The sad truth about COP21


Forgive my scepticism at what has been labelled an historic achievement by many in Paris. Ever since the first reports on what has been agreed were published, a sense of optimism pervaded most mainstream media outlets. An ambitious, unanimously agreed upon, legally binding treaty aiming to prevent global temperatures from rising above 2°C (or even 1.5°C) sounds truly revolutionary. It is as if during one week of discussions, world leaders forgot their fiscal and political ties to the fossil fuel industry; their ideology of perpetual growth; and the ‘inconvenience’ of meaningful climate progress. What convinced nations such as Russia, the USA, the UK and other world powers to abandon their tactics of downplaying the gravity of climate change in favour of binding targets?


Probably the fact that the agreement is not actually binding.


At a climate conference in Brussels that I was fortunate enough to attend, I asked the panel whether a ‘binding’ treaty without any meaningful enforcement mechanisms could be considered anything more than farcical. In response, I was told that my concerns about the legitimacy of the agreement were valid, but that our role henceforth was to create the political will necessary for action, rather than insist upon legitimate avenues for enforcement. At this point, then, the result of COP21 is a bunch of promises that, I will confidently assume, few countries actually intend to fulfill.


You needn’t take just my word for it. James Hansen, the “father of climate change awareness,” called the agreement “worthless words” and “fraud”. Noting the fact that they could not be considered actions, “just promises,” Hansen – like most climate experts – knows that our reliance on fossil fuels will persist as long as it appears to be the most economically viable option. The bottom line is that cheap fuel will always trump necessary action to preserve our planet, as evidenced by a recent Unapologists piece on UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to actually increase fossil fuel subsidies.


The response from political leaders has, predictably, been substantially more positive. President Barack Obama, speaking hours after the agreement, declared, “We’ve shown that the world has both the will and the ability to take on this challenge.” In reality, all they’ve shown the world is the will and the ability to make promises they have no intention of keeping. Even forgetting for a minute that the treaty still needs to be ratified by each state and that, for example, the Republican party in the USA is already planning on resisting this process, the agreement is useless without some form of enforcement for these ‘binding’ targets. To illustrate, I would like to examine the aftermath of other “historic” international achievements: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 and the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.


The UDHR, in the wake of the destructive havoc wrought by the Second World War, was hailed as “the magna carta for all men everywhere”, securing the rights and dignity of every citizen of the planet. Like COP21, it too was ambitious, in declaring that no human rights abuses would be tolerated. Since then, atrocities in Rwanda, Cambodia, and the former Yugoslavia – just to name a few – have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the UDHR. The United States and other ‘developed’ countries are also responsible for human rights abuses, and the status of women in African and Middle Eastern countries are still a long way from what was envisioned in 1948. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that without actual means of enforcement (among questions of cultural relativism versus universality) the likelihood of the treaty achieving what it set out was unrealistic at best. Is this what we will be saying about COP21, years from now?


The Kyoto Protocol was also spoken about the way some of us are currently speaking about the Paris agreement. This too was a world-changing plan that initially had huge international backing. However, Kyoto proved to be a failure as the US Senate refused to ratify it, whilst Canada pulled out completely. Brad Plumer at Vox shows that emissions actually increased after Kyoto. A similar fate may befall COP21.


Unlike the Kyoto protocol, COP21 utilised a “bottom-up” method in which every country presented their own plan to the UN, taking into account their own unique situations, rather than attempt to enforce universal goals which were unrealistic for developing nations. It also encouraged mass participation from the world’s governments, which is how the Paris talks were able to secure a unanimous deal. The talks’ inclusive approach does bestow last month’s achievements with undeniable and unprecedented potential. However, disregarding Plumer’s assertion that these promises are still “laughably inadequate”, we still have no way of ensuring their implementation.


In response to the question I posed in Brussels, Annika Hedberg, a Senior Policy Analyst in Europe’s Political Economy Programme, acknowledged my concerns about the unenforceability of the agreement. Her solution was to present a ‘positive narrative’ on the benefits of climate action to create and mobilise the political will in order to achieve the results we desperately need. I can see the benefits of this tactic, particularly amongst a global citizenry who are generally reluctant to alter their way of life for the purpose of carbon reduction. However, the assumption that such a narrative will compel the political elite to act – in defiance of their corporate subsidisers – is, I think, wishful thinking. Relying on political idealism to motivate significant climate action is a terrifying thought, particularly given the importance of what we’re trying to achieve.
COP21, ultimately, is a sham, a prime opportunity to build political capital without actually doing anything, or being held accountable. It is not going to protect our planet without proper means of enforcement, and meaningful sanctions when goals aren’t achieved. I may sound cynical, but the necessary action is clear. We need to bring everyone back to the table, and structure this treaty in a way that ensures all signatories must fulfil their duties as stipulated, with tangible consequences if they don’t. Specifically, the world’s powers, as both the largest polluters and the most difficult states upon which to enforce international law, need to be held accountable. Before we figure out how to do this both COP21, and international law more broadly, can be regarded as little more than farcical.

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