Is Paris climate deal really ‘cactus’, and would it matter if it was?


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

President Donald Trump is keeping some of his promises. Late last month he signed an executive order that tore up Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Some commentators see this as putting the world on “the road to climate catastrophe”, while others have described it as an effort at “killing the international order”. The Conversation

Will America lose out? Will China, which has chided Trump for selfishness, be the prime beneficiary as its solar panel industry continues to expand?

Here in Australia, in response to Trump’s order, Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly, chair of the government’s Environment Committee, took predictable aim at Australia’s international climate commitments, labelling the 2015 Paris Agreement “cactus”.

Kelly is on the record as disputing climate science and poured scorn on the Paris deal when it was struck.
He is certainly not alone among the government’s ranks in this view.

The day after Trump’s election win last November, Australia ratified the Paris deal
and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that it would take four years for Trump to pull out.

So is the Paris deal really “cactus”? What would we have lost if so? And does it matter?

What was agreed in Paris?

The Paris Agreement came after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (agreed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992) had suffered a body blow at the 2009 UN climate talks in Copenhagen .

Opinion was divided on the reasons for the failure of the Copenhagen summit, but the then prime minister Kevin Rudd didn’t mince words in blaming the Chinese, infamously accusing them during the negotiations of trying to “rat-fuck us”. (For what it is worth, the British climate writer Mark Lynas agreed, albeit in less incendiary tones.)

A series of fence-mending meetings and careful smoothing of frayed nerves and wounded egos followed over the next five years. The French took charge and, with the price of renewable energy generation plummeting (and so making emissions reductions at least theoretically “affordable”), a deal was struck at the Paris summit in December 2015.

The agreement, notably silent on fossil fuels, calls on nations to take actions to reduce their emissions so that temperatures can be held to less than 2℃ above the pre-industrial average. This limit, which is not actually “safe”,
will require a herculean effort and luck. If you add up all the national commitments, they will most likely take us to roughly 3℃ or beyond.

Australia’s commitment of a 26-28% reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2030, relative to 2005 levels, was seen as being at the low end of acceptable, and not enough to help meet the 2℃ limit.

Eminent climate scientist James Hansen labelled Paris a fraud, while Clive Spash (the economist monstered by Labor in 2009 for pointing out that Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was not much cop) thought it was worthless.

British climatologist Kevin Anderson is similarly dubious, arguing that the agreement assumes we will invent technologies that can suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in, well, industrial quantities in the second half of this century.

So why the relative optimism among the climate commentariat? They’re desperate for a win after so many defeats, which stretch back all the way to the Kyoto climate conference of 1997.

Second time as farce?

After Australia’s initial promises to be a “good international citizen”, reality quickly set in during the early years of serious climate diplomacy.

Although Australia was an early ratifier of the treaty that emerged from the Rio summit, it nevertheless went to the first annual UN climate talks (chaired by a young Angela Merkel) determined to get a good deal for itself, as a country reliant on coal for electricity generation and eyeing big bucks from coal exports.

That meeting resulted in the “Berlin Mandate”, which called on developed nations to cut emissions first. Australia, gritting its teeth, agreed. Later that year the Keating Government released economic modelling (paid for in part by fossil fuel interests) which predicted economic Armageddon for Australia if a uniform emissions-reduction target was applied. This work was picked up by the new Howard government.

After much special pleading and swift footwork, Australia got two very sweet deals at Kyoto in 1997. First, its “reduction” target was 108% of 1990 levels within the 2008-12 period (the then environment minister Robert Hill reportedly refused to push for Howard’s preferred 118%).

Second, Australia successfully lobbied for a clause in the Kyoto treaty allowing reductions in land clearing to count as emissions reductions. This meant that Australia could bank benefits for things that were happening for entirely different reasons.

Australia signed the Kyoto Protocol in April 1998, but in September of the same year the cabinet decided not to ratify the deal unless the United States did. In March 2001 President George W. Bush pulled out, and Howard followed suit on World Environment Day in 2002.

Kyoto ratification then became a symbol of green virtue out of all proportion with its actual impact. Rudd got enormous kudos for ratifying it as his first official act as Prime Minister. And then reality set in again when he tried to actually implement an emissions-reduction policy.

