The more things change, the more they stay the same. Many are hailing the Paris agreement on climate change as the most progressive global accord on emission control so far, just as the Kyoto Protocol was once hailed. But, chances are, it could deliver little—just like the Kyoto Protocol did. The Paris accord banks almost entirely on the intended nationally-determined contributions (INDCs) of nations to keep the rise in average global temperature by 2100 within 2oC, possibly even 1.5oC, from the pre-industrial world temperature. While it urges countries to set tougher emission-curb targets in 2020—and keep revising them every 5 years—it doesn’t make these actions mandatory nor does it retain a provision for enforcing stricter cuts. Various studies estimate that even with INDCs submitted so far fully met, the rise in global temperature is likely to touch or slightly exceed 3oC by the turn of the century.
It was clear from the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit that developed nations—particularly the US—would only agree to any concerted action on climate change if the yoke of “historical responsibility” put on them by the Kyoto Protocol was lifted. That would mean current emission levels would be the basis for apportioning responsibility to nations in the fight against global warming. Thus, developing nations, such as India and China, would have to struggle more to lift their vulnerable out of poverty as their current level of emissions put them on a par with developed nations. Thus, the unspoken agenda for the Paris negotiations was set long before the talks actually began—the developed world would need to be freed of its fair share of responsibility to act if, in return, it were to merely “consider” greater action against climate change. Even though the text of the agreement speaks of “common but differentiated” responsibilities, the developed nations have succeeded in shirking their historical responsibility by getting the accord to entirely junk the carbon budget agenda—dividing the remaining carbon space on the basis of historical emissions and current capacities—espoused by developing nations. Given the accord doesn’t place any responsibility on the developed world to assist adoption of low-emission technology by poor and developing nations, by easing transfer of intellectual property, the latter will be seriously limited in their bid control emissions, unless they focus on developing their own technologies—that will both involve considerable capital and eat into the time left to act.
There is some hope, though. The transparency clause in the agreement, mandatory for developed nations and optional for others, institutes periodic review of progress on the INDCs. But, with no punitive action prescribed for lapses, it amounts to only a “name and shame” policy. Also, as far as the financial burden of climate change action is concerned, while the accord reiterates the $100-billion-a-year commitment for developed nations towards funding climate change action in poor and developing nations, it doesn’t make this legally-binding. India alone, for instance, has said it will need $2.5 trillion to meet its INDC by 2030. A loss-and-damage provision for nations affected by climate change phenomenon has been included, but it holds up only as far as intent as there is no clear prescription for carrying out this provision. So, the non-binding agreement that the world now has on climate change action would seem revolutionary only as far as promises to act are concerned. The future depends on whether the rich meet, and exceed, their INDCs and future diplomacy has to work on getting more financial and technological help for the developing and poor nations. Plus ça change.