Paris Agreement: Blind and Toothless
(Adapted from The Climate Pandemic: How Climate Disruption Threatens Human Survival)
Imagine a congressman holding a news conference to announce introduction of a bill to fight a major threat to their constituency. The congressman mounts the stage before a gaggle of media gathered for the announcement. The congressman begins:
“Today, I am announcing a proposal for sweeping legislation to halt a threat to our very civilization. I recognize that my law is wholly inadequate to meet that goal, but I am proceeding anyway, with the hope that we can somehow do better in the future.”
Asks a reporter: “What are the penalties for noncompliance?”
“Well, there are none. Compliance is voluntary,” replies the congressman.
“So, there’s no way to enforce the law?”
“No, we actually don’t have any legal jurisdiction,” is the answer.
“How about policing? How will you know that people are obeying the law?” asks another reporter.
“It’s up to them to tell us that they are obeying it. We can’t do any patrolling to check.”
“So, it will be up to them to report whether they are violating it?”
“Well, actually, they may not even know that they’re violating it. They might not have good enough information on their own compliance.”
“But at least they will have committed to obeying the law as written, right?” asks a reporter.
“Not really,” admits the congressman. “They can decide to change their commitment at any time. We hope they decide to be more rigorous about obeying the law, but they may decide to be more lax.”
“So, will they be tempted to reduce their commitment?”
“Yes, unfortunately. They will find it very hard to obey the law. It will require them to spend enormous amounts of time and money. They could endanger their economic well-being, and they would have to drastically change their behavior.”
The reporters chuckle, shake their heads in disbelief, and leave the room to produce their stories about the congressman’s preposterous proposal.
In this scenario, substitute “Paris Agreement” for “law,” and you have precisely the features of the international climate agreement adopted in December 2015. The UN Paris Agreement entered into force in November 2016 when a majority of participating nations ratified it.
The agreement was formulated at the 2015 United Nations 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21). It seeks to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.”
First of all, the 2°C limit is not a scientific number, but a convenient political measure with a highly dubious scientific provenance. One might think the number originated from a careful analysis of a vast amount of scientific data on global temperatures, historical records, glacial melting, ecological impacts, and so on. But it didn’t.
Rather, the notion of a 2°C limit first arose casually in the 1970s, when economist William Nordhaus suggested it in two discussion papers. The papers were not even formally reviewed and published in scientific journals.  And his suggestion was not even based on the ecological impact of a 2°C warming. Rather that was the temperature rise believed to occur if CO2 levels doubled. In fact, Nordhaus declared that:
The standards proposed here, as well as the reasoning behind it, are extremely tentative. It must be emphasized that the process of setting standards used in this section is deeply unsatisfactory, both from an empirical point of view and from a theoretical point of view. We can only justify the standards set here as rough guesses.
The 2°C limit was promoted by the Stockholm Environmental Institute in 1990, in perhaps one of the weirdest examples of “scientific reasoning” ever. The report acknowledged that a rise beyond 1°C “may elicit rapid, unpredictable, and nonlinear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage.” But since it was too late for society to limit the temperature rise to 1°C, the report elected to settle for a 2°C limit.
As described in a history of the 2°C limit, the 2°C number continued to propagate as a political measure. In fact, as climatologist Reto Knutti and colleagues wrote in a critique of the 2°C target:
This 2°C warming target is perceived by the public as a universally accepted goal, identified by scientists as a safe limit that avoids dangerous climate change. This perception is incorrect: no scientific assessment has clearly justified or defended the 2°C target as a safe level of warming.
The lower 1.5°C limit, by the same token, was not chosen because it represented some safe level. It was chosen because scientists knew that the damage from climate disruption would be less than for a 2°C increase. The number is certainly not precise, as climatologist Michael Oppenheimer, an author or editor of multiple IPCC reports, told a news briefing:
Although every increment of warming . . . causes more damage, more lost life, more damage, costly damage to property, when you get above about [emphasis added] a degree-and-a-half, these effects start to go non-linear. . .”
Oppenheimer said the 1.5°C limit was “chosen for first, scientific reasons, and second, practical reasons. Practical reasons because it’s hard to envision landing the climate at a lower temperature. . .”
I do use temperature limits throughout the book as numerical shorthand for “crippling” (1.5°C, 2°C), “devastating” (4°C) and “terminal” (6°C).
