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Five climate paradoxes after Paris

by Gareth Bryant on December 16, 2015
  1. Ending and extending fossil-fuelled capitalism

The new, aspirational goal of limiting temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels requires a rapid end to the burning of fossil fuels. This was, of course, also true of the old goal of 2°C. Research published in Nature earlier this year found that 88 per cent of existing coal global reserves must remain in the ground to have just an even money chance of avoiding warming above this level.

The Paris Agreement itself recognises that the combined voluntary emissions pledges made by governments will not come close to either target. Even more concerning is that references in the text to the peaking of emissions and then the balancing of carbon sources and sinks do not translate to any mention of phasing out fossil fuels. Australia’s government exemplified this disconnect by proclaiming coal “here to stay” just days before joining the ‘high ambition coalition’.

  1. Inching towards action on runaway climate change

Those heralding the agreement argue that the new framework established to report and review progress on emissions reductions is what really mattered in Paris. Developed countries will disclose their emissions every two years and from 2023 onwards there will be a stocktake of targets every five years. Much of the analysis of the deal has characterised this as a mechanism for ratcheting up climate ambition.

This may well be the case, but not in a timeframe needed for a safe climate. Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has argued that global mitigation rates must increase 10 per cent every year by 2025. With climate tipping points fast approaching, a ratchet that can work at this pace remains well beyond the Paris toolkit.

  1. Transforming the economy at the margin

The incremental approach to politics in Paris was complemented by its economics. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change established that global electricity generation, around 70 per cent of which is powered by coal, gas and oil, needs to substantially decarbonise before 2030. The scale of this transformation is not matched by the new carbon trading instrument, dubbed the ‘sustainable development mechanism’, created in Paris to get there.

As I outlined in my preview of the Paris conference, carbon markets look for cheap emissions reductions at the edges of the climate problem. Research on ‘stranded assets’ has demonstrated that trillions of dollars of equity and debt is underpinned by expected future profits from ‘unburnable carbon’. Necessary heavy losses for fossil fuel companies from writing off value embedded in carbon-intensive infrastructure can’t be managed with the ‘least cost’ logic of carbon pricing.

  1. Climate justice without liability

Activists around the world did target those companies that are historically responsible for emissions in campaigning for a just outcome in Paris. Indeed, for the first time, a major climate agreement acknowledges the notions of a ‘just transition’ and ‘climate justice’, albeit in the preamble. At the same time, at the behest of the United States government, the agreement explicitly rules out compensation and liability.

This voiding of a basic principle of justice comes at a time when historical liability for climate change is increasingly clear. Research by Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute traced two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution to just 90 private and state-owned companies involved in mining or cement production. Most of these companies are still operating, including Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Saudi Aramco, Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Company.

  1. Contradictions make Paris a ‘success’

The contradictions of Paris have allowed divergent corporate, state and environmental interests to declare the conference a success. By focusing on elements that aligned with their position, BP, Barack Obama and WWF were each able to back the agreement as “landmark”, “strong” and “historic”. Nonetheless, critical voices continue to be heard, with organisations such as Friends of the Earth International declaring the deal had failed the People’s Test on Climate. These voices will be vital as the climate paradoxes of the Paris Agreement become more and more stark.

Gareth Bryant
Gareth Bryant is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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