Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement has been condemned by a surprisingly united chorus of political and corporate elites. The mainstream media narrative is that the world was progressing toward solving climate change, and now only Trump is standing in the way.
But this narrative doesn’t make sense. Why are the condemnations of Trump’s withdrawal coming even from those who have spent decades lobbying against climate action, such as ExxonMobil and the Australian government? If the Paris Agreement was really so great for the climate, wouldn’t they be totally supportive of Trump?
In one way Trump is better than all the other elites condemning him: his policy is honest. I mean, his claims that the Paris Agreement will harm Americans and his past claims that global warming is a hoax are either dishonest or misguided, after we’ve just experienced three record hot years in a row despite a cold sun. Yet he is honest that he does not care to address the threat; that his policy is to let the world burn. The others profess to believe in climate change, but are failing to adequately address it – because what they’re not telling you is that the Paris Agreement was never much to write home about.
Read on for the top 10 problems with the Paris Agreement.
1. At >1°C, we’ve already failed to prevent dangerous warming
French President Francois Hollande proclaimed: “In Paris, there have been many revolutions over the centuries. Today it is the most beautiful and the most peaceful revolution that has just been accomplished—a revolution for climate change.” However, such grand claims are not new. Climate talks have been held annually for 22 years, official climate talks began 26 years ago before I was born, and scientists have been calling for a global climate treaty for around three decades now. Every year politicians have misleadingly claimed the talks are making progress.
Yet greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations have continued to rise, and only in the last three years has the rise in global emissions even begun to slow. What little progress is being made is not because of but in spite of the failure of climate talks, through unilateral actions such as China’s cuts to coal consumption, rollouts of renewable energy technologies lowering their prices, and activist campaigns hindering new fossil fuel extraction plans. And though slowing the rise of emissions would have been very welcome a decade or two ago, now we urgently need rapid emissions reductions.
Under the 1992 United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the talks are supposed to be aiming to prevent “dangerous” interference with the climate system. Unfortunately, over the decades that politicians have been talking, human-caused global warming has already reached a dangerous level, over 1°C hotter than the late 19th century and around the warmest in 10,000 years. Arctic temperatures are now 4°C above the late 19th century, Arctic sea ice shrank to its second lowest extent on record last year, and it is on track for a record low volume this year. Atmospheric CO2 has passed 400 ppm, the highest level in around 15 million years. The rate at which human activity is changing the Earth’s climate is without precedent since the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. We are already experiencing increasing extreme weather costing human lives.
Worse, our past emissions have already pushed the Earth past several tipping points which will amplify carbon emissions and warming. Past emissions have also likely already set in motion Antarctic ice sheet collapse that could raise sea level by up to 2.5 metres by 2100, 10 metres by 2200, and ultimately over 20 metres (just one metre will flood many island nations and agricultural river deltas). An increasing number of the world’s top climate experts are warning we are in a climate emergency.
2. The Agreement’s 1.5-2°C temperature limit is far from safe
This is the context in which the Paris Agreement should be considered. The Agreement claims to be preventing dangerous climate interference by aiming to limit warming to “well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels”. An extra clause on “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C” was won by a “High Ambition Coalition” including Malcolm Turnbull who has trumpeted this as evidence of Australia’s alleged climate leadership. Unfortunately, with today’s 1°C warming already dangerous, 1.5-2°C is far from safe, as has been admitted by a UNFCCC Secretariat report. For example, 1.5°C will destroy most coral reefs which are a source of food and coastal protection for many tropical countries, and 2°C could bring near-worst-case impacts on freshwater and damage many staple crops. Worse, there is mounting evidence that just over the present global temperature (ie. below 1.5°C) lie yet more tipping points, for the Greenland ice sheet and ocean acidification.
3. Avoiding 2°C is difficult and 1-1.5°C is impossible without geoengineering
Safe or not, keeping warming below 1.5-2°C will be very difficult if not impossible to achieve at this late stage. Though surface temperature has so far only risen 1°C, there is accumulated heat still working its way through the oceans, and more heating masked by particulate air pollution also from fossil fuels, which will clear when Asia inevitably phases them out to stop CO2 emissions. In other words, past greenhouse gas emissions have already locked in roughly the 1.5-2°C warming that the Agreement says it will prevent. This hidden future warming means preventing 2°C is now probably unachievable without emergency-scale emissions cuts, and preventing 1.5°C is probably unachievable without unproven geoengineering technologies.
