad news is that any deal will not be enough.

The world is still divided into squabbling, often bitterly nationalistic countries, whose immediate or short-term interests are opposed to any global ideals

It is not merely a question of too little, too late: there are substantial unresolved scientific, economic, political and moral issues at stake, which require a global solution, but the world is still divided into squabbling, often bitterly nationalistic countries, whose immediate or short-term interests are opposed to any global ideals.

The meeting is starting on Monday in Paris [2]. Finally, except in US Republican circles, which are trying to silence scientists from scaring people with hard facts, the message is getting through that the world can’t go on living if we chuck carbon dio­xide and other pollutants into the atmosphere.

This year will be the hottest on record, according to the World Meteorological Organisation, and the world is on course to reach the significant milestone of 1 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial era.

In spite of the gloom, some scientists optimistically believe that “Science Superman” will ride to the rescue in the nick of time. Rapid development of electric cars could transform transport by replacing polluting cars, lorries and buses with clean green energy.

The cost of renewable energies, like solar power, is coming down, giving hope that in the foreseeable future, renewable non-polluting energy may replace the power plants that spew poison into the atmosphere. If transport and energy production go green, surely there is hope for humanity!?

The world’s governments have finally woken up to the dangers and opportunities of climate change. More than 180 of the 196 parties which have gathered in Paris, representing 97.8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, have submitted pledges to reduce their carbon emissions, known as the “intended nationally determined contributions”, or INDCs.

“Green Planet” has become a buzz phrase. Big Western, Chinese and Japanese companies are salivating at the prospect of US$90 trillion in energy infrastructure business over the next 15 years. Optimists assert that if leaders in Paris signal they are serious about a green earth, business will deliver.

Such is the momentum that Timmons Roberts of the Brookings Institution declared that “2015 has been an unexpectedly positive year for climate change efforts, as the long-floundering UN process has finally begun to deliver some of what is needed”.

Roberts conceded that it’s not enough: “What do the INDCs add up to? Not enough reductions, unfortunately.” The world is still headed to 3.5 degrees Celsius, 3.1 degrees, or 2.7 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels, “depending on the assumptions one uses in projections”, he said.

INDCs are indicators, not binding. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has ruled out any agreement signed and sealed, knowing that a formal deal would have to be passed in the US Senate, where the Republicans would kill it. Still to be resolved is who will pay for cuts in developing countries’ emissions. With 45,000 delegates, lobbyists, media and other hangers-on in Paris, any agreement will be a baby step forward.

The US could and should be named and shamed for acting with no thought for the consequences of its selfishness, especially on poor and vulnerable countries.

So should other major polluters. China recently revealed that it was burning 17 per cent more coal than previously disclosed. The increase in carbon dioxide involved is more than Germany’s annual emissions from fossil fuels. It was also unhealthily appropriate that, on the eve of the Paris talks, Beijing issued a warning of high smog levels.

India, third in carbon dioxide emissions with 2.4 billion tonnes (behind China and the US), is on track to be at least the second biggest emitter by 2030 or even the biggest without dramatic measures.

The Paris pledges are in terms of emissions per unit of gross domestic product growth, so a rapidly growing country could meet its pledges and still increase total emissions.

India has been aggressive in what chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian calls resistance to “the West’s carbon imperialism”. This accuses the West of hypocrisy in pumping mega tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the past 250 years to put the planet at risk, and then trying to handicap today’s rapidly developing countries because of their heavy reliance on coal.

Chinese and Indians would be dicing with disaster for themselves and the planet if they ape wasteful Western ways, even if they don’t go the greedy hog into meat diets, with meat requiring far more resources to produce than vegetables.

Chinese and Indians would be dicing with disaster for themselves and for the planet if they ape wasteful Western ways

Let’s not forget a dishonourable mention for Japan, which pledged 1.3 trillion yen (HK$82 billion) a year to help developing countries fight global warming (and help its own companies to good business). Environment minister Tamayo Marukawa last week declared that coal technology exports “remain a priority” for Japan: surely she understands that clean coal is an oxymoron.

Maverick economist Bjorn Lomborg suggests that all the huffing and puffing in Paris is indeed a lot of hot air. If all the INDC promises are fully met by 2030 and then extended for 70 years, he claims, “the entirety of the Paris promises will reduce global temperatures by just 0.17 degrees Celsius”. Lomborg advocates pouring money into renewable energy, though it is doubtful whether it will yield big enough benefits worldwide before it is too late.

Many scientists have cast doubt on optimistic computer models suggesting that the temperature rise can be restricted to 2 degrees. Some claim that the only way to go is massive geoengineering, such as mirrors to deflect the sun or other large-scale interventions in the earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change. But such measures could be costly and might set off dangerous chain reactions.

The problem is that greenhouses gases are already swirling in the atmosphere. Temperatures a couple of degrees higher may not seem much, and have led to warped jokes about Greenland as the world’s farming leader and permanent sun tans for the rest of humanity.

Even a 2-degree temperature increase will trigger rising sea levels, engulfing Pacific island countries and invading Bangladesh and cities like Miami, New York, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Mumbai. Deserts will grow and millions of hectares of fertile farmland will disappear.

One basic problem that Paris exemplifies is that we are one earth, and damage to a small corner of the planet comes to haunt us all, but leadership is narrow, national and selfish. Another is that the much revered market solution does not come with any guarantees about caring for our common home.

The biggest problem for the broken leadership of the earth is that the time for action was the day before yesterday, but the way that leaders are talking, they might reach a workable agreement the day after the tomorrow that never comes.

Kevin Rafferty is a journalist and commentator, former professor at Osaka University, and author of a briefing book for delegates at the 2008 UN climate change conference in Poznan


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