Importantly, de-nihilists should not take the imprecision of these numbers as evidence that global heating isn’t real. The masses of valid scientific evidence cited in this book point toward a hotter world and climate catastrophe.
The Paris Agreement is rife with vague wording, including nebulous phrases, such as that countries should:
The agreement allows that “a Party may at any time adjust its existing nationally determined contribution with a view to enhancing its level of ambition. . .”
To be fair, the agreement is the best that could have been hoped for, given the vastly different goals and interests of the participating countries. As Michael Oppenheimer said in the press briefing:
As far as enforceability . . . it’s the weakness of the Paris Accord. There are no penalties, except for what’s called name and shame. . . . I’d feel more comfortable if there were trade sanctions and other penalties as part of the Paris Agreement. It’s not there. We got to do the best we can despite that.
Nevertheless, the Paris Agreement epitomizes the failure of the international community to even begin the massive revolution in the global energy system required to address climate disruption.
Climatologist James Hansen, considered a pioneer in the field, told The Guardian: “It’s a fraud really, a fake. . . . It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2°C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises.” Hansen was also quoted as dubbing the agreement “half-assed” and “half-baked.”
In a paper titled “The World’s Biggest Gamble,” an international cadre of climate scientists was just as critical. The scientists charged that:
The scale of the decarbonisation challenge to meet the Paris Agreement is underplayed in the public arena. It will require precipitous emissions reductions within 40 years and a new carbon sink on the scale of the ocean sink. Even then, the world is extremely likely to overshoot. . . . The agreement is void of quantitative emission pathways to reach this goal, and bizarrely, the phrase “fossil fuels” is never used. . . . In reality, despite the progress of the [Paris Agreement], nations are gambling with the stability of the Earth system.
Even optimists recognize the agreement’s failures. Terry Odendahl, head of the philanthropic organization Global Greengrants Fund, charged that COP21:
Even the agreement’s “success” will constitute a failure to avoid dangerous, even catastrophic climate disruption over the next decades, concluded multiple assessments of the agreement:
The International Energy Agency (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2018 concluded that there is a huge gap between the Paris Agreement and sustainable development scenarios. Noted the report: “The projected emissions trend represents a major collective failure to tackle the environmental consequences of energy use.”
Individual countries are not on track to meet their emissions targets either, according to such sources as the Climate Action Tracker.
The UN Environment Program called its 2022 Emissions Gap Report “a testimony to inaction on the global climate crisis,” declaring that “the window of opportunity to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably 1.5°C . . . is closing rapidly.” In fact, a synthesis of UN reports by one group of scientists concluded that:
Individual countries are not on track to achieve commitments that were insufficient from the outset and are now woefully inadequate. . . . In 2010, the world thought it had 30 years to halve global emissions of greenhouse gases. Today, we know that this must happen in ten years.
Particularly poignant was the conclusion of the 2016 Emissions Gap Report. It declared that, without urgent action:
We will mourn the loss of biodiversity and natural resources. We will regret the economic fallout. Most of all, we will grieve over the avoidable human tragedy; the growing numbers of climate refugees hit by hunger, poverty, illness and conflict will be a constant reminder of our failure to deliver.”
The UN Global Environment Outlook concluded that emissions must fall to net zero by around 2070 to meet the 2°C limit.
Another report by the Universal Ecological Fund basically agreed. It concluded that net zero emissions had to be reached between 2060 and 2075. The report indicated that, even if Paris goals are met, the world would see a 1.5°C rise by the early 2030s, with 2°C reached by 2050.
These dates may, in fact, be optimistic. The massive momentum of the fossil fuel industry and tipping points may well make them appear absurdly low.
The Paris Agreement is beset with insurmountable shortcomings—scientific, technological, economic, logistical, and political. Some examples:
Scientific: The IPCC is likely using the wrong historic baseline from which to measure global temperature increases. It uses the late 1800s to define the preindustrial starting point, but the rise likely began in the 1700s, found climatologists in one analysis. Said co-author climatologist Michael Mann:
The IPCC research community uses a definition of preindustrial that is likely underestimating the warming that has already taken place. . . . That means we have less carbon to burn than we previously thought, if we are to avert the most dangerous changes in climate. . . . When the IPCC says that we've warmed 1 degree C relative to preindustrial, that's probably incorrect. . . . It's likely as much as 1.2 degrees C.
