Comments on the Paris climate change outcome by Ralph Chapman

The Paris COP21 agreement does take us forward in at least one sense – it will involve all countries agreeing to take action, a feat in itself. So it’s the first comprehensive agreement, and an important step on from Kyoto in 1997 – the last big breakthrough.

But sadly it will be more aspirational than adequate in at least three ways:

  • First, the targets that countries aim for will be voluntary and not legally binding; this was important for getting countries on board, but it means that they can’t readily be held to account. Thus it isn’t really a concrete plan, and my guess is that a concrete plan will probably take too long to emerge. Action may be taken only gradually, with an eye to five-yearly stocktakes, ratcheting up, bit by bit, the so-called ‘ambition’ level. All the time the climate problem will be worsening. Much better would have been a clear commitment to firmly assuring emissions peak no later than 2020, consistent with what the IPCC has said is needed.
  • Second, looking at it from the point of view of the global carbon budget, we don’t have a clear sense of national responsibilities for sharing this budget, which is already severely limited – it’s due to run out around 2035–2040 (i.e., perhaps only twenty years away) at current emission rates.
  • Third, although it is aspirational, the deal to date is simply not ambitious enough in concrete terms. Without a clear definition of the ‘balance between emissions by sources and removals by sinks’ in the ‘second half of this century’, it’s hard to say what countries collectively are committed to. The detail around this appears not to be resolved, and given the uncertainties around carbon sequestration technology, this could be a big hole in the Paris agreement.

To have a good chance of holding global warming to below 2°C would require the world community to cut back its rising emissions track so that instead of the current upward trend from the present 50 billion tonnes annually (approx.) to around 55 by 2020, the global track would instead fall sharply to about 40 billion tonnes by 2030 and then head on down to 0 by about 2060.

Rich countries would have to make bigger cuts, to make space for developing countries like India. That isn’t in sight; we still run the risk of warming well above 2°C, perhaps 3°C or so. Basically, the global community has waited so long to wean itself off fossil fuels, that it’s really very hard to do it in time to avoid 2°C of warming. The aspiration of 1.5°C (‘1.5 to stay alive’) is commendable in one sense, but it’s now extremely unlikely to be realised, unless a huge breakthrough in energy technology were achieved and very widely adopted. That could happen but we shouldn’t count on it.

One bright side to the picture is that there does seem to be increasing public and business awareness and recognition of the importance of taking mitigation action, and especially critical steps such as major investment in renewable energy. Greenpeace gets it right in saying ‘We’re in a race between rising temperatures and the roll-out of renewables’1 – and over half the energy investment occurring today is in the latter. Greater energy efficiency and demand management are also a critical part of the picture.

New Zealand – how we are viewed and what we are trying to do

New Zealand was in a weak position at Paris – it has been affecting our reputation. Our climate target offer of –11% (vis-à-vis 1990) by 2030 was and is seen by a number of experts as ‘inadequate’ (and would, if other developed countries did the same, see warming of over 3°C). Moreover, our emissions have been rising and the government lacks a concrete plan to cut them fast enough. New Zealand has been ranked as 42nd among developed countries, against various climate indicators.

At Paris, New Zealand has been ‘talking conditionality’, pushing for rules that suit us on carbon credit trading, so that we can buy cheaper emission reductions from others. However, New Zealand has overplayed the trading game in the past, and the result has been a rising emission pathway. The global community have noticed this. New Zealand is becoming more isolated in its approach of putting a big emphasis on trading.

In my view, New Zealand should stop putting off significant domestic action, and move rapidly onto a declining emission pathway that prepares our economy for the future. It’s been disappointing in the days since Paris to see Mr Groser and Mr Key defending New Zealand’s oil and gas exploration strategy, and an inadequate set of wider climate policies.2

Costs and benefits of action

In defending its stance, the New Zealand government has repeatedly painted a narrow picture of costs and benefits of carbon mitigation. A number of commentators, including Gareth Morgan, have pointed out the flawed assumptions in the government’s analysis.3 It is all too easy to over-estimate the costs of cutting emissions, and focus on those numbers.

Here’s a better way to think about costs and benefits:

  • Sure, there will be some costs of mitigation that fall on households (and firms), but as markets catch on, the costs often turn out less than is currently estimated. And it’s important to remember that markets are very good at finding low-cost solutions once the government is clear about the challenge.
  • On the benefit side of taking action, there are three main things to remember:
  1. ‘Doing the right thing’ and being seen to do so. This matters for trade and for being a good global citizen. We’d be foolish to dismiss this, especially with the renewed international momentum embodied in the Paris deal.
  2. Getting ahead of the curve in terms of the economic transition that New Zealand is having to make anyway, sooner or later. For example, if we can crack agricultural GHG-cutting biological technology there could be big payoffs available.
  3. Co-benefits: If we can transition away from fossil fuel-guzzling cars, for example, by moving to electric vehicles with car sharing, then our costs of transport will fall, our economic security will increase, and our mobility and access should improve. Moving to more cycling and walking can also make our cities better, healthier places while cutting emissions. These are hard to ‘value’ in an economic sense, but there are potentially large payoffs in areas like reduced obesity and more attractive cities.

At the end of the day, as they say, what really matters is that we have a habitable planet, and we take action now to achieve this. Should this be a goal that we are prepared to sacrifice for a few dollars? Can a simple cost–benefit analysis really help us grapple with this massive ethical challenge?

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Ralph Chapman is the author of Time of Useful Consciousness.