By David Hales
Over a remarkable period of a little more than a year, from late 1990 through June 1992, nations (108 to be exact) developed a comprehensive program for sustainable development. It included statements of principle on environment and development and on forest management, as well as two legally binding treaties, one on protection of biodiversity and the other on the prevention of climate change. We have struggled with this vision for over two decades.
The Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) opened for signature in June 1992 and entered into force in March 1994. It is under this framework that the high-profile meetings in Paris are now taking place.
The UNFCCC objective is deceptively simple: “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” In other words, at a level where ecosystems can adapt naturally to climate change, food production is not threatened, and economic development can proceed in a sustainable fashion.
The convention set no binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries and contains no enforcement mechanisms. But it focuses primarily on process, including the negotiation of future treaties. It wasn’t until 2010 in Cancun that agreement was reached to limit future global warming to below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F). Even so, the baseline, the place to start counting, remains vague (“relative to the pre-industrial level”).
In short, the convention was a collection of vague signals. It warned of danger it refused to define. It divided countries by responsibility for the past not the future.
It recognized competing national priorities that can excuse climate inaction (explicit – poverty reduction, food supply, human rights, sustainable development, and implicit – retention of political power, for example).
Also, it dodged the question of who is responsible for what and who pays for what.
These vague signals, combined with the U.N. reliance on consensus as a requirement for any decision, condemned negotiators (and I confess to being one) to a miserable two decades of endless talks in windowless rooms.
And yet, after a remarkable investment of good will by many nations, the largest convening of heads of state in human history has produced an agreement of broad scope, a rising tide of hope and more than a possibility of success.
The agreement alone does not guarantee either action or success in reversing the flood of fossil fuel-based poisons into the atmosphere of our planet. But substantive achievements abound.
The science is agreed and unequivocal. Climate change is real, primarily caused by humans, and we can pretty much say which ones. Some150 heads of state have made a good faith commitment, and that sense of common purpose and good faith was visible in the negotiations.
Cooperative commitments totaling billions of dollars and involving hundreds of countries, agencies, cities and businesses have been agreed.
We now have a Climate and Clean Air Coalition that seeks to regulate short-lived pollutants such as methane, black carbon and hydrofluorocarbons, which together account for up to one-third of current global warming.
Mission Innovation is a multi-billion dollar initiative to promote clean energy research and development.
The International Solar Alliance will turn lights on in poor, rural places around the world.
Global Climate Watch Forests will protect forests and restore land in Africa and Latin America.
Some 185 Nations have registered Intended Nationally Determined Contributions covering 98 percent of human emissions.
These measures, along with many other commitments by countries, cities (more than 1,000), investors, corporations and others, comprise the Paris Action Agenda. These are voluntary actions adopted by an impressive range of actors for one primary reason – each determined that their commitment was in their best interest based on their own calculus of economic self-interest, moral responsibility and common sense. The Action Agenda alone has changed the course of the 21st century.
In addition, the conference unanimously adopted a uniquely powerful agreement that will enter into force when formally signed by at least 55 countries, whose emissions exceed at least 55 percent of global emissions caused by humans.
The agreement codifies aspirational commitments from 187 countries, beginning in 2020, to aggressively cut greenhouse gas emissions. It sets a global temperature limitation goal of well below 2 degrees Celsius. It empowers, through a binding agreement of the Framework Convention Conference of Parties, the development of a common set of monitoring, verification and reporting procedures. It articulates a willingness by wealthier countries to provide funds and technology to help poorer countries lower their emissions and adapt to the consequences of climate change. And it mandates a periodic reporting and recalculation of commitments every five years.
It is true that little in the agreement amounts to mandated action. Infamously, the document is replete with countries “should” and very light on “parties shall.” None of the adopted actions create a hard and fast emissions limit for any country.
Commitments to reduce emissions fall well short of the vaguely expressed goal of limiting temperature increases to less than 2 degrees centigrade. Money is promised, but not pledged; amounts from specific countries are not addressed.
There are key issues that are not addressed: emissions deriving from international travel, impacts on oceans – especially deoxygenation, legal liability for the impacts of one country’s emissions on the wellbeing of another, responsibility for climate refugees, and more.
Most glaringly, little progress is made toward setting a price for carbon. And wishy-washy language that recognizes other national priorities that can excuse climate inaction easily can be found in every section.
So there is more to do. The Paris Agreement only sets a stage; it does not write the final act. In so doing, however, it sends clear signals that have never been sent before, and therein lies its unique significance.
The first is a signal to all that debate among responsible adults about the reality of climate change and its roots in human action, especially the burning of fossil fuels, really is over.
Second is a signal to the financial interests of the world that the marketplace has irrevocably changed. In the words of the president of the World Bank, “it triggers the massive sums of public and private sector investments needed to drive economies toward a carbon neutral world.” It changes the basic definition of fiduciary responsibility for those who act on behalf of investors and stockholders.
We have admitted that the cost of inaction measured in economic terms alone will be trillions of dollars. And with this agreement, we have begun to outline how those trillions of dollars can instead be invested in sustainable technologies, food systems that meet human hunger and full employment. The Paris Agreement begins the creation of a framework that respects national sovereignty, gives developing countries time, flexibility and resources to get to a point where they can assume ambitious responsibilities, rewards developed countries for doing the right thing and creates a basis for full employment, low-carbon economies that will bring us by century’s end well under a 1 C temperature increase. The first global collective dialogue on how such a world can be shaped is now scheduled for 2018 at the 24th FCCC Conference of Parties.
Third, and ultimately most important, is the creation of a sacred debt of honor to future generations. It is true that national leaders have entered into a pact of honor with each other via this agreement. And it is true that those who might break that trust will deserve scorn and shame. More powerful, however, is our statement to our children that we know that business as usual, characterized by the fossil-based economies of the 20th century, will leave them a world impoverished in every sense. We have admitted that a better world is possible, and in that admission is the promise to choose the better world. We have accepted that where our children are concerned, opportunity equals responsibility.
Signals sent, of course, can be too weak to be received. And the right thing to do always can be done the wrong way. Yet the Paris Agreement, for all of its flaws, illuminates the challenges ahead in practical terms. It clarifies choices yet to be made in the context of a transparent framework where bad actors will find it much harder to hide. If we are wise in the choices we make, it will become the turning point in achieving the vision of Rio in 1992.
David Hales of Bar Harbor is a former president of College of the Atlantic and has served as counsel for sustainability policy to Worldwatch Institute. He directed environmental policy and sustainability programs at the United States Agency for International Development under the Clinton administration, where he also worked as a lead negotiator on climate issues.