Governments are placing pressure on scientific advisors to come up with ever more unlikely pathways to extend the timeline for preventing 2°C, and most comply for fear of being branded alarmist instead of calling out the failure of the political process. In return for their reluctant pragmatism, scientists are finding politicians ignore the increasingly unfeasible fine print in favour of rhetoric that there is still time to act cheaply. For a 50% chance of avoiding 2°C, global emissions must peak by 2020 and decline to zero by 2040. IPCC scenarios which allow global emissions to continue rising until 2030 assume subsequent global emissions reductions of 6%/year, faster than the planned economic growth rate, followed by significant carbon removal. Many scenarios also assume a global carbon tax began in 2010. Furthermore, these scenarios still involve a 33% risk of exceeding 2°C if the climate proves more sensitive than mid-range projections. Indeed, we have already burned enough carbon for a more than 10% risk of 2°C. Risk should not be taken lightly because scientists are biased not toward alarmism but toward reticence, and also for mathematical reasons impacts are more likely to be at the extreme high end of projections than at the extreme low end.
There are no mainstream model scenarios in which global temperature never exceeds 1.5°C, so the Paris 1.5°C goal is essentially an aspiration to quickly reverse inevitable warming. Such scenarios assume global energy demand barely increases throughout the century, and massive carbon removal in the second half of the century. The assumption of carbon removal relies on geoengineering technologies which are not yet available, involve risks that are not fully understood, and raise ethical concerns for environmentalists. The option currently being assumed in 1.5°C scenarios, biomass energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), is limited in scale because it requires vast areas of land (1-3 times the size of India) in a world where it is increasingly difficult to grow enough food. Worse, the implicit assumption that it will always be possible to get back to net zero emissions ignores that global warming is already starting to turn some natural carbon sinks into amplifying feedbacks, and these feedbacks will become a major factor before 2°C. So future carbon removal can only work if it complements emissions cuts today.
To truly stabilize global temperature below a dangerous level would require halting the warming at around the current level and cooling the planet to reverse the tipping points we have already passed. If this is even possible, it would involve more drastic action than the 1.5-2°C scenarios. The only detailed such scenario is the “One Degree War Plan”, which proposes willing major emitters go into a wartime-scale emergency action mode before 2020, halving global emissions in 5 years at an estimated cost of 5-10% of annual GDP. Proposed actions toward this target include rationing electricity, closing the world’s 1000 dirtiest coal plants, halving deforestation, building solar and wind farms in deserts, recycling all waste, and so on. The plan does not specify how it would offset the warming effect of clearing air pollution, though this would presumably be done through dramatic cuts in emissions of short-lived greenhouse gases like methane. To avoid the heat currently working through the oceans, the emissions cuts would also need to be accompanied by risky attempts at geoengineering, including near-term temporary measures to directly reflect sunlight as well as long-term carbon removal. Only this scale of action can prevent amplifying feedbacks that could take us beyond the intended temperature limit. While the scientific feasibility of stopping and reversing the past warming is questionable, this gives some idea of the scale of action now required to actually achieve the UNFCCC objective.
4. The Agreement does not specify a global emissions pathway
Yet the Agreement indicates little engagement with all this difficulty. Its preamble contains lip service such as “recognizing that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies” and “emphasizing the need for urgency in addressing climate change”. Yet at odds with this urgency, the body of the Agreement doesn’t even specify a date for peak global emissions. It merely says emissions should peak “as soon as possible”, with a later peak for developing country emissions, then sketches for the second half of the century a target of balancing emissions sources and sinks. The gap between the stated ambition and the proposed actions is farcical.
5. It has no plan to decarbonize the economy
The Agreement contains no concrete plan to reach its grand targets, indeed no discussion of the fundamental economic causes driving global warming. It does not even mention the words “coal”, “oil”, “natural gas”, or “fracking”. It includes no guidance on specific sectors, exports and imports, corporations, consumption, population, GDP growth, or economic systems. Meanwhile, governments have continued to announce fossil fuel expansion plans. The world still plans to construct 2,440 new coal power plants, and far from a global carbon tax, governments still subsidize fossil fuel industries to the tune of $500 billion. In Australia, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk stated two days after the Agreement: “We will always be reliant on coal.” Even before the election of Trump, the Obama administration was sending contradictory signals on fossil fuels, opening up some new oil reserves in the Arctic and passively allowing police violence against Dakota Access Pipeline protestors. It’s hard not to conclude that either governments are being two-faced, or the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.
