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A Toothless Treaty Can't Stop Climate Change

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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As 195 countries hammered out an agreement to minimize climate change  the town council of Woodland, North Carolina, met to ban a solar farm on its land and prevent all future attempts to establish one of these devilish installations. One of the speakers, a retired science teacher no less, opposed the green energy project because she claimed it would soak up all the sunlight and kill plants in the vicinity.

The Paris agreement is powerless to counter such moves. Article 12 states:

Parties shall cooperate in taking measures, as appropriate, to enhance climate change education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information, recognizing the importance of these steps with respect to enhancing actions under this Agreement.

And yet this commitment is as unenforceable as the rest of the document. Politicians have congratulated themselves just the same. U.S. President Barack Obama said he believes "this moment can be a turning point for the world," and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said the deal "finally reflects the aspiration, and the seriousness, to preserve our planet for future generations." And indeed, reaching any kind of consensus after months of preparation and weeks of exhausting talks can be cathartic. But the Paris agreement has parts that are specific and parts that are binding -- never both at once.

In November, before the COP21 conference began, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said it would not produce a binding treaty requiring every country to cut greenhouse gas emissions to a specific level. That earned him a reprimand from French President Francois Hollande, who insisted the agreement would be rock solid: "If the agreement is not legally binding, there won’t be an agreement, because that would mean it would be impossible to verify or control the undertakings that are made."

A month later, here's how Politico described a key moment in the deal's passage:

Deep in the legally binding part of the final draft agreement, Article 4, the text said wealthier countries “shall” set economy-wide targets for cutting their greenhouse gas pollution, rather than “should.” The words may be interchangeable outside the negotiating rooms, but in U.N.-speak, “should” isn’t legally binding, while “shall” is. That would have forced U.S. President Barack Obama to submit the final deal to the Senate, where the Republican majority had promised to kill it. Instead of protracted negotiations, [French Foreign Minister Laurent] Fabius treated the language as a typo, pushed through a quick amendment to the text. Seconds later he banged his gavel and the deal was done.

The final version, of course, says that "developed country Parties should continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets."

 Thanks to that and to its general vagueness, the deal won't require ratification by the U.S. Congress, where the vote is likely to go as it did in Woodland, North Carolina. Kerry's goal has been achieved: The U.S. won't be blamed for killing off a global effort to slow down climate change. Yet it's Hollande and Fabius who are taking the credit for engineering a diplomatic breakthrough.

What the deal actually does is set a tentative target -- to keep global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (that allows for a remaining increase of about 1.1 degrees) and to try limiting it to 1.5 degrees -- and it instructs each participating country to regularly publish its own plans for contributing to this effort. The negotiators call this a "framework," and the requirement to produce the plans is binding; but nobody has taken on any obligations to comply with any common plan, and there's no punishment for treating the emissions-reducing programs as a formality or never following through on them.

Apart from the temperature goal, there's just one specific number in the agreement (its non-binding part): $100 billion a year, the amount of assistance to be provided by developed nations to developing ones so they can make their energy industries cleaner and greener. That number was already part of the previous climate accord, reached in 2009 in Copenhagen. This level of funding was supposed to be reached by 2020. Since 2009, however, governments and environmentalists have failed to agree what kind of financing to include in the $100 billion. For example, do loans issued on market terms qualify? If they don't, the $100 billion goal is hardly achievable.

report from the World Resource Institute, published earlier this year, put the total climate finance from developed nations and international institutions at $42 billion in 2012 and projected that it could reach $77 billion by 2020 under a medium-growth scenario. Only private sector funding can drive it up to more than $100 billion a year, and even if it does, it's not clear whether this will keep global warming to the 2 degree target. In 2010, the World Bank put the necessary funding at $275 billion a year. 

International diplomacy is useful in getting governments, with all their diverse goals and problems, to agree on common goals. It's important that there is an international agreement in which most of the world's nations acknowledge climate change and the need to do something about it. That, however, is all that the Paris deal is good for.

In the real world, the energy transition is all about developed nations' isolated efforts to cut emissions. Germany and some of its European neighbors, such as Denmark, have gone a long way and paid dearly to get greener. In the process, they have created markets for the technology and equipment needed for sustainable energy. These markets are still shaky, but they're growing less dependent on subsidies. 

There will be further technological advances -- mostly in developed nations, too. Last week, Germany's Max Planck Institute turned on a revolutionary fusion reactor that might make waste-free, safe energy generation commercially feasible in the coming decades. 

When the costs of the green technology are low enough for developing countries to adopt them, they will do so without much prompting. The richer nations' contribution is in developing, testing and scaling the technology. The diplomats and politicians might like to get in on the process and help it along, but the future of climate change depends on scientists and markets. All governments can do is make sure they are not hampered: The world is full of Woodland town councils.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net