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Paris: The End of the Beginning

Will Paris be a success or a failure? It will be both. The real question is whether it opens the way to a new future of justice and ambition

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As I write this, the United Nations climate conference is only weeks away. And now, of course, it will take place in an atmosphere of mourning, and crisis, and war. Beyond this change of tone, what difference will the 11/13 attacks make on the outcome of the negotiations? It is impossible to say, though it’s not too much to hope for heightened clarity, and seriousness, and resolve. This is a time to attend to the future. On this, at least, we should be able to agree.

The essay below was finished before the attacks. I’ve changed only these opening words, which already said that the stakes were high. That has not changed. Nor has my overall claim, that while the negotiations are not going well, they’re not going badly either, and that in any case they must be judged in realist terms.


There’s a way forward for the negotiations, though you wouldn’t know it from some of the commentary, which can be amazingly glib. My favorite example, a perfect snapshot of post-Copenhagen, pre-Paris despair, is food guru turned climate expert Mark Bittman, writing in The New York Times last year: “The U.N. Summit will be a clubby gathering of world leaders and their representatives who will try to figure out ways to reward polluters for pretending to fix a problem for which they’re responsible in the first place; a fiasco. That’s not hyperbole, either. The summit is a little like a professional wrestling match: There appears to be action but it’s fake, and the winner is predetermined. The loser will be anyone who expects serious government movement dictating industry reductions in emissions.”

photo of demonstrators in colorful costumesPhoto by Shubert CienciaCOP 20 in Lima was a breakthrough meeting in several ways, not least because the G-77+China bloc of developing countries finally began to negotiate well.

In fairness, Bittman was writing about COP 20 in Lima, which took place a long year ago. But it was clear even before Lima that this sort of cynicism was counterproductive. The old stories of developed vs. developing, polluters vs. people, duplicitous vs. heroic — true though they were — were simply not true enough. By Lima, the US and China were working together to strike a deal that would hold on both sides of the North-South divide. By Lima, the “climate equity” debate within the halls was making as much progress as the “climate justice” debate in the streets, which is to say, quite a lot, but not nearly enough. In any case, Lima was anything but a futile exercise. It was a breakthrough meeting in several ways, not least because the 134 country G-77+China bloc of developing countries finally begin to negotiate well, and in so doing set up a possible breakthrough at COP21, the 21st Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris.

Since Lima, the meeting schedule has been exhausting, and I’ve been to my share. Many of the formal ones have been in Bonn, where the Germans have built the climate negotiations an efficient and even beautiful new home on the Rhine. (The climate negotiations, after all, will never be over.) They’ve also been in Paris, and Lima, and Geneva, and New York, and all around the world. But here’s a question: What are all these meetings for? And how shall we judge them? If you were head of communications at Greenpeace, say, or Oxfam, and if you knew that, soon, on a cold and probably very late night in Paris, you were going to have to “call the outcome,” and that the media would be pushing you, hard, to say either “success” or “failure,” how would you prepare?

What do words like “success” even mean, in a world like this one, in the face of the coming crisis?

Before you answer, consider that your words will come with a large side of responsibility. The fossil-fuel cartel is also on a war footing, and its strategists are working overtime to ensure that Paris will be judged to be a failure. This would be a huge win for the cartel, because it would sharply dampen the strength of “the signal” that — in any of the better scenarios — will emanate from the halls of Paris. The signal that the tide is finally turning, and that deep decarbonization is coming, and soon. So, first up, let me say that if you’re thinking, as some movement people still are, that Paris can only be a failure, you need to think again.

My goal in this essay is to highlight the chance for a real win in Paris, and to show what it would mean. I will focus on three key elements that must be included in any breakthrough agreement. These “bare essentials” include: 1) a proper “long term goal,” 2) a “ratcheting” or “ambition” mechanism that respects both science and justice, and 3) a next-generation treaty that goes beyond mitigation to take adaptation and the limits of adaptation into proper account.

The Long-Term Goal

The 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change defines the “ultimate objective” of the negotiations as “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” It’s a striking phrase. Unfortunately, it’s also a bit of a wooly one, because the Convention gives us no way of knowing when we cross the line into “dangerous anthropogenic interference.”

