Ambitious Realism at the Paris Climate Talks

On the morning of 12th December, President of COP21 and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius delivered a passionate speech preceding the release of the final draft of the Paris Agreement. He spoke of the need to recognise how “collective efforts are more than the sum of our individual actions”, that if nations failed to agree, “our children would neither understand nor forgive us”, and that the negotiations had produced an “ambitious and balanced” agreement that recognised the notion of climate justice.

The speech vacillated between a narrative about balancing the conflicting interests of various states, and an intensely emotional and aspirational rhetoric about the urgency of addressing climate change. To the average observer, it may have come across as hollow and distant – where and how exactly do the urgent climate concerns of everyday citizens feature at the negotiating table?

In the first instance, the discourse emerging from the conference and directed at it are diametrically opposite. The expressions of optimism and triumphalism by Nation States towards a conference labelled as “doomed to succeed” are in contrast with the continued pessimism by citizens about a weak agreement, a feeling exacerbated by a broader social negativity towards States and neoliberal corporations.

This is precisely because the public delineates national interests from the urgency narrative, while State-actors modulate their understanding of climate change urgency through national interests. Recognising the different cognitive starting points sheds light on the complex interplay between the two values that fuel the politics of climate change, and leads us to think more critically about why our assessments of the climate change pact tends toward extremes.

The (Relative) Good: Temperature Targets Will Bring Paradigm Shift

The most eye-catching outcome from Paris was the stated target of keeping global average temperature “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C” (Article 2), achieved through aiming to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible…to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removal of sinks of greenhouse gases” (Article 4).

Stating the ambition of net zero emissions in a roundabout fashion and without a specific operational timeline is in fact a partial concession to the interests of countries such as Saudi Arabia, where the stricter limits would reduce demand for oil, or fossil-fuel reliant China where economic growth would be hampered. As much as we are critical of this from an urgency standpoint, it does balance national interests well.

More importantly, analysis of the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) submitted at the conference demonstrate that the global temperature increase may only be held at 2.7 °C above pre-industrial levels given the current commitments. Further research conducted by the LSE has called into question the policy credibility of the INDCs. National contributions will need to be scaled-up significantly to achieve the stated temperature targets. This question of operationalizing stated goals is critical, and the agreement only partly addresses this by calling for “high-level-champions” to facilitate dialogue in scaling up ambitions between now and 2020.

Doubts aside, UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon stated at the end of the conference that “markets now have the signal to unleash the full force of human ingenuity and scale up their investments.” This is perhaps the greatest contribution of the Paris conference to addressing climate change. Recognising that we live in a world where policy initiatives alone are insufficient to address our complex challenges, it is the private actors that have to take up the charge of making the paradigm shift to a green economy.

From right at the top of the hierarchy, a number of influential business leaders have signed up to plug the gap in innovation funding in a system where traditional investor risk-return portfolios are too conservative to fund economic transformation. The Paris agreement has provided a set of targets in both the final text, and in the solicited INDCS, around which business can transform to balance economic and climate interest.

The Bad: A Misapplication of Climate Justice

A thorny issue that the conference had to tackle was the notion of Climate Justice. Climate Justice does not in and of itself address climate change. It is only concerned with an equitable distribution of the burden of addressing climate change. This is cited as the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.” (Article 2)

The debate over differentiation cites two conflicting narratives. Developing countries says that historical emissions matter, thus developed countries should pay more for climate change. In opposition to that, given that developing countries will contribute significantly to climate change in the coming years, developed countries call for stricter controls on developing countries. Country comparisons of emissions data shed light on this conflict.

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Country-comparisons of Emissions, data from CAIT Climate Data Explorer

Recognising the principle of differentiation has had definite positive benefits to the outcome of Paris. Developed countries promised at least US$100bn a year from 2020 to developing countries in order to address the effects of climate change. On the other hand, there is a fine line between achieving climate justice and an abuse of the equity discourse to reduce obligations by developing countries. This is especially the case for India and China, in asserting the right to economic development currently fuelled significantly by the coal industry. Indian Environment Minister Javadekar had repeatedly asked for the developed world to “vacate the carbon space so we can park our development.”

There is something deeply disturbing about these assertions. It feeds into a problematic discourse of economic development as mutually exclusive with climate change mitigation. Reproducing a climate-unfriendly developmental trajectory and definition of development is regressive thinking in light of the possibilities of sustainable and green development strategies.

Differentiation spills over to Article 13 of the Paris Agreement, where the term “flexibility” is introduced into transparency and compliance mechanisms, such that developing countries will not face punitive action for non-compliance with their own climate commitments. How this clause is operationalised will be critical, as if it may result in insufficient scrutiny of emissions reductions in developing countries.

This is where the Paris agreement falls short. Differentiation as a principle should equitably distribute the burden of financing climate change action, but not allow developing countries to walk away from monitoring and reviewing mechanisms for emissions under the smokescreen of differentiated national capabilities. This reflects a clear lack of commitment on the part of some countries.

In reality, the categories of ‘developed’ and ‘developing countries’ are not helpful in addressing climate change – both low-lying island states, where climate change and rising sea levels are more urgent, and countries such as India and China (see here for an Indian critique of the Chinese position, and assertions of India’s “vulnerability”) feature as developing countries. In this regard, the problem here is also one of insufficient differentiation and the lack of clear criteria for assessing national development’s global climate costs in separate countries.

In conclusion, the terminology of “ambitious realism” underlying COP21 continues to favour the interests of States over the urgency of climate change. Yet, we must caution ourselves against the language of success and failure found in much of the discourse about Paris. The impact of COP21 ultimately depends not on states and international mechanisms operationalising the text, but how private and civil society actors utilise it locally as a weapon for addressing climate change. The ugly truth is that the bitter fight to save our planet continues without respite.

This topic will be addressed in the next article, titled “Climate Action After COP21”.

Rocky Howe, Energy & Environment Editor

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