Why does it matter?

Reality keeps on impinging. In a beautifully written piece in the New York Times, Ariel Dorfman lists disasters befalling Chile (readers in Queensland will feel like they know what he is on about). He concludes:

As we get ready to return to the United States, our friends and relatives ask, over and over, can it be true? Can President Trump be beset with such suicidal stupidity as to deny climate change and install an enemy of the earth as his environmental czar? Can he be so beholden to the blind greed of the mineral extraction industry, so ignorant of science, so monumentally arrogant, not to realize that he is inviting apocalypse? Can it be, they ask. The answer, alas, is yes.

Will the opinions of politicians like Donald Trump and Craig Kelly matter at all as long as the price of renewables keeps dropping? Well, possibly. “Shots across the bow” of renewables policy have in the past made investors nervous.

As Alan Pears on this website, and Giles Parkinson at Reneweconomy
have explained, investors in electricity generation got spooked by the policy uncertainty caused by former prime minister Tony Abbott’s hostility to the Renewable Energy Target. That’s the real (and presumably intended) effect of statements like Kelly’s.

Will it work? Optimists will point to last week’s announcement that a $1bn solar farm will be built in South Australia, regardless of the concatenating Canberra catastrophe. Perennial pessimists will point to the Keeling Curve, which shows a remorseless and escalating rise in the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Time and prevailing politics are certainly not on our side.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia to ratify the Paris climate deal, under a large Trump-shaped shadow


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

Australia’s government has announced that it is to ratify the Paris climate agreement, which was struck 11 months ago and entered into force last Friday.

The move comes despite the election of Donald Trump, who has called climate change a Chinese-inspired hoax. Trump has pledged to turn his back on the Paris treaty after he takes office in January, although this would take at least a year and technically leave the Agreement still in force, albeit weakened.

The question for Australia is how Canberra will react to such a seismic shift in US climate policy. The last time a US president pulled the plug on international climate negotiations was in March 2001, when George W. Bush withdrew from the Kyoto treaty. Australia’s prime minister John Howard followed suit on Earth Day 2002.

The temptation for Australia’s current government would be to follow in Trump’s slipstream in much the same way. Despite its 2030 climate target being widely seen as unambitious, Australia still lacks a credible plan to deliver the necessary emissions cuts, and has no renewable energy target beyond 2020.

While Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull may be a vocal supporter of climate action, not everyone on on his side of politics is as keen – such as MPs Craig Kelly and George Christensen. (It was not always thus under the Liberals.)

The temptation to defect might be strong, but the countervailing pressure will be much stronger that it was in 2002, and the clean energy transition is already underway. Just this week, a high-powered group of business leaders, energy providers, academics and financiers called on Turnbull to expand the renewable energy target and create a market mechanism to phase out coal.

Yet the US election has also reinvigorated Australian opponents of climate action, such as One Nation senators Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts, who were cracking champagne at the prospect of Trump in the White House, and media commentator Andrew Bolt, who jubilantly described Trump’s victory as a “revolt against the left’s arrogance”.

Which bit of history will repeat?

On balance, then, it is still hard to predict Australia’s next move – and past form is little guide for future performance.

Over the past 26 years, Australia has made two largely symbolic commitments to international climate action, and one very concrete refusal.

In 1990, ahead of the 2nd World Climate Conference which fired the starting gun for the United Nations’ climate negotiations, the Hawke government announced a target of a 20% reduction by 2005.

The pledge, however, was laced with crucial caveats, like this one:

…the Government will not proceed with measures which have net adverse economic impacts nationally or on Australia’s trade competitiveness in the absence of similar action by major greenhouse-gas-producing countries.

This target was sidelined in the final United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which Australia signed and ratified in 1992.

In 1997, Australia got a very sweet deal at the Kyoto climate talks, successfully negotiating an 8% increase in greenhouse gases as its emissions “reduction” target, as well as a special loophole that allowed it take account of its large reduction in land clearing since 1990. Australia signed the deal in April 1998, but never ratified it.