6. Its national targets allow global emissions to keep rising
Instead of a blueprint for transforming economies, the Agreement merely compiles (mostly pre-existing) national pledges to cut emissions in the abstract, and relies on each of the individual 196 countries to meet their own target with their own policies. The pledges are now given the fancy title of “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs). The first problem is that these NDCs exclude aviation and shipping because UNFCCC accounting considers no one nation to be responsible for them. Moreover, because each government decided its own NDC they are not formulated in easily comparable terms (eg. differing baseline years), cause for suspicion that many countries may be fudging the numbers. Some NDCs are for 2025, others for 2030. The 2030 timeframe is too distant for both political and physical reasons. Politically, emissions targets should be set only a few years in the future so politicians will be held accountable for them within one election cycle. Physically, we need substantial emissions cuts within years, not decades.
Even assuming all the NDCs are achieved, global emissions will still rise 10-20% by 2030. Little better than pre-Paris pledges, they put us on a pathway to around 3°C warming by 2100, 3.5°C if emissions reduction stops in 2030, and even higher if the NDCs are not achieved or the climate is more sensitive than mid-range projections. 3°C is far beyond the climate range experienced by the human species, 4°C is likely beyond the ability of global civilization to adapt, and at 5°C some Middle Eastern cities would reach summer maximum temperatures that are lethal to fit human bodies. Worse, 3-5°C warming comes with a whole new set of tipping points, as shown in Figure 2 above.
7. It allows policies which favor profit over planet
Article 6 establishes a new mechanism through which countries may choose to engage in international emissions trading, euphemistically described as “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes”. This is concerning because of the spectacular failure of emissions trading to date. Initially advocated only by notorious climate saboteurs such as the US and Australia, emissions trading was eventually adopted as the climate policy instrument of choice across the developed world and China. One of the main flaws in the Kyoto Protocol was an offsets mechanism allowing developed countries to continue growing their emissions, while paying developing countries to take actions that may have happened anyway.
To be fair, offsets might be less open to rorting now that all countries have the same emissions reporting obligations and more countries are moving toward absolute emissions reductions. The Agreement insists the trading mechanism must “ensure environmental integrity and transparency” and “apply robust accounting [for] avoidance of double counting”; it remains to be seen how faithfully these words will be fulfilled. But even without outright fraud, emissions trading is designed not to cut emissions but to prioritize allegedly least-cost ways of doing so. And in a fossil fuel economy, the “least-cost” actions are likely to be ones that don’t initiate any fundamental structural change (for example, it may appear cheap to switch from coal to gas or from brown coal to black coal, when in reality we urgently to need to phase out fossil fuels altogether).
8. It requires no action until 2020, and no new action until 2023-2025
The Agreement will not come into effect until 2020. So the Agreement contains no requirement for countries to do anything for at least several years. Even the post-2020 NDCs are not new; they were announced in the two years leading up to Paris, with no attempt to negotiate more ambitious targets at Paris itself.
Each country is required to submit a new NDC every 5 years, limiting emissions to a lower level each time. Additionally, the High Ambition Coalition secured a parallel 5-year cycle of international stocktakes to determine whether NDCs are collectively progressing toward the Agreement goal. Saudi Arabia and India argued for a 10-year cycle, and effectively got their way in the sense that participation in this process won’t become mandatory until the Agreement comes into force. Astoundingly, therefore, the first mandatory stocktake won’t take place until at least 2023, and the first mandatory NDC submission process not until at least 2025 (albeit with an informal stocktake in 2018 and informal NDC submissions in 2020). Presenting as “high ambition” a 5-year review process beginning 10 years away is a joke for two reasons. Firstly, it is several election cycles away and thus unlikely to place much pressure on politicians. Secondly, warming in the pipeline has already blown past the 1.5°C temperature limit demanded by the same High Ambition Coalition, and by the time the stocktake rolls around it will be even more impossible to meet this target it is supposed to help move toward!
