Why Most Of What You Think You Know About The Paris Climate Deal Is Wrong: An Annotated News Story

(Photo: Francois Mori/AP)

Why Most Of What You Think You Know About The Paris Climate Deal Is Wrong: An Annotated News Story

With a little distance from the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris, it's clear that the meaning of the deal struck there is deeply contested. From the euphoric pronouncements of politicians like U.S. President Obama (this is "the best chance we have to save the one planet that we've got") to the scathing dismissal of climate scientist James Hansen (it's a "fraud"), lots of people reading the coverage of the agreement are understandably confused about what to make of it.

With a little distance from the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris, it's clear that the meaning of the deal struck there is deeply contested. From the euphoric pronouncements of politicians like U.S. President Obama (this is "the best chance we have to save the one planet that we've got") to the scathing dismissal of climate scientist James Hansen (it's a "fraud"), lots of people reading the coverage of the agreement are understandably confused about what to make of it.

As independent journalists who were in Paris for the duration of the talks, following the twists and turns of the negotiations, we've been dismayed (if not surprised) by how faithfully large news organizations have reported spin as fact.

So in the spirit of correcting the record, we've annotated parts of a typical news story on the deal. While we chose the New York Times, we could easily have done the same for any of the major wire services or other big news organizations: the coverage was by and large as homogenous as it was inaccurate.

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Nations Approve Landmark Climate Accord in Paris


DEC. 12, 2015

LE BOURGET, France -- With the sudden bang of a gavel Saturday night, representatives of 195 nations reached a landmark accord that will, for the first time, commit nearly every country to lowering planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change.

If only this were true. In fact, the agreement does not commit countries to lowering emissions. To be sure, the text "invites," "recommends," "encourages," "requests," "further requests," and even "urges" countries to do a number of procedural things. And there are reporting requirements. But the key obligation on each one is to submit goals that it "intends to achieve." As long as a country's goals are regularly updated, and as long as governments "pursue" actions "with the aim of achieving the objectives," they are all free to completely fail to lower emissions without consequence.

The deal, which was met with an eruption of cheers and ovations from thousands of delegates gathered from around the world, represents a historic breakthrough on an issue that has foiled decades of international efforts to address climate change.

Given that the deal just binds countries to a process, rather than actual results, the smog of self-congratulation has been surprisingly thick. John Kerry boasted that it would "prevent the worst, most devastating consequences of climate change from ever happening." Al Gore called it a "universal and ambitious agreement," and insisted that the era of "sustainable economic growth is now firmly and inevitably underway."

We learned from Richard Branson that "the course of history has shifted"--thanks to "the world's greatest diplomatic success," as a headline in The Guardian proclaimed. Bloggers like Jonathan Chait called it "one of the great triumphs in history." Economists like Jeffrey Sachs said that "agreements such as these appeal to our better angels" and called on us to "hail the Paris climate change agreement and get to work."

Traditionally, such pacts have required developed economies like the United States to take action to lower greenhouse gas emissions, but they have exempted developing countries like China and India from such obligations.

The accord, which United Nations diplomats have been working toward for nine years, changes that dynamic by requiring action in some form from every country, rich or poor.

Actually, the deal changes the dynamic by all but erasing the crucial principle of equity from the climate regime.

The Paris deal pays lip service to the idea of "common but differentiated responsibilities" (CBDR), which was a bedrock of the UN climate convention that began these talks in 1992. It says that the richest, long-time polluters are obligated to cut emissions first and deepest, while providing climate finance for poor countries, where people are the least culpable and the most vulnerable.

But inside the Paris talks, wealthy countries launched a determined assault on that idea, waging a successful campaign to shift far more of the burden onto the countries of the global South. That's not going to be a helpful "dynamic" in the years ahead, particularly because many of those developing countries are already leading on climate policy--another under-reported fact that is key to understanding the true nature of the Paris deal.

According to a landmark civil society review of current climate pledges, when you factor in each country's responsibility for historical emissions and its capacity to pay for climate action, developing countries--including China and India--are already doing their fair share (or even more). Rich countries are not. The US and EU have each pledged roughly a fifth of their fair shares.

"This is truly a historic moment," the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said in an interview. "For the first time, we have a truly universal agreement on climate change, one of the most crucial problems on earth."

What Does a Climate Deal Mean for the World?

A group of 195 nations reached a landmark climate agreement on Saturday. Here is what it means for the planet, business, politics and other areas.

President Obama, who regards tackling climate change as a central element of his legacy, spoke of the deal in a televised address from the White House. "This agreement sends a powerful signal that the world is fully committed to a low-carbon future," he said. "We've shown that the world has both the will and the ability to take on this challenge."

As Obama crafts his climate legacy, the U.S. role in the negotiations has been woefully under-reported. One of the key U.S. goals in Paris was to rule out liability or mandatory compensation for climate damages in poor countries. To help push through that and other demands, Obama's negotiators cynically dangled support for a temperature target of 1.5 degrees Celsius--the goal that low-lying island and African nations have long fought for, given that their survival is at stake.

