By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.
Inside the narrow frame within which the talks have taken place, the draft agreement at the UN climate talks in Paris is a great success. The relief and self-congratulation with which the final text was greeted, acknowledges the failure at Copenhagen six years ago, where the negotiations ran wildly over time before collapsing. The Paris agreement is still awaiting formal adoption, but its aspirational limit of 1.5C of global warming, after the rejection of this demand for so many years, can be seen within this frame as a resounding victory. In this respect and others, the final text is stronger than most people anticipated.
Outside the frame it looks like something else. I doubt any of the negotiators believe that there will be no more than 1.5C of global warming as a result of these talks. As the preamble to the agreement acknowledges, even 2C, in view of the weak promises governments brought to Paris, is wildly ambitious. Though negotiated by some nations in good faith, the real outcomes are likely to commit us to levels of climate breakdown that will be dangerous to all and lethal to some. Our governments talk of not burdening future generations with debt. But they have just agreed to burden our successors with a far more dangerous legacy: the carbon dioxide produced by the continued burning of fossil fuels, and the long-running impacts this will exert on the global climate.
With 2C of warming, large parts of the world’s surface will become less habitable. The people of these regions are likely to face wilder extremes: worse droughts in some places, worse floods in others, greater storms and, potentially, grave impacts on food supply. Islands and coastal districts in many parts of the world are in danger of disappearing beneath the waves.
And failure, even on their terms? Well that is plausible too. While earlier drafts specified dates and percentages, the final text aims only to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible”. Which could mean anything and nothing.
In fairness, the failure does not belong to the Paris talks, but to the whole process. A maximum of 1.5C, now an aspirational and unlikely target, was eminently achievable when the first UN climate change conference took place in Berlin in 1995. Two decades of procrastination, caused by lobbying – overt, covert and often downright sinister – by the fossil fuel lobby, coupled with the reluctance of governments to explain to their electorates that short-term thinking has long-term costs, ensure that the window of opportunity is now three-quarters shut. The talks in Paris are the best there have ever been. And that is a terrible indictment.
Progressive as the outcome is by comparison to all that has gone before, it leaves us with an almost comically lopsided agreement. While negotiations on almost all other global hazards seek to address both ends of the problem, the UN climate process has focused entirely on the consumption of fossil fuels, while ignoring their production.
In Paris the delegates have solemnly agreed to cut demand, but at home they seek to maximise supply. The UK government has even imposed a legal obligation upon itself, under the Infrastructure Act 2015, to “maximise economic recovery” of the UK’s oil and gas. Extracting fossil fuels is a hard fact. But the Paris agreement is full of soft facts: promises that can slip or unravel. Until governments undertake to keep fossil fuels in the ground, they will continue to undermine the agreement they have just made.
With Barack Obama in the White House and a dirigiste government overseeing the negotiations in Paris, this is as good as it is ever likely to get. No likely successor to the US president will show the same commitment. In countries like the UK, grand promises abroad are undermined by squalid retrenchments at home. Whatever happens now, we will not be viewed kindly by succeeding generations.
So yes, let the delegates congratulate themselves on a better agreement than might have been expected. And let them temper it with an apology to all those it will betray.