The Agreement is attached to a work program to ramp up action prior to 2020. This would have to be pretty impressive to justify delaying the stocktake to 2023, but it is not. For example, it urges all countries to ratify and implement commitments they made years ago, including otherwise forgotten parallel negotiations to ramp up action pre-2020. It merely encourages them to voluntarily cancel surplus emissions permits from the Kyoto Protocol. It organizes an annual meeting to give countries an opportunity to announce stronger targets. The decision also established a non-state action registry which already includes pledges from 5000 companies, but it is unclear how transparent non-state-actors will have to be, so the registry risks just showcasing corporate greenwash.
The only requirement to do anything before 2020 is for the few countries remaining in the Kyoto Protocol to implement the extremely weak targets they set themselves in 2012. Even the Kyoto targets await ratification by 67 more countries, and 27 of the 37 countries still bound by Kyoto have not ratified, including the European Union and most of its members.
9. It’s unenforceable
Contrary to the claims of Trump and other nationalists concerned about signing away sovereignty, the Paris Agreement was always unenforceable. Even after the Agreement finally comes into effect its NDCs will be non-binding, a betrayal of the promise made in the 2011 Durban Platform. This is because at the last minute the US threatened to pull out unless the word “shall” was diluted to “should” in Article 4.4, so the Agreement would not have to be approved by Congress. Instead of being required to implement their NDCs, governments must merely “pursue” domestic policies with the “aim” of achieving them. With no enforceable requirement to cut emissions, the Agreement is little more than a catalogue advertising governments’ emissions targets. There are plans for a compliance mechanism, but it will be “non-adversarial and non-punitive”. Even those clauses which are legally “binding” are in reality unenforceable, like almost all international law. Any country may withdraw from the Agreement without sanction from November 2020, before they must meet any targets.
10. Talking it up won’t make it work
Defenders of the Paris Agreement claim that the very existence of a global climate agreement will create enough confidence to galvanize further action. The argument goes that because today’s insufficient national pledges are subject to review they are a starting point for ramping up action over time; that now every country has agreed to make a contribution governments can no longer excuse inaction on the basis of waiting for others to join them. This is valid insofar as it is an argument for each country to act unilaterally rather than wait for climate talks to agree on a top-down division of responsibilities, but inadequate as a reassurance that climate talks are on track. Pledge-and-review may be a good idea in principle, but time is now too short to wait another decade to deepen cooperation.
In fairness, China peaking its energy emissions 14 years ahead of its Paris NDC suggests the Agreement might have had a galvanizing effect on the Chinese government (though it is likely more driven by domestic pressure to clean up air pollution, which remember will also remove a factor offsetting global warming). But other governments still defend inadequate climate policies using the excuse that they will meet their Paris commitments. And Trump is undeterred in claiming the Agreement unfairly advantages China and India over the United States (an argument which ignores that climate change harms all nations, China and India have a greater need for growth per capita than the US, and China is already overdelivering on its commitment).
A related pro-Paris argument is that a similar approach worked for the international trade regime. This analogy fails for at least two reasons. Firstly, what “worked” for trade may not work for climate, because the trade regime is in line with politicians’ priorities of increasing corporate power and profits, whereas climate action conflicts with those priorities. Secondly, trade negotiations have dragged on for seven decades, and in the last two decades have run into a divide between rich and poor countries much like the climate talks. The urgency of the climate crisis requires much more rapid progress.
The other half of the confidence argument is that Paris sent an investment signal to corporations. Unfortunately, the Paris targets are too far off to send a very strong signal. Modest targets 10-15 years away and a global emissions peak around 2030 are not going to drive the necessary rapid phaseout of fossil fuels. Investors can still gamble that politicians are bluffing when they claim to be aiming for net zero emissions sometime between 35 and 85 years away. Even if that distant target is implemented, they have a good chance of getting several decades’ worth of profits out of fossil fuel infrastructure. The stockmarket did immediately react to Paris with a small decrease in fossil fuel prices and increase in renewable energy prices, but 18 months later any effect is so small it blends into the background noise of the stockmarket, far from the devaluing of reserves worth tens of trillions of dollars that should have occurred if Paris had truly signalled they would be left in the ground. To the extent that fossil fuel stockmarket prices are down, it is because so many new reserves have been opened up thanks to ongoing government approvals and subsidies.
Perhaps one reason why world leaders have talked up the Paris Agreement is in the hope of prompting corporate change by merely pretending their measly agreement makes it inevitable. If so, they are deluding themselves. It is irrational to rely on the free market to realize decarbonization is necessary. A climate policy cannot be made to work simply by saying it will. Investors cannot be confident in any climate policy as long as there are opposing political forces seeking to undermine those policies – as Trump has just proven.