Kyoto’s rules hid a multitude of sins, anyway, as Oxford University’s Nicholas Howarth and Andrew Foxall have pointed out:

…its accounting rules obscure the real level of carbon emissions and structural trends at the nation-state level… it has shifted focus away from Australia as the world’s largest coal exporter towards China, its primary customer.

Although Kevin Rudd famously ratified Kyoto and received a standing ovation at the Bali Climate summit in 2007, a stronger Australian emissions reduction target was not forthcoming.

The next big moment came at the Paris negotiations of 2015. Australia’s official pledge was a 26-28% reduction on 2005 levels by 2030 – a target unveiled by the former prime minister Tony Abbott, and which met with a lukewarm response from analysts.

Since then, pressure has been building for Australia to explain how it can meet even that target, given the hostility to renewable energy among the federal government, the lack of a post-2020 renewables target, and the inadequacy of the current Direct Action policy.

And now we are looking at the prospect of a Trump presidency, already described as “a turning point in the history of climate action” and “the end of any serious hope of limiting climate change to 2 degrees”.

In a chaotic world that has confounded pollsters, it seems foolish to bet on anything. But two predictions seem sure: atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide will rise, and the future will be … interesting.

The Conversation

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Without a longer-term view, the Paris Agreement will lock in warming for centuries


Eelco Rohling, Australian National University

The Paris climate agreement set a “safe” global warming limit of below 2℃, aiming below 1.5℃ by 2100. The world has already warmed about a degree since the Industrial Revolution, and on our current emissions trajectory we will likely breach these limits within decades.

However, we could still come back from the brink with a massive effort.

But let’s take a closer look at that warming limit. If we accept that 1.5-2℃ of warming marks the danger threshold, then this is true whether it applies tomorrow, in 2100, or some time thereafter. What we need is to stay below these limits for all time.

Put it this way: we wouldn’t be satisfied if the brakes on a new car only worked on the day of purchase, or for two weeks after that – we expect them to keep us safe throughout the car’s lifetime.

The trouble is, limiting warming to well below 2℃ forever is a much harder job.

Millennia matter

Whatever warming we manage to prevent this century, the world will continue to respond to climate change after 2100.

Looking beyond 2100 is often considered irrelevant, given that electoral timescales only operate over several years, and individual development projects over several decades.

However, it is highly relevant to major infrastructure developments, such as overall city planning. Throughout Europe and Asia, the foundations of most city infrastructure date back centuries, or even millennia. Not incidentally, so do most of the supporting agricultural and fisheries traditions and transport routes.

Even the more recent developments in the Americas, Africa and Australia have fundamental roots that date back hundreds of years. Clearly, we need to think beyond the current century when we think about climate change and its impact on civilisation.

The short and the long of it

The climate system is made up of many different components. Some of these respond rapidly to changes, others over much longer timescales.

The components that respond rapidly to the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions include changes in cloud, snow and sea-ice cover, in dust content of the atmosphere, land-surface changes, and so on. Some work almost instantaneously, others over decades. Together these are known as the “transient” response.

Slow-responding components in the climate system include ocean warming, continental ice-sheets and exchanges of carbon between lifeforms, oceans, the sea floor, soils and the atmosphere. These work over many centuries and are known as the “equilibrium” response.

Large amounts of energy are needed to warm up such a large volume of water as the global ocean. The ocean has taken up more than 90% of all the extra heat caused by greenhouse gases emitted since the Industrial Revolution, especially into the upper few hundred metres.

However, the ocean is so vast that it will continue to warm from the top down over many centuries to millennia, until its energy uptake has adjusted to Earth’s new energy balance. This will continue even if no further emissions are made.

Ice sheets on Antarctica and Greenland respond to climate change like an accelerating heavy freight train: slow to start, and virtually unstoppable once they get going. Climate change has been building up since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, but only in recent decades have we started to see marked mass-loss increases from the ice sheets.

The ice-sheet freight train has at last come up to speed and now it will keep on rolling and rolling, regardless of what immediate actions we take regarding our emissions.

