Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Get real about Climate Change. Part 4: Admit that the Paris Accords has failed, ditch it, and establish an international mechanism to foster greenhouse reductions.

by Rod Williams - I am convinced that climate change is real and we are running out of time to address it and that thus far our efforts to do so have been anemic, ineffective, symbolic, and even counterproductive. I have opined on why our efforts to combat climate change have been such a failure.  Since what we have been doing is not working, what should we do differently? 

The above charts are from 2019. Since then the trends
have continued and accelerated.
A major thing we need to do is to admit the Paris Accords is a failure, ditch it and establish a global order that incentivizes greenhouse gas reductions. People and countries respond better to incentives and disincentives than exhortations to do the right thing. 

Any one country cannot solve the problem of climate change. No matter how certain we are that climate change is real, we will not be able to solve the problem alone and without some mechanism to foster greenhouse reductions by other countries. If the US and the developed world reduce their emissions while China and other countries build new coal-fired power plants and dirty steel mills, we are losing economically while also losing the battle to curtail global warming. China can increase its production of greenhouse gases faster than we can reduce ours.

Currently, the international approach to address climate change is the Paris Climate Accords. The goal of this agreement is to keep the rise in global temperature to less than 2 °C of pre-industrial levels. To do this, there would have to be a substantial reduction in greenhouse emissions so that by about the year 2050 we have reached net-zero emissions.  Net-zero emissions means any carbon emissions that do occur are offset by processes that remove carbon or offset by other changes that result in reductions of greenhouse gases. So, if we increase the world's forest that could offset some emissions elsewhere, but if more people switch to battery-powered cars or give up their cars, that would offset some emissions elsewhere also.  The level of total emissions is to be reduced until there is net-zero emissions. 

Under the Paris Agreement, each country that is a party to the agreement must establish a plan and state a goal for how much reduction they will achieve and then regularly report on the progress they are making in meeting their plan. Every five years each country comes up with a new plan.  There is no mechanism that forces a country to set specific emissions targets, but the agreement calls for each target to show progress in greenhouse emission reduction over the previous targets. 

There are other provisions of the agreement that call for wealthy countries to give aid to developing countries for abatement and adaptation and other provisions, but the greenhouse reduction portion of the agreement is the most important part. It should be pointed out that not only is the Paris Agreement not binding on any nation beyond the requirements stated above but what is sometimes called a "treaty," is not even really a treaty.  It has never been ratified by Congress. The US is a party to the agreement by executive order.

So how is the Paris Accord doing in achieving its goal? The title of this WSJ article sums it up: World Off Track to Meet Paris Climate Targets, U.N. Says. Below are some excerpts.  The highlighting is mine.

The Paris Agreement called for governments to limit the rise in global temperatures to close to 1.5 degrees Celsius and required them to update their environmental plans repeatedly to hit the target. Friday’s report is expected to serve as a starting point for negotiations in Glasgow over how much the world needs to cut emissions and which countries need to do more. 

 Economies around the world have been rapidly adopting solar panels, wind turbines and other low-emission technologies, but scientists say the shift from fossil fuels hasn’t been happening nearly fast enough to stop rising sea levels, more frequent and powerful storms and other impacts of climate change. 

China, the world’s biggest emitter, and India, the second-most populous nation, have yet to submit updated emission reduction plans to the U.N., so Friday’s report doesn’t include plans they have announced but not formally submitted. Chinese President Xi Jinping said in December that China was aiming to get 25% of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030 and become carbon neutral before 2060. The world stands little chance of hitting the Paris climate target without China updating the last climate plan it submitted to the U.N., which dates from 2016, according to the U.N. report. Global greenhouse gas emissions are expected to have risen by 16% by 2030 compared with 2010, based on the climate plans submitted by the end of July, the U.N. said. 

 “The 16% increase is a huge cause of concern," said Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of U.N. Climate Change. “It is in sharp contrast with the calls by science for rapid, sustained and large-scale emission reductions to prevent the most severe climate consequences and suffering, especially of the most vulnerable, throughout the world."  

