Getting depressed by Trump and Brexit and Syria and Trump? Time for a slightly cheerful update on the Paris climate agreement.
Slightly cheerful. Houston, we have a problem.
There is no time to lose. Very late in the day, the world’s governments have woken up. Last Decemberâ€™s Paris Agreement (text, chart of ratifications, ratification tracker) is the expression of this.
The current diplomatic action is about bringing it into force quickly. This is happening.
Multilateral treaties can take ages; the huge Law of the Sea Treaty, adopted in 1982, came into force only 12 years later, with the 60th ratification in 1994. The Paris Agreement enjoys a most unusual sense of urgency. Trump’s candidacy in the USA adds to this. If the agreement comes into force before the end of the year, American withdrawal would by Article 28 take four years, the end of Trump’s putative first term. The empty chair would make no difference in practical terms, but the formal adherence would annoy Trump no end.
The double bar for entry into force is 55 states responsible for 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The first 25 ratifications were from small states, the largest Peru, totalling a mere 1%. The US and China joined together just before the G20 summit, taking the total to 27/39%. On September 21st, another 31 states ratified, including Brazil and Mexico: 60/48%. Mali two days later, 61/48%. There are enough states already but not enough emissions.
It is now very probable that states covering the missing 7% of emissions can be rounded up before the end of November. Still, it’s major paperwork, with the NDC, and the lawyers have to check every line.
The EU with its 27 member states would be more than enough. But it has a special problem. Competence in environmental and energy policy is divided between the Union and the member states. Both must ratify, specifying who does what. The EU has agreed its collective emissions target, but not yet shared it out among the member states. The conservative pro-coal Polish government is holding out for doing essentially nothing. Brussels is deeply embarrassed about the delays.
They like to make a show of unity with a simultaneous ratification by the EU and all its member states, but the effect in context is to look stupid not united. This is a practice not a rule, and if Poland keeps obstructing, France and other climate hawks are quite likely to go it alone. (Advanced classroom exercise in international law: write France’s declaration accompanying ratification in this scenario.) Ban Ki-Moon won’t be saying the paperwork is invalid. Any more than Pakistan’s 350-word apology for a national climate plan.
If they can get the missing states by October 7, the agreement would come into force by the next meeting of the Rio Treaty parties (COP-22) in Morocco in November. This could then declare itself the first meeting of the Paris Agreement parties and set to work. Otherwise they will in theory have to wait a year to COP-23. I dare say there are ways round this â€“ the same people meet regularly wearing different hats. But it would add political impetus, and put pressure on the laggards to ratify. There is BTW no diplomatic advantage to be gained by delay. Early birds get the seats on the committees dealing with rules of procedure, the work programme, the budget, and other pieces of mind-numbing housekeeping to get the show on the road. Countries write their own NDCs in any case. I don’t understand why India for one is dragging its heels.
So what? Is this going to make a difference? Or, as futurists and Marxists agree, is it all up to the impersonal forces of technology and the market?
Many â€œrealistsâ€ sneered at the weak legal force of the Agreement. The only binding bits are procedural: the Parties are required to submit national mitigation and adaptation plans, for a process of multilateral peer review; and there will be an overall review of progress and goals after five years. The national plans are self-determined and without legal force, just political commitments. So, say the realists, it’s just hot air.
Not so. The argument proves too much. If you force international law into the ultra-realist template of the late Roman jurist Ulpian that law is the will of the Emperor enforced by his army, it all disappears into vacuity. But ultra-realism here is tough guy fantasy. The principles of 1648, of de Witt, Oxenstierna and Mazarin – negotiators who would eat Trump for breakfast – still guide foreign ministries: the promise of a king or republic is worth a lot, because they pay a high price in honour and credibility for breaking it. The other kings and republics have armies too, and you have now created a new category of just war: breaking international legal obligations.
The Agreement cannot claim the credit for all the good news since, especially the fall in the price of utility solar electricity- to a staggering 2.24c/kwh in Abu Dhabi –, and the drop in oil investment reacting to a glut in supply engineered by Saudi Arabia. There is a better candidate for a smoking gun.
In the first six months of 2016, the pipeline of coal power stations planned and under construction fell by 158 GW, or 14%. In China, the central government has forced the pace. In India, it has largely been commercial decisions, against a backdrop of local issues over permitting, guaranteed supplies of fuel, and project finance, and more widespread ones like the slowdown in electricity demand and ever-cheaper wind and solar.
Many factors have gone into this turnaround. Most of them were already evident in 2015. What changed in early 2016? The Paris Agreement, with a global commitment in writing to reach net zero emissions “in the second half of this century”. To get there, policies will have to turn against fossil fuels soon where they have not already done so. They will also have to support the mass deployment of renewable generators, cutting into the capacity factors and profitability of fossil ones.
It would be crazy for investors in fossil plants not to take this shift into account as a major additional risk. The national plans may be inadequate and hedged about with qualifications and conditions, and made by cynical and not entirely trustworthy governments. Still, it’s no longer BAU. The very inadequacy and special pleading of the national plans suggests a considerable probability that they and the national policies they reflect will be tightened up in future, as the Paris Agreement itself envisages in the binding Article 4(3).
I suggest the Paris Agreement has triggered or brought forward a big rethink on coal. There are still 932 GW of generating plants in the pipeline, but judging by China, these would mostly run at a loss if they were ever built. Expect more cancellations.
Another impact has been on aviation. This and shipping were both left out of the text to get it over the line, but both sectors have been made to realise that the reprieve is temporary. Aviation has been quicker on its feet, and the ICAO is about to agree a voluntary carbon offset scheme (CORSIA).Â Inadequate? Yes. But the principle has been conceded, and the regulations will be ratcheted up.
Shipping is more hidebound, and there is no deal on the immediate horizon at the IMO. But the flag-of-convenience countries of registration â€“ Panama, Liberia, the Marshall Islands – are small and very vulnerable to real pressure. There is a credible threat from some in the EU to introduce carbon port charges on ships from countries without a carbon tax on fuel or equivalent. Several big shippers like Maersk and Cargill are pushing for a uniform carbon tax as the lesser evil.
There have been failures, too. The G20 signally failed to advance the agenda on the phaseout of subsidies and tax breaks to fossil fuels. This is real life, you don’t win everything at the first or even third attempt. But the IMF and the NGOs will keep hammering away. So will Clinton’s Presidency, and the growing renewables lobbies. (They were strong enough in the USA to get the wind and solar tax credits extended in 2015, by a Republican House.) The subsidies will go.