Uncertainty in wake of Paris climate change agreement

NASA ,International Space Station, 01/20/12 (NASA)

The hard-fought battle to set a global agenda for slowing climate change is over. Delegates struck an agreement in Paris to take steps that will limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It was heralded as a historic achievement – and it very may well be.

But with the ink barely dry concerns are emerging about whether the final agreement is too little, too late, or even has the necessary requirements to force countries and corporations to participate. Without accountability, were all the celebrations for an agreement with no teeth?

“The Paris Agreement does not anywhere dare use the words ‘pledge’ or ‘commitment.’ So averse is the agreement to anything that may be seen as too binding that its announcement was delayed at the very last minute as the United States insisted on replacing the word ‘shall’ with ‘should’ in relation to the responsibility of industrialized countries to mitigate the effects of climate change,” explained Henrick Selin and Adil Najam, of Boston University, in The Conversation.

It is a concern echoed by the Guardian‘s environment reporter John Vidal in his roundup from Paris. The ability of governments to evade accountability tops his list of reasons to be ‘gloomy’ about the agreement. He also adds an important point about the funding target. There are questions about how the $100 billion target will be counted and if changes may affect existing foreign aid spending.

“There is also a real danger that ‘climate money‘ will be diverted from existing overseas development assistance, or other aid flows, and could be double-counted. No agreement has been reached on what constitutes ‘climate money,’ how it should be counted, when or to whom it should be delivered, or to what it should be directed,” writes Vidal.

Fuzzy math with foreign aid spending is an old trick. For example, some countries that pledged money to the refugee crisis this summer and the Ebola crisis last year moved around already-allocated money from one pot to another. It allows governments to make a big splash in responding to a crisis without spending more money. And it comes at the expense of other programs. Or there is the recent announcement by the U.K. to spread around its foreign aid money more within its departments, and away from the Department for International Development.

Supporters of the new deal are hopeful that commitment mechanisms and public pressure will hold countries accountable to their promises. An analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance takes a far more cynical stance, calling it a “weak agreement.” Head of climate policy Richard Chatterton characterized the agreement of falling well short of what was needed to finally get the world on track to address global warming.

“The deal reached in Paris is weak, containing no concrete increase in the level of ambition to address climate change, and simply urging countries to do more over time,” Chatterton wrote. “The most notable outcome is the five-year review cycle for country targets and the establishment of transparency requirements on all countries, but even these elements are accompanied by language that could allow countries to maintain the status quo for years to come.”

But the deep concerns may be unwarranted. One of the biggest stories in the past week about global warming may have nothing to do with the Paris conference, according to economist Tyler Cowen. An analysis published by the science journal Nature showed that global carbon dioxide emissions leveled out in the past two years, after years of rapid growth. Falling coal use by China led an overall slowdown in emissions and it may portend an overall slower pace of emissions growth. Or it is a temporary pause?

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The European Union joins China in reducing emissions, the U.S. is holding steady, while India and the rest of the world are on the rise. Whether this trend holds is uncertain – as is the agreement to slow down global warming. There is no question the Paris agreement is improvement over Kyoto 25 years ago and all the meetings in between. It is uncertain whether it is enough to limit global warming and avert some of the major negative consequences.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.