Looking to the past

Carbon dioxide levels have reached 400 parts per million (ppm). To find out what this means for the coming centuries, we have to look between 3 million and 3.5 million years into the past.

Temperature reconstructions suggest the world was 2-3℃ warmer than before the Industrial Revolution, which is similar to the expected equilibrium response for the future.

Geological data from the last 65 million years indicate that the climate warms 3-5℃ for every doubling of CO₂ levels.

Before the Industrial Revolution, CO₂ levels were around 280 ppm. Under all but the most optimistic emission scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the first doubling (to 560 ppm) is approached or crossed between the years 2040 and 2070.

While we don’t know exactly how high sea level was 3.5 million years ago, we are confident that it stood at least 10 metres higher than today. Most studies suggest sea-level rise around 1m higher than today by 2100, followed by a relentlessly continued rise by some 2m per century. Even a rise of a metre or more by 2100 is murderously high for global infrastructure, especially in developing countries.

Today, some 600 million people live at elevations within 10m of sea level. The same area generates 10% of the world’s total GDP. It is estimated that a sea-level rise of 2m will displace almost 2.5% of the global population.

Even the more immediate impacts of sea-level rise are enormous. In 136 of the world’s largest port cities, the population exposed to flooding is estimated to increase by more than three times by 2070, due to combined actions of sea-level rise, land subsidence, population growth and urbanisation. The same study estimates a tenfold increase in asset exposure.

Back to the future

The eventual equilibrium (long-term) level of warming is up to twice the transient (short-term) level of warming. In other words, the Paris Agreement’s response of 1.5-2℃ by 2100 will grow over subsequent centuries toward an equilibrium warming of 2.3-4℃, even without any further emissions.

Given that we have already reached 1℃ of warming, if the aim is to avoid dangerous warming beyond 2℃ over the long term, we have to avoid any further warming from now on.

We can’t do this by simply stopping all emissions. This is because there is still some warming to catch up from the slower transient processes. To stop any further warming, we will have to reduce atmospheric CO₂ levels to about 350 ppm. Doing so requires both stopping the almost 3ppm rise per year from new emissions, and implementing carbon capture to pull CO₂ out of the atmosphere.

Global warming would be limited to 1-1.5℃ by 2100, and 2℃ over the long term, and in addition ocean acidification would be kept under control. These are essential for containing the impacts of climate change on global ecosystems.

This is the real urgency of climate change. Fully understanding the challenge can help us get to work.

The Conversation

Eelco Rohling, Professor of Ocean and Climate Change, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Paris climate targets aren’t enough, but we can close the gap


Malte Meinshausen, University of Melbourne

The Paris climate agreement saw countries pledge to limit global warming to well below 2℃, and to aim to keep it within 1.5℃. The problem is that countries’ current emissions targets are not enough to meet these goals.

In a paper published today in Nature, I and my colleagues from Austria, Brazil, China, South Africa, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland take a closer look at those pledges, and the studies that have so far evaluated them. The bottom line is that under the existing Paris pledges the world would be facing 2.3-3.5℃ of warming by 2100.

The pledges, known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs, would result in emissions 14 billion tonnes higher than they should be in 2030 under the cheapest pathway to limit warming.

While this path is well below the “business as usual” scenario, it is not yet in the range of the 1.5-2℃ objectives we have set ourselves. So it’s a first step, but bigger steps are needed.

The less effort we make before 2030, the harder it will be to reduce emissions afterwards. However, my colleagues and I have found there are several ways to close the gap.

Why do the current targets make it harder after 2030?

To limit global warming to any level, we ultimately have to completely stop CO₂ emissions and ramp down other greenhouse gas emissions. For any given warming threshold, we have to limit total emissions to a certain amount, known as the “carbon budget”.

It is likely that to keep warming well below 2℃ we have a remaining carbon budget of between 750 billion and 1.2 trillion tonnes. For context, global emissions in 2010 were around 50 billion tonnes.

Remaining on the current path, as laid out by the INDCs, would mean the world would have to make very drastic cuts in emissions after 2030 to keep warming below 2℃ (and would likely make the 1.5℃ limit completely unachievable).

