The three R’s of Paris: Rejoice, Ratify, Ratchet

It’s all too easy to carp about the Paris COP agreement. There’s no global carbon tax. It is all pledges and good intentions. The sum total of those promises falls far short of the 2 C goal and far, far short of the 1.5 C aspirational target. The agreement contains some provisions for measuring progress in transparent ways, but it is not legally binding. There is no provision for sanctioning governments that fail to deliver. As my MP, Elizabeth May, has said of environmental treaties in general: “Trade treaties have teeth, environmental treaties only gums”.

Still, there is much to celebrate.

Rejoice

This is what a turning point looks like. This is what a first step in the right direction looks like. We have waited for a long time for this, too long of course, but now that it has happened we should cheer this agreement. It brings together all of the governments of the world, in a diplomatic agreement focussed on the monumental problem of climate change. The French convenors deserve our thanks and praise for their stamina and patience in herding all of these cats to a common goal.

Now it’s up to the national governments to implement their promises.

Ratify

climatemarchpicGovernments returning home not only have to get political ratification in their home legislatures (except in the USA) they also have to sell the project to their citizenry. In every country, there are going to be constituencies that will oppose this treaty. They will need to be won over and it will not be enough simply to ram this agreement through legislatures. For projects like this, implementation will take decades of often painful transformation. Nearly everybody has to buy in.

Ratification goes beyond clearing purely legal or political hurdles. For example, Canada  has made a pledge—30% lower emissions in 2030 compared to 2005—but has no national-level policy. Alberta has recently announced an emissions reduction plan, including an economy wide carbon tax of $30 per tonne. Astonishing and ambitious though this policy is, it’s not sufficient and if Alberta follows this trajectory, it will place a huge burden on other provinces if Canada is to meet its 2030 pledge.

Ratchet

As I noted in my recent post The chance of staying below two degrees: INDCs and the Seven Ifs there are many steps that have to be made beyond Paris before we get close to  2 C. These include bringing forward emissions peaks and greatly increasing the rate of decarbonization. All parties have to do this, not just the heavy emitters, but also the developing countries. That last item will take money, at least $100 billion per year. This money has been promised, but specifics are lacking. Based on past performance of rich countries with foreign aid pledges, we have to add the possibility of a fourth “R”.

Renege

There’s fuzzy accounting on emissions, but the accounting on aid money is as fuzzy as fuzzy gets. As Jonathan Katz wrote in the New Republic;

I think everyone gets the importance of money and power at these negotiations by now. The operating assumption is that rich countries who’ve benefited most from carbon emissions will pay something to alleviate the effects of global warming on the poor, while helping the new major polluters, such as India, get off carbon before they burn us past the point of no return.
In exchange, the world’s powers want reporting and transparency—so India and China don’t sneak off and burn a bunch of coal and oil while no one is looking—and a plan for future meetings where everyone will make new pledges and be held accountable in the court of world opinion for what they’ve done. That trade-off is why the U.S. wants emissions accounting and transparency standards (and little else) to be legally binding, while India goes to the mat to force a better accounting on rich countries’ existing pledge to “mobilize” $100 billion a year in climate finance.

But the thing is, I’ve actually seen what it looks like when rich countries “give”—or more accurately, promise to give—to people in the developing world. It’s ugly.

The truth is that powerful countries rarely simply hand money to foreign governments or people. Instead, we pay ourselves to do projects, then evaluate them ourselves, with little meaningful participation from the people we nominally try to help. Oxfam has said that 85 percent of the U.S. “foreign aid” budget actually goes to U.S. government contractors and U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations—despite the fact that study after study shows it’s more effective to support other governments’ budgets or better yet (surprise!) just give people money.

One reason this happens is an outsized fear of foreigners’ corruption. Another is domestic politics: Conservatives, especially U.S. ones, loathe foreign aid, seeing it as yet another redistribution of money from those who deserve it (them) to those who don’t (anyone else). Congresses of all stripes routinely block anything that actually lets money leave American hands, and administrations have rarely pushed the issue. No number of reports or books or briefings about the unending circularity of “foreign” aid spending has shaken the idea. As a rare climate science-accepting conservative researcher of climate finance wrote at the opening of the talks, “Opposing such a transfer of wealth to developing countries would seem a rather uncontroversial position.”

This is isn’t to knock the US. Every donor country reneges on aid promises.

Depending how you divide it up, North America would be on the hook for 21-57% of the $100 billion plus per year.

Let’s say the bill for the US would be $30 billion per year. That’s only 1% or so of the federal budget, but it’s about equal to what the country spends on science. It’s roughly equivalent to the amount in today’s money that the US paid over each of four years to the Marshall Plan and that helped Europe rebuild after the Second World War.

There’s plenty of scope here for backsliding.

Never mind, let’s celebrate

There may well be problems with implementation, but at least there’s a plan to implement. We don’t know how much or how quickly this plan could accelerate and produce its own momentum.

This is the best news we’ve had on fighting climate change for many years. It has been a long time coming, but now it’s here and it’s time to stop quibbling and get on the bus.

3 thoughts on “The three R’s of Paris: Rejoice, Ratify, Ratchet

  1. I’m of like mind with many, maybe even all, of your points.

    Just as a check on my own interpretation I’ve looked at what the usual opponents of climate science and renewable energy are saying. There’s a mix of anger (oh, lots of that as always), dimwitted mockery, resignation and a large helping of “this is meaningless show agreement.”

    It’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have been dancing in the streets of the Internet village if COP21 had collapsed without an agreement. As it is, getting 195 countries on board, including the U.S., China, India and all of OPEC is a triumph of diplomacy and a sign that even slow-moving governments are recognizing the urgency of action.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful essay. Having been seriously attempting to stay up to speed and participate in climate change action for more than a decade, I agree fully with your statement “This is the best news we’ve had on fighting climate change for many years. It has been a long time coming, but now it’s here and it’s time to stop quibbling and get on the bus.”. I remain terrified of our possible future but believe change is now within our grasp. It will be up to all of us now.
    Paris demonstrated that there is a global recognition of the concept of ‘us’, so indeed – Rejoice!

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