Climate diplomacy update

The Paris Agreement races towards early entry to force.

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 December’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 – 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 “realists” 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).  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 – 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.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

8 thoughts on “Climate diplomacy update”

  1. "is it all up to the impersonal forces of technology and the market?"

    If we want to build the new RE infrastructure we all know we need, and do it on time, then governments should do what they are paid to do, and mandate and fund the construction. In an corporate-political hegemony built around fossil fuels, all else is empty words and wishful thinking. We have a huge opportunity here to make clean and very inexpensive electricity a rightful commodity of and for the people. To solve global warming at the same time we simultaneously lower the cost and raise the standard of living for all peoples.

    1. This is the "Manhattan Project" (or for Brits, Bletchley Park) theory: only an all-out state effort can get the job done. But it's wrong. As Mark Jacobson and others have pointed out, we don't for the most part need new technology for the energy transition – though improvements would be nice. In these circumstances, a market-driven transition guided but not controlled by government policy is no longer wishful thinking, but the obvious way to go.

      It needed infant subsidies to wind and solar generation to get them along the high-cost part of the learning curve, but that's now done. With solar and wind at half the price of coal and gas, and adding another 10% for backup (that's an IEA number for wind drawn from historical experience in a good many European grids), they are winning the battle without the need for further subsidies. Urgency suggests that now is not the time to ease off out of worries for fossil shareholders and workers. Fossil subsidies must go.

      The same holds essentially for transportation. Electric cars still need subsidies, but the progress in batteries is so fast that this may only be for another five years. Electric buses are already competitive on a lifetime cost basis: 110,000 were sold in China in 2015, a fifth of the total bus stock. Urban vans and light trucks will follow soon.

      We don't yet have shovel-ready technology for zero-emission heavy trucks, ships and planes. That's where the Manhattan Project research effort needs to go. Along with sequestration, of course. We are more or less at 1.5 degrees C warming already. If Hansen is right, we can't afford to go any higher, This means every tonne of carbon burnt from now on has to be put back into the lithosphere. No market mechanism can do this absent a large carbon tax and sequestration premium. I would just tell the oil companies: extract what you like – and put it back.

      1. "a market-driven transition guided but not controlled by government policy is no longer wishful thinking, but the obvious way to go. "

        Why is that?

        There are a frackload of examples of public interests and commodities that are not left to vicissitudes the corporate world. Indeed, the electricity sector is still one of them – the majority of electricity suppliers are publicly or commonly owned. There are a million other examples – national health care, the military, police departments, fire departments, health departments, Medicare, Medicaid, education, welfare, OSHA, the CDC, the NIH. Every Federal agency. National parks, your Water Department. The EPA, the Interstate system….

        Yet, you say we should use the corporate system – the very system that fights RE – to go from here? At the very time when every honest commentator tells us we are moving much too slow?

  2. Nice graph. Of course, how much of that increase has to do with pollution, we don't know. Therefor, we don't know the appropriate amount to spend on solving it. Probably something, but also probably not so much as to cramp the economic growth that the world needs in order to overcome poverty and inequality.

    1. Come off it. We do know: it's mostly human (Ipcc etc). This is not debatable any more. Two: we also confidently expect that climate damage will have a very large cost (Citibank), thus cutting growth. Lots more Louisianas to come. Three: as i said before, the energy transition is a large net gain to GDP once we factor in health costs. These may be tricky to estimate but aren't in the least speculative or wishy-washy or uncertain.

      Have you really taken in the point that solar power in Abu Dhabi is now half the price of coal? So why throw away welfare and GDP on the polluting stuff?

      1. If solar power is really half the price of coal, it must be cheaper than oil, and probably gas. In that case the free market will quickly solve the problem without the Paris agreement. That is, if there is allowed to be a free market and subsidies of fossil fuels are taken away.

  3. Well if Trump gets elected, US emissions will certainly rise sharply, which will increase the value of our vote to approve : )

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