The Paris Agreement is the most recent attempt by an intergovernmental body to address the challenge of global climate change. Does it have a chance of succeeding? Can any set of national governments make meaningful change in a world where for-profit corporations control resources? This article will attempt to briefly explain the Paris Agreement and why it will fail, and to point out an ecosocialist alternative.
The Paris Agreement in a Nutshell
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international treaty created in 1992 with the purpose of establishing a forum for representatives of world nations to discuss the impact of global climate change and develop a response. So far, there have been two additional major documents produced, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The Parties to the Agreement
197 nations are parties to the UNFCCC and 195 nations (not including the United States) ratified the Kyoto Protocol. As of May 6, 2017, 144 nations have ratified the Paris Agreement. This includes the United States, but the Trump administration currently withdrew from the agreement.
The parties are divided into three categories, based on their status when the UNFCCC was established. There are Annex II parties, which were members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and were the most economically developed nations with a market economy; Annex I parties, which include the Annex II parties plus additional countries that were considered to be in transition to market economies; and non-Annex I parties which includes the so-called “developing nations.” China and India, two major contributors to global climate change, are non-Annex I parties.
The Goals of the Agreement
The following goals are stated in Article 2:
“This Agreement, in enhancing the implementation of the Convention, including its objective, aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, including by:
(a) Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2° above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5° above preindustrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impact of climate change;
(b) Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production; and
(c) Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.”
The Mechanism of the Agreement
According to Article 4 of the Agreement, all parties are expected to work toward the goal of restricting global average temperature increases by reaching global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible.” Index I nations are expected to take the lead by establishing economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets. Non-Annex I nations are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances. All parties are required to communicate their plans to the UNFCCC, but they are free to revise these plans at any time as they see fit.
A total of 139 parties have submitted their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Rather than submitting individual NDCs, the members of the European Union have made a joint submission. There are common elements in many of the submissions. Most notably, they commit to bringing about a peak to their emissions of carbon dioxide by 2030 and increasing the size of their forests. Two major carbon emitters, China and India, adjust their commitments to compensate for their desire to expand their economies and production of energy. Both mention a commitment to renewable energy while expanding their use of coal. India’s NDC echoes the language of fossil fuel advocates in the United States in its use of the oxymoron “Clean Coal.”
The initial NDC submitted by the United States sets an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below its 2005 level in 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28 percent. Its implementation is based on a number of existing laws, regulations, and other domestically mandatory measures, which is unlikely to be enforced by the Trump administration. An inventory of greenhouse gases referenced by the NDC has already been removed from the EPA website.
Shortcomings of the Agreement
Narrowly Defined Goal
Maintaining the global average temperature rise to no more than 2° is a worthy goal, but it isn’t a sufficient target to guide the multiple efforts that will be necessary to avoid a climate catastrophe. The relationship between greenhouse gases and global temperature is complex and global average temperature alone is not an adequate measure. The globe does not heat and cool evenly. Thermal expansion of the oceans, melting of ice (both land ice and sea ice), increasing acidity of the oceans and many other factors need to be considered.
The climate crisis is time sensitive. Indeed, it is quite possible by many of the consequences may already be inevitable and some of the effects are already observable. Sea levels are already rising and both land and sea ice levels are declining. Key ecosystems, most notably coral reefs, are already damaged, possibly beyond repair. Timeframes for the NDCs are established within the submission and are often based on best efforts. Climate change will not wait for us to do our best.
The Agreement contains no mechanism to enforce compliance by the parties. They are only required to report progress every five years and can unilaterally modify their NDCs at any time.
An Ecosocialist Alternative
A Grassroots Approach
Climate change impacts everyone on earth and does not respect national boundaries. Many of the activities that contribute to climate change are not within the control of the parties to the Paris Agreement. Global corporations, often operating outside the control of any government body, control most of the resources and processes involved. At the same time, the impact of the collective action of over seven billion human beings cannot be ignored. We cannot rely on governments or intergovernmental agencies to address the problem. A bottom-up approach starting at the grassroots level is demanded by the circumstances.
Intergovernmental organizations operate within timeframes measured in years. Grassroots action can be quicker in terms of magnitude. Millions of people coordinating their activities through social media can accomplish far more than government officials and multi-million dollar budgets. We need to make use of the expertise and data gathering of groups like Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but these resources can be made directly available to anyone with Internet access and indirectly on behalf of those without access. We need to immediately begin developing and sharing strategies globally.
One of the strategies that we must apply is local democratic control of resources and their utilization. Most importantly, we need to take responsibility for the generation and use of energy instead of leaving control in the hands of those who make decisions in boardrooms, driven primarily by the need to provide profits to investors. This will not be easy, but we must remember that ultimately we control the energy we use and how we acquire it.
Local communities will, of course, take actions that are appropriate to their own situation. Still, they should share a high level agenda of common goals. Some of them are:
- Develop a global network for sharing strategies and methods among communities
- Decentralize the energy infrastructure
- Implement democratic control of energy production and distribution
- Provide public financing for the implementation of existing renewable energy technology
- Educate all people on the need to take immediate action
For more information, see www.socialistpartyusa.net/ecosocialist-campaign.