The Paris Agreement is a fractal failure – a failure on all levels. It aims to prevent dangerous warming with a limit of 1.5-2°C, when past inaction has already brought us to a dangerous 1°C which might only be reversible through unproven geoengineering technology. Instead of meeting its too-risky temperature target through immediate action, it banks on future geoengineering which becomes ever more unfeasible as greenhouse gases rise, and a sketchy emissions pathway which allows a significant chance of overshooting 2°C. Instead of aligning national actions with that dubious pathway, it lets countries set their own emissions targets allowing global emissions to rise until 2030, putting the Earth on track to 3°C plus. Instead of standardizing those inadequate targets, it allows countries to define their own baselines. Instead of planning how to transform the economy to meet these ill-defined targets, the Agreement ignores coexisting plans for fossil fuel expansion and allows emissions trading to limit costs to the fossil fuel economy. Instead of enforcing those unplanned actions, it makes them non-binding with no penalties for non-compliance. Instead of this inadequate Agreement being implemented and its flaws fixed as soon as possible, it won’t come into effect until 2020 and will take a decade to complete its first formal review. And instead of admitting the Agreement’s inadequacy, politicians are talking it up.
Considering all this, Trump’s withdrawal could actually have positive consequences. Now that more Americans than ever believe in global warming, it has the potential to wake them from the comfortable illusion that the problem is being dealt with, and galvanize them into campaigning for real climate action. And considering Trump cannot legally withdraw from the Agreement until during the 2020 presidential election, it could become the top election issue. This is an opportunity for American climate activists to grow the Green Party to become a viable alternative, or take back the Democratic Party from the corporate stooges who have long ruled all major political parties. Even before 2020, considering Trump’s unpredictability, lack of ideological consistency, and willingness to clash with other elites, a mass movement for real climate action might conceivably change Trump’s mind or force his hand.
And that might explain why even ExxonMobil is now backing the Paris Agreement against Trump. I’ve argued in the past that the fossil fuel lobby’s decades-long plan to perpetuate itself has two stages: 1) deny and delay to continue investment in all fossil fuels, and 2) secure weak policies based on far-off targets and light-touch market mechanisms which still allow investment in low-carbon fossil fuels (particularly natural gas, whose low-carbon credentials are questionable due to leakage). They promoted Stage 1 through right-wing parties, and Stage 2 through “left-wing” parties, so that fossil fuels in general would win either way. Those invested in the most carbon-intensive fuels prolonged Stage 1 as long as possible, while those diversifying their investments supported Stage 2. But they knew someday the world would decisively shift into Stage 2, so an increasing number of corporations are now prepared for an energy policy that promotes both fossil fuels and renewables. The Paris Agreement was a pretty good deal for the fossil fuel industry that was supposed to signal the victory of Stage 2.
Now it seems Trump has gone off-script. Maybe that’s because he’s in bed with the dirtiest coal companies. Or maybe it’s because the fossil fuel lobby’s Stage 1 propaganda has so effectively brainwashed rank-and-file right-wingers that it has continued to impact politics beyond its intended use-by date. Trump’s base are beginning to realize he’s either not the anti-globalist they thought he was, or is being stymied in his attempts to confront real threats to national sovereignty such as the trade regime. So in a desperate attempt to reassure them (and fulfill an election promise), Trump is going after the Paris Agreement. But this is no longer in the interests of many businesses who are now greedily eyeing the increasingly profitable renewables and, unfortunately, natural gas. Moreover, Trump’s threat to renegotiate the Agreement means the terms of Stage 2 are still up in the air, making it more likely to be publicly exposed for the sham that it is and replaced with something less favorable to the fossil fuel industry.
If we rely on the Paris Agreement, we are headed for runaway global warming with unpredictable consequences. Independent scientists were scathing in their condemnation of politicians for failing to respond to the crisis in a timely manner. The only ones who welcomed the Agreement were those close to the political process, who are either lying or deluding themselves that merely concluding talks means they have achieved something. The politicians who sold the Paris Agreement as “revolutionary” will be remembered as the politicians who pretended to save the planet.
This post is based on a university capstone essay I wrote last year: http://precariousclimate.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Paris-Agreement-essay.pdf