What a cliffhanger. As delegates from 195 countries pulled all-nighters in search of a climate deal, the world held its breath. At last, success! Perhaps we'll save the planet after all. In fact, a deal in Paris was always in the works and everybody knew it.
After the Copenhagen debacle of 2009, the mighty UN climate juggernaut desperately needed a victory. And here it is – an agreement that's unenforceable and toothless, but makes everyone feel good. Especially Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, our fearless and photogenic leader, took a delegation of 300 politicians, functionaries and hangers-on with him just to prove it. "Canada is back, my good friends," he announced in Paris.
Naturally, there's a cranky old skeptic or two. "It's a fraud really, a fake," said James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who has been called the father of climate change awareness. "It's just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned."
He's right, and the negotiators must surely know it. The only way to begin to wean the world away from fossil fuels is to put a global price on carbon. And that's not going to happen. Instead, it's Scout's honour. Every country will set its own voluntary targets and update them every five years. If you miss the targets, what happens is … er, nothing.
Everyone has pledged to rein in global temperatures to an increase of two degrees C. No one has the slightest idea how to get there. So far, all the pledges from all the countries put together would scarcely budge the needle on the great big global thermostat. But we really care! To prove it, we're even going to aim for
1.5 degrees. Which is like saying that I aim to lose 100 pounds on my current diet of croissants and brie, minus a crumb or two. No! Make that 120 pounds!
Another awkward fact: As the rich world swears off coal, the rest of the world is going crazy for it. China alone is building 368 plants and plans another 803, according to the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Cheap, abundant power is the only way to keep raising the standard of living of its citizens, on which China's future depends.
China's leaders "will not forsake national economic growth for the supposed global good," writes Probe International's Patricia Adams, a leading expert on
China's environmental economy. (Disclosure: I sit on a related advisory board.) By the way, that awful smog you see in Beijing isn't carbon dioxide – it's particulate matter from cars, construction and industry. Fixing that is much easier than cutting CO2 emissions.
So long as China and India – the world's No. 1 and No. 3 emitters, respectively – are on a growth path, it doesn't matter how many solar panels anyone installs. The increase in their CO2 emissions will dwarf any cuts in ours. "Emissions are rising and rising," the Potsdam Institute's Ottmar Edenhofer has warned. "Instead of decarbonizing, we are carbonizing our economy."
Climate activists know there's not much point bugging India or China, which will simply ignore them, kick them out or lock them up. So they'll keep haranguing the rich world. "We'll be blocking pipelines, fighting new coal mines, urging divestment from fossil fuels – trying, in short, to keep weakening the mighty industry that still stands in the way of real progress," warns Bill McKibben in The New York Times.
Here in Canada, Mr. Trudeau will lean on the provinces to strike a deal of our own. That may or may not include a national price on carbon. Despite his jaunty optimism, it's difficult to see a road map that would get us anywhere close to the target his government (and the last one) have committed us to. To borrow a popular word from Paris, our goals are "aspirational."
Still, there's major money on the table – billions of federal dollars for green infrastructure, clean technology and energy efficiency initiatives, plus another $2-billion to finance projects that reduce emissions. The Paris agreement may not save the planet. But it's splendid news for seekers of green subsidies, NGOs and climate junketeers, who will be jetting around the globe for years to come.
Next stop: Next year, in Marrakesh.