Another scientific shortcoming is that emissions budgets have likely not taken into account all the possible greenhouse gas contributors such as methane emissions from thawing permafrost. In one study, researchers who did such accounting concluded that “the world is closer to exceeding the budget for the long-term target of the Paris climate agreement than previously thought.”
Said study lead author Thomas Gasser: “Since we are officially on an overshooting trajectory, we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility that we may never get back to safer levels of warming.”
Technological: The most egregious fantasy in the Paris Agreement is an assumption that “negative emissions technologies” could enable the world to stay below the 2°C goal (see Carbon Capture Snake Oil).
Limiting temperature rise to 2°C would mean sucking between 0.5 billion and 3 billion metric tons of carbon out of the atmosphere each year using as-yet-untested carbon-capture technologies, calculated ecosystem researchers. What’s more, they wrote, the system would need carbon storage capacity of between 50 billion and 250 billion metric tons. And that is the best-case scenario.
The mirage of carbon capture and storage gives policymakers an excuse to allow temperature overshoot, with the promise that we could remedy the overshoot with negative emissions.
Economic: Implementing the climate pledges will require a massive global investment of $13.5 trillion in energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies by 2030, found an IEA report. This amount constitutes a full 40% of the total investment in the energy sector. Also, countries such as Russia will simply not abandon their lucrative oil and gas industry profits to meet the agreement’s requirements.
Logistical: Major uncertainties abound in what the signatory countries actually agreed to in their “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) to reduced emissions. In analyzing the uncertainties, one group of climate policy analysts concluded that “virtually every aspect of the submitted NDCs was decided nationally, and little to no guidance or requirements were given that could focus their scope” to enable comparison and quantification.
What’s more, countries’ reports of their emissions constitute a statistical Tower of Babel. An investigation by The Washington Post of 196 countries’ reports to the UN found a huge gap between their reported emissions and their actual production. The gap ranges from 8.5 billion to 13.3 billion tons a year of unreported emissions. By comparison, the lower number matches the annual emissions of the US; the higher number approaches those of China. The Post investigation concluded that the gap:
. . . is the result of questionably drawn rules, incomplete reporting in some countries and apparently willful mistakes in others—and the fact that in some cases, humanity’s full impacts on the planet are not even required to be reported.
Political: Countries do not have the same political and economic interests. As psychologist Per Espen Stoknes wrote in his book What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming:
Most countries seem more eager to grind their own mills. The poorer nations want to grow faster, and the old industrialized countries want energy security and continued growth. The oil-rich countries want to continue to sell their black gold. . . . The mad logic is: Better that my nation-state doesn’t lose in the short-term race than for all of us to win in the long term.
Indeed, 2019 negotiations over countries’ NDC commitments ended in failure, with the US and other major carbon-emitting nations blocking an agreement to seek more ambitious carbon-reduction targets. And in 2021, a report on NDCs submitted by participating countries showed that their combined impact would result in a 16.3% increase in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 above the 2010 level.
In contrast, emissions would have to decline by 45% to meet a 1.5°C increase target. The report, declared UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “shows that the world is on a catastrophic pathway to 2.7-degrees of heating.”
Another legally nonbinding pact was the 2021 Glasgow Climate Pact at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, signed by nearly 200 signatory nations. As with the Paris Agreement, the need for a broad consensus made it wholly inadequate at reflecting the profound hazards of climate disruption.
For example, the group watered down an early draft that called for a “phase-out of unabated coal power . . .” [emphasis added]. The final version called only for a “phasedown of unabated coal power. . . [emphasis added].” The word “unabated” was meant to reflect the potential use of untested carbon capture technologies.
The agreement also called for the phase-out of “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies—a word meant to give some countries an excuse to continue such subsidies. An early draft of the pact contained the emphatic passage, “. . . that carbon budgets consistent with achieving the Paris Agreement temperature goal are now small and being rapidly depleted.” But the final draft weakened the declaration by leaving out the passage.
Despite the failures of such agreements as the Paris and COP26 agreements, many believe that humanity will surely be rescued by technologies such as renewable energy and carbon capture. But as the section of this book "Grasping at Climate Panaceas" shows, that rescue will not be coming.
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