Two months after the Paris climate-treaty negotiations concluded with fanfare, the world is figuring out it was sold a lemon.
In December, global leaders patted each other on the back and declared a job well done. The treaty will come into force later this year after it has been signed by representatives of at least 55 nations representing 55 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions.
This will provide “a turning point for the world,” according to President Obama. “Our children and grandchildren will see that we did our duty,” says UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
Climate activists have been quick to declare success. This marks “the end of the era of fossil fuels,” said activist group 350.org. Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, called the Paris agreement a “diplomatic triumph.”
A diplomatic triumph? More like a p.r. coup. The Paris Treaty is rich in rhetoric, but it’ll make little change in actual temperature rises.
Increasingly, that fact is being recognized, even by some of the biggest proponents of climate action.
Jim Hansen, a former NASA scientist and advisor to Al Gore who was the first to put global warming on the public radar in 1988, wasn’t fooled. “It’s a fraud really, a fake,” he said in December. “It’s just worthless words.”
And this month, 11 climate scientists signed a declaration stating that the Paris treaty is crippled by “deadly flaws.”
The problem with the deal is simple, and was obvious from before it was even signed. The Paris agreement talks a big game. It doesn’t just commit to capping the global temperature increase at the much-discussed level of 2°C above pre-industrial levels. It says that leaders commit to keeping the increase “well below 2°C,” with an effort to cap it at 1.5°C.
But this is all talk.
My own peer-reviewed research, published in the journal Global Policy, shows that all of the treaty’s 2016-2030 promises on cutting carbon-dioxide emissions will reduce temperatures by the year 2100 by just 0.05°C. Even if the promised emissions cuts continued unabated throughout the century, the Paris agreement would cut global temperature increases by just 0.17°C. Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reach a similar conclusion.
And that’s assuming countries actually live up to their promises: The treaty’s nonbinding.
This is reminiscent of another non-binding pact also signed in Paris. The Kellogg-Briand Pact was drafted in 1928 and signatories included the United Kingdom, United States, France, Germany, Japan and Italy. Leaders agreed to outlaw war. The treaty scored its architect, Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, a Nobel Peace Prize. But after barely a decade, global war broke out.
By the United Nations’ own reckoning, the treaty will only achieve less than 1 percent of the emission cuts needed to meet target temperatures. So instead, signatories point to the fact that beginning in 2020, countries will be asked to lay out more ambitious targets every five years. In other words, 99 percent of the problem is left for tomorrow’s leaders to deal with.
Paris won’t solve global warming. What will? In the Copenhagen Consensus on Climate project, 28 climate economists and a panel of experts including three Nobel laureates found that the best long-term climate strategy is to dramatically increase investment in green R&D, with every dollar spent on green R&D avoiding 100 times more climate change than money spent on inefficient wind and solar.
For 20 years, we’ve insisted on trying to solve climate change by mainly supporting solar and wind power. This approach puts the cart in front of the horse: Green technologies aren’t competitive yet. Instead of production subsidies, governments should focus on making renewable energy cheaper and competitive through research and development. Drive down prices through innovation, and everyone will switch.