This dramatic cut would mean a lot of stranded investments, as emissions will have continued to rise up to 2030, suggesting continued investment in infrastructure that won’t deliver our long-term target. The same potentially goes for any investments in “transition” fuels, such as gas. If current investments cannot be part of a 2050 world that is close to zero emissions, then they would probably have to be retired before their usual use-by date.

If in 2030 there is a sudden realisation that we have to do more, the world would have to cut emissions by 3-4% each year. Countries like Australia would have to cut them by 10% each year. It’s like walking slowly up to a cliff and then jumping off it.

This is not the cheapest way to keep warming below 2℃. The least-cost option is to start investing now in the right technology. The International Energy Agency has argued that if we want a zero-carbon economy in 2050, or at least one that is close to zero-carbon, we need to make zero-emission investments today, because it takes a long time to turn over the existing investment stock.

The other problem is carbon capture and storage (CCS). The Paris Agreement pledges net zero greenhouse gas emissions after 2050. There is no pathway to this that doesn’t involve “net-negative” emissions, because there will still be some greenhouse gas emissions we can’t reduce, and we will have already overshot the carbon budget for keeping warming below 2℃, let alone 1.5℃. So we are going to have to come up with a way to pull CO₂ from the atmosphere.

How can we do that? The main option is thought to be bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). This process involves growing biomass fuel, such as trees, then using the woodchips to produce electricity, then capturing the CO₂ produced, and finally sequestering and storing it underground.

In the past, CCS has been mostly combined with fossil fuels. But the dramatic fall of wind and solar costs will make it easier to decarbonise the electricity sector.

CCS would also likely require a carbon price, to incentivise the necessary investment in CCS by 2030. Retrofitting existing fossil fuel power plants with CCS or keeping coal demand high by supporting new coal power plants with CCS in India and China is hence likely an uphill battle that is lost on economic grounds. However, we would still need CCS and specifically BECCS to remove CO₂ from the atmosphere.

So how can we close the gap?

Our study has found several ways to reduce emissions further before 2030.

The first is to ratchet up the INDCs by using the review mechanism built into the Paris Agreement. This is thought by many to be the single most important element of the agreement, and would see INDCs revised and increased every five years. Of course these increases would have to be underpinned by domestic policies.

Some countries will overachieve their INDCs. China, for instance, has pledged to peak its emissions by 2030, but seems to have the domestic policy in place to get there before 2020 given the concern about clean air.

Other countries have pledged emission levels that are so generously high that they would have to spend serious amounts of money to increase their emissions up to those levels. Turkey, Ukraine, Russia are examples. There are likely a billion tonnes of projected emissions that we will hence never get to see. Fortunately.

The INDCs could also be expanded to cover other greenhouse gases (which aren’t included by some countries), such as nitrous oxide and methane in China.

International shipping and aviation could also play a huge role. Aviation is one of the hardest nuts to crack because of the difficulties of producing sustainable, carbon-neutral jet fuel. So while the near-term emissions reductions options aren’t as big as many people think, these high-value sectors are hugely important because they can help to raise resources for mitigation action elsewhere.

For instance, the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s pledge of no-carbon growth after 2020 would require large offsets. This could unleash a lot of action, and transfer finance to other sectors.

However, both aviation and maritime transport need to part of the whole framework – and given that the Paris Agreement mentions all global emissions in its Art. 4.1, they are already included to some extent.

We found other initiatives – in the business sector and at regional and municipal levels – that could reduce emissions by a further 1 billion tonnes each year by 2030. However, more recent research suggests this could be as high as 6-11 billion tonnes each year, if all those additional initiatives in the solar energy, wind energy, forestry and methane sectors were implemented.

For instance, Europe’s solar and wind initiatives, if both implemented, could increase Europe’s target of 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 to 60%.

And the United States’ Sunshot and wind programs could overshoot its current emissions target, from 26-28% below 2005 levels to a staggering 60%.

These initiatives would put us well on the path to keeping warming below 2℃. Now we just have to get serious about it.

