Explained: Why Paris Agreement can’t secure the world from climate change

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Updated: December 05, 2018 6:48 AM

These words were spoken nearly 100 years ago by the then US president Woodrow Wilson to describe his vision of a new world order after the first World War.

The assumption is that countries will enhance their targets over a period of time and their collective action would add up and cap the temperature increase well within 2.0°C

By Chandra Bhushan
Deputy director general of Centre of Science and Environment. Twitter: Bh_Chandra

If we do not know our age, we cannot accomplish our purpose, and this age is an age which looks forward, not backward; which rejects the standards of national selfishness that once governed the counsels of nations and demands that they shall give way to a new order of things in which the only questions will be: Is it right? Is it just? Is it in the interest of mankind”?

These words were spoken nearly 100 years ago by the then US president Woodrow Wilson to describe his vision of a new world order after the first World War. For 300 years before the first World War, European nations based their foreign policy on the principle of Raison d’état, a principle that justified the use of all kinds of immoral means to further the well-being of the state. Raison d’état was used to support colonialism, slavery and endemic wars between the European powers. Wilson rejected Raison d’état and advocated that the behaviour of states in international affairs be based on “the same high code of honour that we demand of individuals”. He proposed an international order based on “collective security” and “moral convictions” of states. Though Wilson’s ideals were rejected by his own country then, a quarter of a century later, these ideals led to the formation of the United Nations and established a new world order in which we live today. This world order is once again being threatened by the narrow self-interest of countries. The threat is most profound in the area of climate change.

The world is reeling under the effects of climate disasters. From Kerala to California, extreme weather events are killing people and destroying properties and livelihoods. This, when the global temperature has only increased by 1.0°C from pre-industrial levels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C makes it clear that the impacts are going to be substantially higher at 1.5°C warming and catastrophic at 2.0°C. Yet, a recent report by the UN Environment, Emissions Gap Report 2018, shows that the commitments made by all countries to cut emissions under the Paris Agreement is just not sufficient to keep the temperature increase to below 2.0°C. In fact, the world is on a trajectory to hit a warming of 3.0-3.2°C by the end of the century.

The worst part is that most countries, including the US and the European Union, are not even on track to meet their meagre commitments. So, why is it that three years after the “historic” Paris Agreement was signed, the collective efforts of countries to fight climate change is in tatters? To understand this, one has to examine the Paris Agreement, as the seeds of its failure lies in its own architecture.

The Paris Agreement is a voluntary agreement in which countries are free to choose their own climate targets, called nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Countries are also supposed to self-differentiate their NDCs based on their responsibility of causing climate change and their capability to contain it. Hence, developed countries and rich developing countries are expected to take up higher emission reduction targets than poor developing countries.
But if a rich country doesn’t commit to a higher emissions cut, no one can ask questions or demand a revision of targets. Worse, if a country fails to meet its NDCs, there is no penalty. The only obligation is that countries have to submit reports about the actions they are taking to meet their NDCs. The Paris Agreement is, therefore, based on the goodwill of countries. The assumption is that countries will enhance their targets over a period of time and their collective action would add up and cap the temperature increase well within 2.0°C

Herein lies the mismatch. Since the beginning, climate change negotiations have been viewed by most countries as an economic negotiation and not as an environmental negotiation. So, instead of cooperation, competition is the foundation of these negotiations. Worst still, the negotiations are viewed as a zero-sum game. For instance, Donald Trump believes that reducing emissions will hurt the US economy and benefit China, so he has walked out of the Paris Agreement. China, too, believes in this viewpoint, and despite being the world’s largest polluter today, it has not yet committed to any absolute emissions cut.

The fact is every country is looking out for its own narrow interest and not the larger interest of the whole world. They, therefore, are committing to as little climate targets as possible. This is the Achilles heel of the Paris Agreement. This is the reason why the Paris Agreement will not be able meet its own goal of limiting global warming below 2°C and pursuing efforts towards 1.5°C.

Today, we need to realise that, in a rapidly warming world, the interest of countries and the interest of the world are two sides of the same coin. Thirty years ago, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was being negotiated, we lived in a very different world—where economic growth was intrinsically linked to fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions. Countries had to increase emissions to grow and therefore there was a competition between the developed and the developing countries to divide the remaining carbon budget. But this argument is no longer valid today. In a large number of sectors, including the most important electricity sector, economic growth and emission reduction can go hand-in-hand. This is because the costs of technologies such as renewable energy, batteries, super-efficient appliances and smart grids are falling so rapidly that they are already competitive or will become competitive very soon with fossil fuel technologies. So, the reason for countries to compete with each other for carbon budgeting is becoming immaterial with every passing day. If countries cooperate, the cost of low- and no-carbon technologies can be reduced at a much faster pace, which will benefit everyone.

Scientists are warning us that the window of opportunity to limit warming to 1.5°C is fast closing. Rapid and deep reductions in emissions are required over the next 15-20 years to keep the world safe. This demands that countries rise above their narrow self-interest and work together to reduce emissions and support each other to adapt and cope with climate impacts.

At the 24th Conference of Parties (COP24) to the UNFCCC, which is currently taking place in Katowice, Poland, to create the rulebook to operationalise the Paris Agreement, the negotiators must remember the Wilsonian dictum: “If we do not know our age, we cannot accomplish our purpose”. They must also keep asking themselves: “Is it right”? “Is it just”? “Is it in the interest of mankind”? If they bring these moral values on the table, they will be able to deliver a rulebook that will keep the world safe. Otherwise, we risk everything that we cherish.

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