It seems that was enough to convince many poor countries to drop their demand for a strong "loss and damage" mechanism that could have been an immediate, concrete lifeline for countries hardest hit by the climate crisis. And in the end, of course, the "carrot" of 1.5 degrees was withdrawn and the very weakest language related to the temperature target was adopted. The final deal sets a goal of "well below" 2 degrees Celsius, adding only that governments should "pursue efforts" to meet the 1.5 target.

But the damage to "loss and damage" had been done.

The U.S. was also behind a last-minute "technical correction" announced at the scene of celebration at the final plenary. While this was presented in many news accounts as the great grammatical catch that saved a global climate deal, it actually marked the final watering down of the text. The U.S. insisted on changing the word "shall" (legally binding) to "should" (clearly not) in a crucial section: the duty of industrialized countries like the U.S. to take the lead on cutting emissions. From the beginning of the negotiations process in Paris, developing countries found themselves outmaneuvered and outnumbered, with smaller delegations struggling to keep up with the dozens of closed-door sessions happening at any one time. Civil society organizations and frontline voices, meanwhile, were often simply shut out.

Scientists and leaders said the talks here represented the world's last, best hope of striking a deal that would begin to avert the most devastating effects of a warming planet.

Mr. Ban said there was "no Plan B" if the deal fell apart. The Eiffel Tower was illuminated with that phrase Friday night.

The new deal will not, on its own, solve global warming. At best, scientists who have analyzed it say, it will cut global greenhouse gas emissions by about half enough as is necessary to stave off an increase in atmospheric temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That is the point at which, scientific studies have concluded, the world will be locked into a future of devastating consequences, including rising sea levels, severe droughts and flooding, widespread food and water shortages and more destructive storms.

In fact, one of the most remarkable features of the agreement is that it makes a point of highlighting its own inadequacy, noting that "much greater emission reduction efforts will be required" to meet even the 2 degree temperature target--and that current country commitments will likely lead to a 3 or even 4 degree temperature rise. That level of climate change, experts say, is "incompatible with any reasonable characterization of an organized, equitable and civilized global community."

No major news organization felt that this fact might serve as a strong lead. But even buried deep in a news story, it puts all the triumphalism in a different light. This is a special breed of "historic breakthrough," one that asserts itself as totally insufficient and that happens to put us on a path to apocalypse.

But the Paris deal could represent the moment at which, because of a shift in global economic policy, the inexorable rise in planet-warming carbon emissions that started during the Industrial Revolution began to level out and eventually decline.

At the same time, the deal could be viewed as a signal to global financial and energy markets, triggering a fundamental shift away from investment in coal, oil and gas as primary energy sources toward zero-carbon energy sources like wind, solar and nuclear power.

This is an interpretation shared by both politicians and many large environmental groups. It is clear that climate campaigners will be using the deal to pressure governments to make precisely this kind of historic shift.

But again, the text itself tells a different story. It never mentions fossil fuels. Not once. The phrase "renewable energy" appears a single time.

In fact, in the definition of the long-term emissions reduction goal (the absolute weakest option that had been on the table in Paris), we catch a glimpse of the future envisioned by the parties. The text says that countries will "aim" for a "balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century."

First of all, experts are pretty unequivocal that we should be entirely off of fossil fuels by mid-century. By introducing the notion that, post 2050, we can balance emissions with the removal of carbon from the atmosphere, the Paris deal keeps the door wide open for fossil fuel corporations to continue polluting, as long as they try to develop unproven and risky technologies to capture carbon and store it somewhere. This language also throws a lifeline to carbon trading schemes with so-called "offsets," which have failed miserably at reducing emissions, while too often displacing communities from their traditional lands to clear the way for monocrop plantations.

Inside the Paris Climate Deal

There's a lot we could say about the historical and political context of these talks, but we'll stick to the deal itself. Skip ahead a bit for the next comment.

Highlights from the final draft text of a climate agreement submitted to the delegates in Paris.

"The world finally has a framework for cooperating on climate change that's suited to the task," said Michael Levi, an expert on energy and climate change policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Whether or not this becomes a true turning point for the world, though, depends critically on how seriously countries follow through."

Just five years ago, such a deal seemed politically impossible. A similar 2009 climate change summit meeting in Copenhagen collapsed in acrimonious failure after countries could not unite around a deal.

Unlike in Copenhagen, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius of France said on Saturday, the stars for this assembly were aligned.

The changes that led to the Paris accord came about through a mix of factors, particularly major shifts in the domestic politics and bilateral relationships of China and the United States, the world's two largest greenhouse gas polluters.

Since the Copenhagen deal collapsed, scientific studies have confirmed that the earliest impacts of climate change have started to sweep across the planet. While scientists once warned that climate change was a problem for future generations, recent scientific reports have concluded that it has started to wreak havoc now, from flooding in Miami to droughts and water shortages in China.

In a remarkable shift from their previous standoffs over the issue, senior officials from both the United States and China praised the Paris accord on Saturday night.