China and India are expected to see greenhouse gases grow strongly in the coming years, given surging economic growth. The Biden administration and the European Union have called for China to begin cutting emissions sooner. The U.N. report also notes that many of the emissions plans submitted by developing countries are contingent on receiving financing that the developed world pledged to them under the Paris accord.

This is alarming. We are increasing greenhouse gases instead of decreasing them and the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases has not even presented its required plan. Countries won't even present rosy scenario pie-in-the-sky optimistic projections.  They have stopped even pretending we will slow climate change.  Can we admit that the Paris Agreement has been a failure?

If we admit it is a failure, we need to replace it with something that works.  Replace it with what?  I, of course, do not know exactly with what, but here are some elements that I think would be essential to any plan that works.

The U. S. must take the lead.  We are the essential country.  Not much good occurs in the world when we are on the sidelines.  We are the wealthiest, one of the world's largest trading partners, the greatest military power, the most innovative, and the top provider of foreign aid to the world.  Also, we are the world's worst emitter of greenhouse gases on a per capita basis.  However, our numbers are going down, while many other country's numbers, especially China's, are going up.  We should exert our influence, lead by example, and throw our weight around.

We need to focus on a plan that involves only the important countries of the world, instead of trying to get all of the nations of the world to come together and each do their part.  Forget the United Nations, for now. We need to focus on addressing the issue where the action is.  We need an intense focus on the G-7 or maybe the G-20. The G-7 accounts for 60% of global wealth and we share common values.  If the seven wealthiest democracies can agree on an approach, we can exert a lot of influence and apply a lot of pressure on the rest of the world.  

Use international commerce to influence behavior.  I am a "free-trader."  I believe in the theory of comparative advantage and I do not want to ignite a trade war. However, "free trade" is a relative term.  It has never meant that anyone could import anything they wanted.  We do not import cars without catalytic converters. Gibson Guitar cannot import exotic woods except in limited quality with proof of origin.  We do not legally import fentanyl or cocaine. We monitor fishing and ban the import of products harvested by overfishing.  We ban the import of ivory, except in rare circumstances. A lot of trade is restricted to meet health, safety, human rights, and environmental objectives.  Certain products produced using dirty methods could be banned outright, such as Chinese steel produced using the old process of blast furnaces, for example.

In addition to an outright ban in trade in certain products, a mechanism could be established that favored countries that were reducing their overall greenhouse emissions.  We could use the current most favored nation regime and the World Trade Organization or establish a new regime using that model. 

I know this would not be easy to achieve but the approach of Paris is a failed approach.  We can't fix it. We need something stronger.

For more essays in this series see the following:

Get real about Climate Change. Part 1: Climate change is an established fact and time is running out to do anything about it.

Get real about Climate Change. Part 2: So far what we are doing about climate change is ineffective, anemic, symbolic, or counterproductive.

Get real about Climate Change. Part 3: Why are efforts to combat climate change such a failure?
Get real about Climate Change. Part 4: Admit that the Paris Accords has failed, ditch it, and establish an international mechanism to foster greenhouse reductions.

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  1. Good points here. Still, Paris was a start, a way of getting the world's biggest economies to make a promise and admit the problem is real. In a recent new development China has pledged to cancel scores of coal fired plants This is an indication that country is feeling the pressure. We've covered for climate deniers ("skeptics") going on two generations. A good start to making sure we move forward is to withdraw all support for climate change MOCKERS starting with Trump, who was a disaster when it came to climate. Get real. Nothing gets done by the world's biggest polluters (per capita) if he gets re-elected. Pulling us out of the Paris was not a move for a more effective movement, it was spit in the face of those who are trying hard to make a difference.

  2. I agree with you that President Trump should not have pulled us out of Paris. It is better than nothing; not by much, but some better than nothing. However, the most important reason not to withdraw is that it sent the wrong message. It was, as you say, a spit in the face of those who were at least trying. We should have stayed in Paris and just ignored it and let it wither on the vine, while working to establish a more effective mechanism for reducing greenhouse gases along the lines I advocated above.

  3. Wow, gone off the deep end.... Incredible.