In Australia, we have neither an ambitious enough 2020 or 2030 target, nor the policies to get there. Current emissions are likely to overshoot the -5% target by 2020 (although accounting options to use previously banked credits will likely keep Australia compliant with its Kyoto Protocol targets).

There are good signs – such as state renewable energy targets, which now add up to more than the national target. And there is an immense opportunity for Australia in a zero carbon world: no other developed country is so blessed with solar and wind resources.

If Australia plays its cards right, it could become the energy superpower in a zero carbon world. But there’s still a way to go.

The Conversation

Malte Meinshausen, A/Prof., School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Paris climate agreement needs coordinated carbon prices to be successful


Ottmar Edenhofer, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

The Paris climate agreement was an important success for climate diplomacy as nation states showed a strong will to cooperate on climate action.

But instead of imposing binding national emission targets, the Paris Agreement is based on voluntary country commitments (known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions– INDCs). This poses some challenges.

First, the INDCs proposed so far are not enough to limit warming to well below 2℃, aiming for 1.5℃, as agreed in Paris. The INDCs shift a large burden of the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to after 2030.

Second, the INDCs cannot, yet, be verified and compared in a transparent manner to build mutual trust over time.

Third, countries lack incentives to increase their level of ambition without reducing their competitiveness as well as securities that other countries do not free-ride; to counteract this the right institutions are needed.

Lastly, the INDCs do not automatically become national law after a country ratifies the Paris agreement. Only the promise to review and revise INDCs every five years is legally binding. Countries have to make an additional effort to include their proposed climate policy in their other national policies – for example to counteract the expansion of coal power plants.

Raising the bar

To be effective, the Paris agreement, or any international agreement, has to address these challenges. In this respect, sufficiently high national carbon prices that increase over time would be a meaningful climate policy instrument for three main reasons.

First, carbon prices are relatively easy to compare and represent a transparent indicator of the ambition level of national climate policies.

Second, a carbon price drives up the cost of carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions, rendering high-emission forms of energy (such as coal power) unprofitable over the long term and low-emission technologies (such as wind and solar) competitive.

Third, the additional revenue from carbon pricing could remain in the respective countries and be used to achieve other societal targets, such as the Sustainable Development Goals.

When negotiating international carbon prices, for example in the context of the G20, individual countries would pledge to increase their domestic carbon price levels via emission taxes, fossil energy taxes, or emissions trading schemes featuring a price floor.

However, these price increases would only come into effect if other countries were likewise implementing high prices. This strategy would circumvent the concern that carbon pricing leads to competitive disadvantages. It would also include a sanctioning mechanism if participants were to lower their carbon prices.

Sharing the burden

A truly global coordination and increase of carbon prices can only occur if an effective burden sharing scheme is implemented. To engage developing countries, transfer payments are necessary. A particular country would receive international support if they accept a national carbon price.

Funds would have to increase with the price level, compensating for higher emissions reduction costs. Reducing the level of ambition would lead to a loss of international support.

This mechanism in turn increases the trust that other countries will pursue ambitious climate policies themselves. The climate finance envisaged in the Paris Agreement could be a main pillar of this strategy.

This article was co-authored by Christian Flachsland, head of governance group, and Ulrike Kornek post-doc in the governance group at the Mercator Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change.

Ottmar Edenhofer will be in Australia from 13-17 June and will present public lectures in Brisbane (University of Queensland), Canberra (ANU) and Melbourne (Climate and Energy College).

The Conversation

Ottmar Edenhofer, Deputy Director and Chief Economist, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Fairness on the agenda as UN begins job of strengthening the Paris climate deal


Hugh Breakey, Griffith University

The dust has long settled from December’s Paris climate summit, which hammered out the first truly global deal to reduce emissions. But the negotiations ended with widespread acknowledgement that the deal needs significant strengthening if its overall goal of keeping warming well below 2℃ is to be met.

The Paris Agreement therefore requires countries to ramp up their efforts significantly over the coming years and decades.

That job arguably begins today, with the opening of an 11-day meeting in Bonn, Germany, featuring the first session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA).

The APA functions rather like a much more modest version of the Paris conference. Parties to the Paris Agreement send delegations, and small groups can be tasked with resolving specific issues before reporting back to the larger group for decision-making.

