Paris climate change agreement lacks bite

The Paris climate change agreement was “historic”, says John Cassidy in The New Yorker: 188 nations pledged to cut carbon emissions and limit global warming to “well below 2C above pre-industrial levels”. However, the “cost of bringing all sides together was considerable”. This was no “binding agreement with economic incentives for good behaviour and sanctions for scofflaws”. It was “what a sceptic might describe as a common expression of good intentions”. Aware the US senate would never ratify a formal treaty, the Obama administration insisted the deal be non-binding. China agreed. If a country fails to live up to its promises, “there is no recourse beyond naming and shaming”.

Quite, says Matt Ridley in The Times. What world leaders have actually signed up to is voluntary emission limits, voluntary progress regimes and voluntary contributions to a green climate fund. Developed countries have to “mobilise” $100bn a year to help developing countries by 2020. All this will cost a fortune, says Tom Bawden in The Independent. According to the International Energy Agency, countries need to find $16.5trn by 2030 if they are to meet their pledges.

Even then, the United Nations reckons the world is still on course to warm by 2.7C, adds Ben Webster in The Times, while the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already “starting to edge past” 400 parts per million, an “ominous milestone”, says Oliver Milman in The Guardian. Renowned climate scientist James Hansen described the agreement as “worthless words”. “As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will continue to be burned,” he said – without a commitment to tax greenhouse emissions, the accord is meaningless. Piers Forster of the University of Leeds was similarly downbeat in The New Scientist, saying that limiting warming to 1.5C (there was a nod towards this) would take less than a “true world revolution” in energy and our way of life. Few believe this will ever happen, not least because, as Michael Grubb of University College London told The Daily Telegraph, given the drastic and expensive measures required, it is “incompatible with democracy”.

So is there nothing to be done but to wait for rising seas, droughts, floods and extreme heatwaves? Much depends on what happens now, says Martin Wolf in the Financial Times. Global warming “is not solved because of this accord”, but it creates the “architecture” to tackle the problem and it shows a shared positive intent. It creates a structure to revisit countries’ emissions pledges; it ensures a degree of peer pressure, and it will catalyse financial flows into green energy (Bill Gates is teaming up with other billionaires to get innovative energy solutions out of the lab), says Ben Geman in the National Journal. “Plenty of ink” has been spilled explaining why attaining the 2C target is wishful thinking, but that doesn’t render the deal irrelevant. No UN accord can force governments to act beyond what they believe to be “economically, technologically and politically viable”, but much good can still come of this.

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