We need such a way, because we need to draw a line in the sand. Or, as Bill McKibben so effectively pointed out a few years back, we need to “do the math,” to set measurable targets and know if we’ve met them. This is why 2009’s Copenhagen Accord agreement, which legally recognized “the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius,” was widely seen as a milestone, especially because it also affirmed that this target would have to be achieved “on the basis of equity and in the context of sustainable development.”

Once they had a number, the scientists could do the rest of the math. Their results are terrifying, which is a story I will assume you already know. The point here is the one that comes after that general knowledge, the one in which we get down to the particulars. To wit, if we wish to keep the odds of overshooting 2°C below one-in-three (and if these were the odds of a plane crashing, you would not get on it), then we have to stay within an extremely restrictive “global carbon budget” that, at current emission rates, will be entirely exhausted in 10 to 22 years. Or, if you prefer simple English, we have to decarbonize the entire human economy, at a ridiculously rapid pace. In effect, we have to force global emissions down to near zero by 2050.

Actually, it’s worse than this. As the science has progressed, it’s become clear that two degrees should be seen not as a “guard rail,” placed to keep us on a relatively “safe” global emissions pathway, but rather as a last line of defense that must not at any cost be breached. To be blunt, we have to play to win.

Paris, in our dreams, would commit the world’s nations to a specific carbon budget, one that’s in line with the science – a long-term goal that’s precise enough to serve as an unambiguous measure of progress. But this is almost certainly not going to happen. We’ve delayed for too long, and at this point any honest number — think near zero-emissions by 2050 — is far too challenging for today’s paralyzed decision makers. So while negotiators from, say, Micronesia very much want to enshrine a high-ambition carbon budget into the treaty (their lands, after all, are soon to sink beneath the waves), the negotiators with real power — the US, the Chinese, the other big players — tend to see anything like near-zero/2050 as political suicide. And given where they sit, they may well be right. Any really serious effort would demand action on a scale that far surpasses the willingness — or even the capability — of our current governance systems.

Facing this reality, civil society strategists have strained to frame the numbers in a way that spurs action rather than despair. The consensus at one recent meeting was that we have to “be honest about the scary numbers,” but also present them in a “solution oriented” way. It’s the latter bit that’s the real problem, because the solutions we need are outside the bounds of the “realistic,” and people tend to know it. Think about the obvious fact that any truly ambitious treaty will have to mobilize massive international finance and technology flows, with the goal of leapfrogging the entire developing world to renewables as quickly as humanly possible. Why don’t we talk openly about this? Perhaps we will, after Paris. Meanwhile, it’s time to draw a few clear provisional conclusions. Like, for example, that the people who control the global purse strings are just going to have to be made to change their priorities.

The numbers – billions of tons, trillions of dollars – scare people. Even within movement networks, many people want to deemphasize numbers and revert to “qualitative” language, in which we put aside talk of “impossible” carbon budgets and “radical” emissions pathways and instead frame the long-term goal as, say, “phasing out fossil fuel emissions and phasing in 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.” And if this is how we want to frame the long-tem goal, it’s fine with me. “Phase out, phase in!” is perfectly good campaign language. It may even take us successfully past Paris, though it won’t take us much farther, not by itself.

The Ambition Mechanism

Even if the fossil cartel were to magically disappear, we’d still have a huge problem. The bulk of greenhouse gas emissions — and the bulk of projected emissions growth — are in the poorer regions of the planet, the regions that are least able to afford the “incremental costs” of a high-speed transition to renewables.

This simple reality is a source of great discord within the climate negotiations, and within the community of activists working the “inside the halls” part of the game. But there’s good news too, and it includes the recent flowering of an idea that might just fit Indian chief negotiator Prakash Javadekar’s stated goal of a way forward that’s “both progressive and pragmatic.” This is “the ratcheting mechanism,” or “the ambition mechanism,” and while the details get complicated, the core of the idea is simplicity itself: Paris will not itself deliver a strong enough deal. But if it gives birth to a regime that’s designed to grow stronger, then we might finally have a plausible way forward.

What must the ambition mechanism do? Quite a lot, but much of it has already been more or less agreed upon. For example, Paris needs to set the negotiations into a firm and cyclic rhythm, a five-year “dynamic cycle” in which new pledges are made, reviewed, and revised, again and again for a very long time. And this five-year cycle has pretty much been nailed down. The problem is that it’s just about all that some powerful nations, the United States among them, want to see in the agreement, though a whole lot more is needed.