Representatives of the "high-ambition coalition," including Foreign Minister Tony de Brum of the Marshall Islands, left, wore lapel pins made of dried coconut fronds, a symbol of Mr. de Brum's country.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who has spent the past year negotiating behind the scenes with his Chinese and Indian counterparts in order to help broker the deal, said, "The world has come together around an agreement that will empower us to chart a new path for our planet."

Xie Zhenhua, the senior Chinese climate change negotiator, said, "The agreement is not perfect, and there are some areas in need of improvement." But he added, "This does not prevent us from marching forward with this historic step." Mr. Xie called the deal "fair and just, comprehensive and balanced, highly ambitious, enduring and effective."

Negotiators from many countries have said that a crucial moment in the path to the Paris accord came last year in the United States, when Mr. Obama enacted the nation's first climate change policy -- a set of stringent new Environmental Protection Agency regulations designed to slash greenhouse gas pollution from the nation's coal-fired power plants. Meanwhile, in China, the growing internal criticism over air pollution from coal-fired power plants led President Xi Jinping to pursue domestic policies to cut coal use.

In November 2014 in Beijing, Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi announced that they would jointly pursue plans to cut domestic greenhouse gas emissions. That breakthrough announcement was seen as paving the way to the Paris deal, in which nearly all the world's nations have jointly announced similar plans.

The final language did not fully satisfy everyone. Representatives of some developing nations expressed consternation. Poorer countries had pushed for a legally binding provision requiring that rich countries appropriate a minimum of at least $100 billion a year to help them mitigate and adapt to the ravages of climate change. In the final deal, that $100 billion figure appears only in a preamble, not in the legally binding portion of the agreement.

The way it treats climate finance is another major failing of the Paris deal, though it has received little attention in the reporting. In fact, a little context makes this development even starker.

For developing countries, this issue has been one of the crucial sticking points in negotiations for the last decade. The Paris deal represents a huge step backwards.

First of all, the goal of $100 billion a year has been weakened, with developed countries striking any mention of "new" or "additional" funding from the legally-binding part of the agreement. There is no real process for strengthening existing finance commitments.

And even those existing commitments are not being honoured. Not even close. Much of the $100 billion was supposed to be channeled through the "Green Climate Fund," created in 2010. It took 4 years for pledges to the fund to reach a mere $10 billion. By the start of the Paris talks, less than $1 billion had actually been collected, and a first round of projects amounting to a grand total of $168 million was hurriedly approved.

Finally, the goal of raising $100 billion per year was woefully inadequate to begin with. According to the International Energy Agency, in order to meet the 2 degree goal, annual green energy and efficiency investments need to be approaching $1 trillion by 2020, with most new spending happening in the developing world.

"We've always said that it was important that the $100 billion was anchored in the agreement," said Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, a negotiator for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the incoming leader of a coalition known as the Least Developed Countries coalition. In the end, though, they let it go.

Despite the historic nature of the Paris climate accord, its success still depends heavily on two factors outside the parameter of the deal: global peer pressure and the actions of future governments.

The core of the Paris deal is a requirement that every nation take part. Ahead of the Paris talks, governments of 186 nations put forth public plans detailing how they would cut carbon emissions through 2025 or 2030.

Those plans alone, once enacted, will cut emissions by half the levels required to stave off the worst effects of global warming. The national plans vary vastly in scope and ambition -- while every country is required to put forward a plan, there is no legal requirement dictating how, or how much, countries should cut emissions.

Thus, the Paris pact has built in a series of legally binding requirements that countries ratchet up the stringency of their climate change policies in the future. Countries will be required to reconvene every five years, starting in 2020, with updated plans that would tighten their emissions cuts.

Countries will also be legally required to reconvene every five years starting in 2023 to publicly report on how they are doing in cutting emissions compared to their plans. They will be legally required to monitor and report on their emissions levels and reductions, using a universal accounting system.

We can't afford to wait years for our global political class to "ratchet up" its ambition. Thankfully, countless movements around the world are already leading the way, today, where the real action is--keeping fossil fuels in the ground and championing alternatives, whether it's kicking Shell out of the Arctic or building community wind and solar from Germany to Bangladesh. Every week, these movements are racking up new victories, building pressure from below for governments to take the kind of ambitious action that the crisis--and the science--demands.

And that is where we see the best hope of urgent, immediate climate action: local victories building momentum and power, politicians taking their cue and implementing scaled-up policy frameworks that translate those breakthroughs to the regional and national levels.

A great example is the city of Portland, where years of local victories against coal export terminals and Arctic drilling schemes have culminated in the municipal government passing a resolution against any new fossil fuel infrastructure. And now cities across the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. are discussing doing the same.

There is nothing triumphant about declarations of intent at diplomatic confabs. But as movements ratchet up the pressure on the politicians who spoke such fine words in Paris, history could indeed be written in the wake of this deal.

And it better be. We need to see signs of genuine, real-world progress before the "Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement...take[s] stock of the implementation of this Agreement to assess the collective progress towards achieving the purpose of this Agreement and its long-term goals" in eight long, hot years' time.

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