The Road to Paris – Is it smokestack once again?

Radhika Perrot

Many countries have based their emissions reduction commitment at least in part on national economic self-interest rather than global responsibility

Never before has the world seen such commitment in reducing greenhouse gases (GHG) and expectations set so high for a transformative change than for the Conference of Parties COP21 in Paris starting this Monday. Previous COPs began with high optimism but most ended in negotiation deadlocks as rigidity, ethical dubiousness and national economic interests stymied the achievement of even the humblest of outcomes.

It is clear where the main problem in those negotiations lies – the focus had been on the smokestack while the real problem was in the engine.

As long as the engine runs on fossil fuel, debating the allocation of greenhouse gas emission rights is like arguing who should run the engine and for how long. The UN climate framework gave countries that wanted to run the engine ample blocking power to not to want to stop the engine from running.

International political and scientific consent established that rapid global warming by more than 2°C would overtax many societies’ ability to adapt to the irreversible damages, bringing abrupt and irreversible changes to the global ecosystem. In a 4°C-warmer world, there will widespread mortality of coral reefs and rampant food shortages.

By looking at what countries have committed, and although they substantially bend the global emissions trajectory below the current path, it is impossible that global average temperatures can be kept below or at 2°C, say climate analysts who are tracking the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). An assessment of 53 national submissions alone show that the global carbon budget of 1000 Gigatonnes of carbon (GtC) consistent with the 2°C level would be used by 280 GtC by 2030, while 530 GtC has already been used up by 2010. Analysts at the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland are warning that to remain within the 2°C level after 2030, when global emissions are expected to level off, current levels of emission reductions targets will have to be considerably ramped up from now.

An evaluation of national climate ethics consideration of 23 countries by the National Climate Justice Research Project has shown that countries like South Africa and Japan that have stated in their INDCs that their ghg emissions commitments need to limit warming to 2°C and be derived from a fair and equitable framework, are yet to explain how their specific emissions reduction commitments can be understood to be consistent with limiting global warming to 2°C.

Many countries have based their emissions reduction commitment at least in part on national economic self-interest rather than global responsibility. In Russia, references to international obligations are mere lip service as the national INDC has been based almost exclusively on national economic interest. Moreover developed countries that acknowledged that they should act to limit warming to 2°C have not adopted emissions reduction targets at levels that would be necessary to limit warming to 2°C – namely, of 25% to 40% by 2020. In the United States, strong climate change policies and laws have been successfully blocked by opponents, mainly industry and oil and gas lobbyists, arguing that stronger laws will harm the US economy by destroying industries and jobs.

So not only is the 2°C target unachievable at this stage but it has become a political impracticality because of the difficulty to operationalise it – there is no clear understanding of how emissions reduction commitments can be made consistent with a pathway that will limit global warming to 2°C.

Several countries including Canada have made commitments to reduce GHG emissions but have not adopted the regulatory programs needed to achieve their commitments. A well-known regulatory framework that South Africa adopted is the renewable energy program but it has delayed the implementation of the carbon tax since 2010 serving to buy time for the biggest polluters in the country, and which, mining companies, and Sasol and Eskom have been successfully opposing. In 2014, Sasol took the environment department to court in an attempt to stop the enforcement of new air quality legislation and was given a five-year postponement on compliance. Early this year, several companies including Eskom and Anglo American were granted a reprieve until 2020 from complying with minimum emission standards of the new air quality Act.

The issue of equity within the context of a global climate change framework has been highly contentious and difficult to operationalise because national economic self-interest swarm the national emission reduction pathways of all countries. The country studies conducted by the National Climate Justice Research Project reveal the ethical dubiousness on the part of all countries that make the emission reduction targets contingent on other countries efforts without explaining how those speak to the equity framework.

Countries like Australia and New Zealand have expressly made their commitments to reduce climate change policies contingent on the willingness of other countries to make commensurate commitment not explaining how that positioned on the equity framework. South Africa and other developing nations have made some of their commitments contingent on funding from developed nations without explaining why some of the commitments should be funded according to an equity framework. While South Africa’s adaptation strategy seeks funding for developing capacity in climate disaster warning systems, its mitigation targets are made contingent on receiving funding and technical support for carbon capture and storage (CCS) and electric and hybrid cars, for example. Such a focus reflects the influence of the economic interest of incumbent activities of the coal mining and car manufacturing industry in the country. A recent research by the Mapungubwe Institute has shown how economic power relations in South Africa have influenced green policy making in the country. The coevolution of South Africa’s economic structures around self-interests and coal and mining institutions have locked the economy to a high-carbon intensive economy, which has not only extensively impacted how climate change issues are addressed, but also impacts on the broader national challenges of poverty and inequality.

The 2°C target is not sufficient to set the global course towards a decarbonisation path for it provides no direction of who needs to act, how and in what timeframe.

COP21 is expected to provide the impetus in that direction with clear cut actions and which should come with a determination to block power to those who wish to continue to run the engine.

Brazil is the first major developing country that has committed to an absolute reduction of emissions by the end of this century. Such forerunners are important for the Paris climate conference for they would be powerful signals of change, and assuring other governments and global businesses, investors and citizens, that emissions can be cut even as an economy expands. While it would be impossible to achieve compelling climate action all at once but expectations are that COP21 would plant the seeds of a transformative change in how long-term climate change issues will now be addressed – rather than discussing who ran the engine the longest historically, and avoiding the build-up of the “hot-air” of economic self-interests, the focus should be on who has to stop running the engine, how and within what time frame.

Radhika is Senior Researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute (MISTRA) in Johannesburg

Photo credit: Peg Hunter/Flickr Photos/Creative commons attribute