Among the most important items on the meeting’s agenda is the Global Stocktake to assess overall progress towards fulfilling the Paris Agreement’s goals. This stocktake will kickstart the process of five-yearly reviews to strengthen the Paris Agreement, the first of which will happen in 2023.

A new approach

The Paris Agreement sets down a new model for confronting global warming. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, which imposed emissions targets on each country in a “top-down” way, the Paris process allowed countries to pledge their own climate targets.

This approach has been credited for the Paris negotiations’ success, in contrast with previous talks which descended into recriminations over the burden that each country should bear.

But one obvious weakness of the new model is that the countries’ voluntary commitments will not deliver anything like the necessary emissions reductions to prevent dangerous warming.

The five-yearly review mechanism thus aims to ensure that nations ramp up their commitments in coming years.

The question of fairness

As the Paris regime’s core review mechanism, the Global Stocktake will consider many aspects of the parties’ collective progress. While it will focus mainly on practical and scientific issues, the Paris Agreement also requires it to assess the collective progress “in the light of equity”.

In international climate negotiations, “equity” refers to an array of moral principles developed by the parties since 1992. These principles flesh out ethical priorities, such as ensuring the sustainable development of poorer countries.

They also inform burden-sharing decisions – for example, requiring countries that are more able to fight climate change, or that bear greater historical responsibility for it, to shoulder more of the burden.

As such, those five short words – “in the light of equity” – are arguably the first ever attempt to formalise the idea of countries doing their fair share when considering their contribution to the global fight against climate change.

What will the meeting achieve?

It is too early to know exactly how the APA will implement its mandate. However, in order to cover equity appropriately, the stocktake will need to include an official consideration of how well each country’s climate efforts accord with the Paris goals and principles. This means considering two key questions:

  • Is each country doing what it promised?

  • Is it promising enough?

This is not what normally happens when parties discuss ethics and fairness. Because the climate negotiations have had no principled system of moral evaluation and deliberation, countries can make implausible and inconsistent ethical claims as they defend climate targets that were actually chosen on the basis of national self-interest.

In the ideal case, the stocktake will encourage countries’ delegates to talk in a reasonable and structured way about the ethical principles that inform their national climate targets. It will hopefully prompt them to be clearer about what principles they think are important, and how those principles justify their contribution.

As well as encouraging laggards to lift their game, the stocktake could clarify the application of specific equity principles. This could lead to improved overall ambition, more fairness in burden-sharing, and a greater shared belief in the regime’s legitimacy. Indeed, the process leading up to the stocktake can itself realise important procedural values, such as inclusiveness, reciprocity and deliberation.

In time, the process may prove to be an essential part of a functioning Paris regime.

What could possibly go wrong?

Opening up an official space for moral appraisals offers perils as well as promises. We must bear in mind that the Kyoto model failed precisely because it proved impossible to get consensus on questions of burden-sharing. An equity-based review might just reignite these past disagreements.

Indeed, any appeal to ethics carries some risks. Sometimes it’s better to speak of collective risk reduction rather than taking an adversarial position of preaching, lecturing or blaming others.

Despite these dangers, the Paris model desperately needs a principled mechanism for reviewing national climate targets so as to scale up the overall level of ambition to what’s needed globally.

The task is not impossible. The drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights shows that, with clear structures and strong leadership, constructive international moral deliberation is possible.

Crucially, the stocktake will not need to take a single authoritative position on what equity requires. It can still drive improved ambition even if it allows coutries substantial flexibility in how they understand and apply equity principles.

While 2023 may seem a long way off, if the APA wants to ensure a constructive process, it will need to start laying the groundwork soon. It can start engaging states on equity issues in small meetings at the upcoming annual climate summits, starting with this year’s talks in Marrakech, or more formally at the Facilitative Dialogue scheduled for 2018.

After all, any assessment of this type does its best work long before it happens. In signalling that an ethical reckoning is on the horizon, it can encourage countries to start seriously considering whether their current commitments are fair, and what they could do better.

The Conversation

Hugh Breakey, Moral philosopher, Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.