There are three keys to effective “ratcheting up.” The first is “transparency”: We need to know who’s doing exactly what, and how. The second is “review and revision”: The processes by which national pledges and support contributions are evaluated, collectively, and in comparison to each other, to ensure that they pass the tests of both ambition and equity. The third, with an overly-cute name, is “the matchbox”: We must have a process by which financial and technological support can be matched with “conditional” pledges by poorer countries that wish to act beyond their domestic capabilities.

All pledges – critically – need to be subject to meaningful, science-based, equity review. Which takes us into a new world in which terms like “equity reference frameworks” and “national fair shares” are bandied around as if they had common meanings. And soon they may. As I write this, a large global coalition has just released a Civil Society Equity Review of the national pledges, assessing both how far these pledges will take us, and how fairly they distribute the costs of climate action. (Disclosure: the Civil Society Equity Review is based in part on the work of the Climate Equity Reference Project, which I co-direct). It’s a controversial move, and not just because it seeks to put the idea of national “fair shares” firmly onto the agenda. It’s also controversial for concluding that, in general, the poorer nations are pledging to do more of their fair shares that the richer ones.

For better or for worse, fairness is at the core of any real ambition ratchet. You can see this easily enough if you know that the national pledges contain both “unconditional” and “conditional” components. The unconditional portion lays out a country’s plans for efficiency programs, renewables projects, reforestation efforts, and all sorts of other measures, but constrains these plans to those that the nation can afford to implement on its own. The conditional component includes actions that the nation intends to pursue, but only if it gets enough international assistance.

The cost of this assistance will be significant. The International Energy Agency recently told us that, in order to stabilize the climate, the energy sector alone would require additional or shifted investments of about $2 trillion per year for decades. Most of this fire hose of money is going to have to be private (this is capitalism, after all), but everyone knows that we also need public finance, and lots of it, to prime the pumps. How much? The Civil Society Equity Review tries to answer this question, basing its findings on both International Energy Agency pathways-analysis and private-to-public finance “leverage ratios” estimated by the World Resources Institute (two staid mainstream organizations). It’s conclusion is that, to hold a real 2°C pathway, we’ll require between $166 to $266 billion a year in public support for mitigation in developing countries alone.

This is a conservative estimate, which makes it all the more notable that nothing even remotely like this sum is on the table. In fact, according to Oxfam, the current level of international public mitigation finance is about $15 billion a year. This leaves us with a massive shortfall that clearly shows why the lack of public finance has become one of the biggest threats to the climate negotiations. Yet, instead of talking about how to provision the Green Climate Fund — the UN mechanism designed to assist developing nations with mitigation and adaptation efforts — the money just continues to flow into the usual channels.

The fossil fuel subsidy numbers are particularly astonishing. Depending on how you calculate them (and the price of oil), they can far exceed the likely costs of a rapid global transition to renewables. For instance, an estimated $775 billion in direct fossil fuel subsidies was paid out in 2012 alone! The International Monetary Fund, no bastion of green radicalism, recently estimated that if you include the “environmental damage associated with energy consumption” when you calculate the size of fossil fuel subsides, this annual figure can rise as high as $5.3 trillion. It’s an amazing figure (6.5% of global GDP) and serves well to make the key point: We’re spending fantastic sums, every year, reinforcing an energy system that by century’s end will predictably yield not only mass extinctions, but also bitter conflicts, large-scale forced migrations, and economic collapse on a scale that is virtually guaranteed to threaten civilization itself.

Adaptation Has its Limits

John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, famously said we only have three choices, mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. So far, I’ve been talking about mitigation, but at this late date, mitigation is not enough. We’ve already locked ourselves into a future of unavoidable climate disruptions, so while the need to reduce emissions is urgent, we also have to develop and deploy technologies and institutions that will help us adapt to life on a much harsher planet. Which is why the Paris Agreement must also address adaptation in a meaningful way.

Holdren used the word “suffering” to suggest the territories beyond adaptation. Recently, a more precise term, “Loss and Damage,” has entered the lexicon, but this is just a more formal term for suffering. If you’re the citizen of submerging island state, if your home is devastated by drought and desertification, if you’re an agriculturalist who can no longer farm, if your city is smashed by a swollen hurricane, you may or may not be able to adapt, but you are certainly suffering. The central truth is that by any defensible measure of justice, you must, to the limited and pitiful extent possible, be assisted in, well, putting your life back together. When adaptation is possible, it must be supported. When it’s not, we retreat to “Loss and Damage.”

