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The world in peril: the Paris Agreement, a broken promise

World superpowers take a backseat amid escalating catastrophes

By Tomás Pizarro-Escuti

Image courtesy of Xenja Santarelli via Flickr

I will start by telling you an inconvenient truth: the leaders of the world have failed us and humanity is on the verge of extinction. Human-caused global warming is a physical reality that cannot be denied, it can be seen in the warming of the oceans, the land and the lower atmosphere. Consequences such as altered rainfall patterns, megadroughts, Arctic ice melting and sea level rise are some examples. Little-known nations like Palau and Kiribati are already starting to disappear, leaving millions without a home. It is frightening to think that more than 50 per cent of Earth’s coral reefs have been lost, not only because of their immense beauty but because they hold a third of the world’s CO2. They are a stabilising force in the climate that can no longer do their job fast enough to sustain us.

In a world where you will be able to sail over the North Pole in 2040, the international system’s response is the Paris Agreement.

The Agreement signified the culmination of years of arduous negotiations under intense pressures to prevent the reiterated failures of other previous environmental treaties. The Paris Agreement establishes the objective of keeping the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C with respect to preindustrial levels and to peruse efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. To achieve this, the emission of worldwide greenhouse gases (GHGs) must be dramatically reduced. The Agreement’s method of reaching this goal is through a bottom-up approach of unilateral pledges known as National Determined Contributions (NDC). In other words, each country must set its own voluntary objectives. However, the world’s current situation is critical, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that if the global net human-caused emissions of CO2 do not fall by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero in 2050, it is unlikely that the Paris Agreement will reach its goal. More importantly, if temperatures rise by more than 3°C, the world will face a massive extinction of species.

Nevertheless, to be fair, some positive aspects of the Agreement must be acknowledged. The international community spent more than two decades negotiating unsuccessful legally binding rules to reduce GHG emissions, and after the collapse of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord many high-ranking officials concluded that multilateral climate diplomacy was doomed to failure. The Paris Agreement recognises the paramountcy of domestic politics in climate change and allows countries to set their own level of ambition for climate change mitigation, shifting away from mandatory emission reduction which was one of the major barriers to international climate cooperation. Without a doubt, the Paris Agreement would not have been adopted by the vast majority of countries on Earth had the parties not aimed for a decentralised, bottom-up process of voluntary pledges. The Agreement commits parties to hold the increase in the global average temperature well below 2°C and obliges countries to submit NDCs at a regular interval of five years, which in turn are expected to surpass the NDCs ambitions of previous ones. Another opportunity presented in the Agreement is that in contrast with previous accords: it includes all countries in its mitigation efforts. Whereas, for example, the Kyoto Treaty placed obligations to reduce GHG emissions only on industrialised nations. Nevertheless, the Paris Agreement retains a certain degree of differentiation between developed and developing countries. Developed countries ‘shall continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide, absolute emission reduction targets’, developing countries ‘should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts’ and are only ‘encouraged’ to move over time towards the kind of emissions reduction or limitation targets that apply to the industrialised countries. Moreover, the Agreement mandates that to help developing countries meet their commitments developed countries must provide financial resources to aid them. Specifically, $100 billion a year by 2020 and continuing until 2025.

Now let us see where the Paris Agreement so categorically fails. One of its most notable obstacles is the fact that there has been limited guidance on NDCs formulation. This has caused varied, inconsistent NDCs which more than often lack details concerning their aims. Indeed, as NDCs come from numerous sources, the quality and quantity of the information are extremely irregular. In fact, they range from three to 57 pages. Paradoxically, the quality of the information of the NDCs is inversely proportional to the level of income of the country, leading medium-low and low-income states offer a higher quality of information. They mostly correspond to African states and small islands where climate change presents the greatest threat. In a global context, only 18.5 per cent of NDCs offer general information of high quality, and only 12.7 per cent as far as finance is concerned. The richest countries in the world, OECD member states, do not provide any data about the funding of their policies, calling into question the leading role of developed countries.

Another major challenge to the Paris Agreement is the tensions over climate finance. The $100 billion commitment of financial mobilisation has not been absent of flaws. The Agreement recognises the significance of financial aid for vulnerable states. However, it does not prescribe which developing countries are vulnerable and how to prioritise funding among them. This has led the financial commitment of developed countries open to their own interpretation, leaving vulnerable states in a susceptible and dependent position.

To make matters worse, the $100 billion are non-existent—the promise was broken. Figures for 2020 in 2022 are not yet in and the states who negotiated the pledge cannot agree on accounting methods. A UN report in 2020 concluded that ‘the only realistic scenarios’ showed the $100 billion target was out of reach. ’We are not there yet’, stated the secretary-general António Guterres. But even if they kept their promise, $100 billion a year is not enough.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates a needed $2.4 trillion a year. Anything less is a climate catastrophe.

The climate fund simply falls short. For example, 14 out of 51 low-income countries require $31.2 billion just for their forestry and land-use sectors, and only five of the above countries account for 77 per cent of the total sum. The fund is clearly insufficient for the developing countries’ needs. Furthermore, the Agreement does not provide any liability or compensation for vulnerable countries damaged by environmental disasters. Such decision was introduced by the United States. This unequivocally affects the poor who are pressured to self-sustain in the face of adversity.

Undoubtedly, the biggest failure of the Agreement is the fact that the majority of the countries subscripted to it are not honouring their pledged NDCs. And the United Kingdom is no exception. As things are now, a great number of scientific reports are showing that keeping the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C is unlikely, not to say impossible, and achieving the 1.5°C target is simply unfeasible. Experts believe that in the best-case scenario, annual world emissions would increase by 19.3 per cent by 2030. If this level remains constant between 2030 and 2050, world temperature will increase by at least 3°C. Even worse, new scientific studies are indicating that at under a 2°C of warming vast areas of Africa, Europe, North America and South America are at risk of high flooding, and even with a 1.5°C level of warming highly populated regions in South Asia and India are at great risk.

The analysis of the Paris Agreement’s challenges should not be restricted to the various causes that affect its implementation; it should also account for the paramount factor that shaped all these elements—the economic structure of society.

The neoliberal system moulded upon the idea of exponential growth is a barrier to the objectives of the agreement. Excessive private consumption is among the key drivers of GHG emissions, particularly among highly industrialised economies.

However, the vast majority of the world’s NDCs do not contemplate programs aimed at decreasing consumption and economic growth. Achieving the aims of the Agreement will require a new sustainable system of production and consumption.

As you must be aware by now, the Paris Agreement is fragile and incomplete—its main objectives are unlikely to be achieved. However, not everything is lost! The mobilisation of civil society can change the destiny of our planet. Fighting climate change is not merely in the hands of a few politicians that have already failed us. You are a key player in this global struggle. Groups like Fridays for Future, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, are key drivers for change. When civil society is organised, change happens. This is what history has taught us with the abolishment of slavery, the suffragettes, and the civil rights movement; structural change can happen when there is non-violent, direct action involved.

We all have a responsibility to set an example before it is too late. On what side of history will you be? —That is the question.