The Paris climate change conference is a magnificent failure.
Magnificent because it, for the first time, binds almost every country to fight a common enemy – global warming – through the reduction of greenhouse gases. A failure because there is no commitment to bring down emissions now; they will keep rising before they peak and start to fall, boosting the odds of frequent and potentially catastrophic climate disasters.
Paris was the 21st climate change summit since the landmark Rio de Janeiro Earth summit in 1992 and each one was pretty much a dud. Since then, greenhouse gas emissions have climbed relentlessly, already taking average global temperatures to 1 degree above preindustrial levels. Climate scientists agree that the planet just might be able to adapt to a rise of no more than 2 degrees; beyond that, all bets are off. To its credit, the Paris agreement stresses that a 1.5-degree increase is far safer and makes that increase an aspirational goal.
Still, it's tempting to write off the Paris agreement as more hot air. The emissions-reduction targets are not binding and there are no penalties for transgressors. Two big emitters, aviation and shipping, which together account for more than 5 per cent of global emissions, are exempt from the Paris Agreement. No mechanisms were set to determine national carbon prices let alone a global one and the goal to transfer $100-billion (U.S.) a year from the wealthy word to developing countries to help them cope with climate change remains just that – a goal, not a binding commitment.
But as failures go, it is a worthy one and a vast improvement over the 1997 Kyoto Accord, which placed reduction commitments only on the wealthy world (and were ignored by Canada, which abandoned Kyoto in 2012) and the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, which collapsed in acrimony. The best feature of the Paris deal is the pledge from 195 countries to meet the carbon-reduction plans each of them submitted before the Paris summit and to resubmit them every five years, presumably tightening them up each time. The plans are to be transparent, ambitious, realistic and are to be peer-reviewed, putting enormous pressure on each country to stay in the carbon-reduction game.
The problem is that our toasty little planet can't wait 15 or 20 years before significant reductions in carbon output are achieved. The effort should start now, but how?
Billionaire tech gurus, such as Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, endlessly trumpet the benefits and joys of technology. A renewable energy breakthrough is needed, they say, a goal so blindingly obvious that it's hardly worth restating. The problem is that hundreds of billions of dollars, maybe trillions, will be needed to make renewable energy cheap and efficient enough to send coal-fired electricity generating plants – the biggest single source of emissions – to an early grave.
Businesses won't spend that sort of money unless they can be reasonably assured of some sort of return, which means that governments would have to kick-start the renewables revolution. But they're severely short of funds and, when they do spend, they expose themselves to political pressures. The money flow would wax and wane. Some of it would inevitably go to make-work projects, such as keeping favoured university scientists on the dole, whether or not they deserve it. Yes, some worthy research would be done by governments or government-funded institutions but the potential for waste and outright boondoggles would be enormous.
A more promising and faster way to reduce carbon emissions in the near term is to put a price on them. When carbon is priced, the least costly emissions reductions will happen first. By progressively raising the carbon tax, the more difficult reductions would follow. The trick is to make any carbon tax revenue-neutral – the income could be deployed on anything from personal tax reductions to green-energy R&D. The other trick is to ensure lot of countries, states and provinces adopt carbon taxes, otherwise jobs will disappear to the countries with no carbon taxes. Carbon cap-and-trade schemes are a variation on the theme. Some of the Canadian provinces have one or the other. Many more are needed.
Ditching fuel subsidies would help the decarbonization campaign a lot. According to the International Energy Agency, governments around the world spend about $500-billion a year subsidizing fuel use. While the subsidies are well below their peak, they are unaffordable for many countries and hypocritical after the Paris Agreement. How can any government promote the end of the fossil fuel era while simultaneously subsidizing its longevity? The collapse in oil prices provides the perfect opportunity to eliminate fuel subsidies.
In the end, it's not horrendously complicated – carbon has become progressively more expensive. The Paris Agreement acknowledges this simple truth but doesn't provide any mechanism to jack up prices. The real world outside of the Paris Agreement has to take on that task.