The challenges here will not be resolved in Paris, not in anything like an acceptable manner. But what’s essential, from the “calling the Paris outcome” perspective, is that the Paris agreements deal solidly with “the adaptation finance issue,” and that “Loss and Damage” be placed firmly on the pre-2020 negotiating table.

What’s at stake here? Let me add a few words to the mitigation cost estimates above, words about pricing the priceless. To wit: The last decade has seen a significantly improved understanding of climate change damages, and with it have come improved cost estimates. The most up-to-date study, to this point, is the UN Environment Program’s 2014 Adaptation Gap report, which examines the costs of both adaptation and compensation for losses. Notably, its preliminary cost estimates are two or three times higher than previous ones. For both adaptation and “residual damage” for the Least Developed Country group alone (which includes countries like Bangladesh and Ethiopia) estimates come in at about $50 billion per year by 2030, with a projected doubling to $100 billion per year by 2050. For all developing countries (including countries like South Africa and Brazil, as well as the LDCs) the numbers come in at $150 billion per year by 2030, rising to $250 billion to $500 billion per year by 2050.

What’s the bottom line? The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that $3 to $5 billion in public, grant-based adaptation finance is currently flowing to developing countries. Compare this to the total need – $150 billion a year by 2030 – and it’s clear that we’re nowhere near the right ballpark. Also, and this is critical, the number above is only an estimate of the need in developing countries. The richer countries will also require adaptation, and will also suffer massive loss and damage – think New Orleans, but on a much larger scale. The assumption within the climate talks is, notably, that the richer countries will take care of their own poor and vulnerable populations. We’ll have to see about this.

Further, the damage costs will almost certainly come in higher than today’s estimates. For one thing, most studies to date do not include extreme events, and those that do tend to cast their nets rather narrowly, excluding the damage caused by sea level rise, increasing desertification, ocean acidification, glacier retreat, loss of biodiversity, loss of culture, and loss of lives. And how, really, do you estimate the cost of irreversible species extinction or mass human suffering and death? The only right answer is that you don’t. Instead, you do everything in your power to prevent it.

After Paris

Obviously, we don’t know how all this will stand when the gavel finally sounds the end of the Paris talks. Nor are there good grounds for easy optimism. Which is to say that if you’re determined to “call” Paris as a failure, you’re going to find plenty of reasons to do so.

But Paris was never going to save us. To reach that particular long-term goal, we’ll need an almost inconceivably rapid transformation of the entire global energy system, and much else besides: a technology revolution, but just as importantly a governance revolution, and even this is just for starters. More particularly, we’re going to need a global climate regime that’s both equitable and ambitious; one that promotes just and sustainable development even as it drives emissions rapidly down towards zero. This is a huge ask and we’ll have to push for it hard, and not just in the hallways of global power, but in the corridors of national power as well.  And, of course, on the streets.

A joint statement recently released by an alliance of social and environmental justice groups – the People’s Climate Test – says that, “we see Paris as a beginning rather than an end.” This is exactly the point, though Churchill said it better. If I may borrow his words, Paris must mark “the end of the beginning” of the climate mobilization, the point when we finally face the seriousness of our position and get serious in return.

So, when Paris ends, how should we “call the outcome”? It’s a question that, honestly debated, would be immensely instructive. But real debate is rare these days, and in any case it’s not easy to tell honest hope from tactical optimism. When Paris ends, the spin will be coming thick and from all sides, and movement organizations will not be entirely innocent. Carefully wrought press releases will be everywhere. Those on the scene will be frustrated, angry, and exhausted. And even in the best case, we’re not going to get what we want. The real question is whether we get what we need. 

Tom Athanasiou, Author and director of Earth Island Project EcoEquityTom Athanasiou photo
Tom Athanasiou, the director of the Earth Island projectEcoEquity has been a close observer of the climate negotiations since 1999. He codirects both the Climate Action Network’s Equity Working Group and the Climate Equity Reference Project. His principle interest is distributional justice within the context of an emergency global climate mobilization, which he hopes to live to see.

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