Joyeux Noël

The Paris climate agreement, quick take

They did it. We have a Paris Agreement. The text was released a few minutes ago as the President’s final proposal. The vibes do not suggest any last-minute objections, which would probably be suicidal as everybody else in the room desperately wants to get some sleep and go home.

Update 1750h Paris time: Adopted. Final version here. I don’t know what changes were made at the last minute to get holdouts on board, but they didn’t affect the articles quoted below.(/update)

The key takeaways are unchanged since Thursday.

The temperature goal (Article 2.1.a)

… holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.

Decarbonisation goal (Article 4.1) :

In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.

Review timetable (Article 14(2):

The Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement shall undertake its first global stocktake in 2023 and every five years thereafter unless otherwise decided by the Conference of the Parties …

Opening for signature party in New York on April 22 next year (Decision paragraph 3). Presumably President Obama will invite all the Republican presidential hopefuls still standing, to gnash their teeth in frustrated isolation.

What we have is not the solution but an international framework for benchmarking everybody’s efforts. The double temperature target is messy but a vital kludge. Up to now INDCs and trends have been set against the 2 degree goal: not there yet by any means, but doable with more of the same. Now they must also be set against the far more difficult 1.5 degree goal. For example, it requires a major effort on sequestration: reforestation, biochar, olivine weathering. The research has to start tomorrow.


  • Saudi Arabia.
  • The oil, coal and natural gas industry. The death sentence is delayed, but it’s in writing.
  • Denialist and delayist ideologues. Their defeat is on such a total scale that surely the movement will start to unravel.
  • ISIS. It’s not clear that the objective of the Paris attacks was to derail COP21, but in any case the agreement shows that the world will not be deflected from its serious business by a small bunch of fanatic throwbacks.
  • Climate diplomats. What do they do now? Go and sulk under a tree like Jonah because Nineveh has, against all reasonable expectation, repented? They have not exactly worked themselves out of a job, but certainly downgraded it. The next high-stakes work is only in the “global stocktake” in 2023. Meanwhile the agreement and decision are full of mechanisms, frameworks, committees, and expert panels. These will be discussing such hot issues as risk pools for offgrid solar in Tanzania, and accounting for emissions from fish farms in Thailand. The process in evolving from diplomacy to a multilateral expert bureaucracy like the WHO or OECD. Diplomatic high-flyers will be looking elsewhere.


  • All of us.
  • The climate scientists.
  • The technologists, entrepreneurs and policy enablers of renewable energy, who have driven down its costs to a level where the energy transition is a free lunch.
  • Christiana Figueres.

I haven’t spotted any rumours about the SG slot at the United Nations, but with a probable woman in the White House, another at the UN would have powerful backing.

  • The small island countries.

Who would have thought that a coalition of the powerless could get their way on 1.5 degrees C? I trust somebody will write the backstory. God knows, these countries were motivated – for many, it’s a matter of physical survival. So they they had persistence and a clear objective on their side, as well as the science. Their interlocutors were informed on the science and did not have good arguments against, just naked self-interest (Saudi Arabia held out to the last minute). There was probably also a dose of cynical realpolitik: we aren’t on track for 2 degrees, so putting in an aspiration for 1.5 degrees doesn’t cost us anything; and anyway it’s a problem for my successors, not me personally. Although small individually, the group was numerous: having 40 tiny countries boycotting the deal as suicidal for them would have looked bad for Hollande and Obama, who needed a spectacular success.

  • Hollande, Fabius and the Quai d’Orsay.

Anybody who has organised an international meeting of any significance knows how much work goes into making the thing run smoothly. This one was huge, extremely complex and for the highest stakes, and complicated by the need for higher security created at the last minute by ISIS’ atrocities. I didn’t catch any major complaints. In a hundred years, Fabius will be remembered only as “the guy who chaired COP21 and got the Paris Climate Agreement”, just as Jacques Chirac will be “the guy who okayed the Millau viaduct”.

  • The activists.

There hasn’t exactly been a tidal wave of protest in the streets of the world, but activists have maintained a consistent and pretty well-judged pressure on policymakers for years, and been highly visible throughout COP21. It all must have helped, even pages by ancient bloggers. It’s not really new ideas or Damascene conversions, but a steady reminder that publics across the world want results. Many activists will be disappointed by the half-baked nature of the best attainable deal. Good. Now keep fighting for better implementation.

  • Obama, Kerry and Todd Stern.

Remember Bali 2007 where the US delegate was booed and smacked down by the delegate from Papua-New Guinea: “If you’re not going to lead, get out of the way”? Remember the Copenhagen fiasco of 2009? American diplomacy, leveraging a very minimal national policy commitment, has finally gained all its goals: a universal deal, unlike Kyoto which created no obligations for China, India and other developing countries; a voluntarist, bottom-up structure; and a robust review process.

  • Indabas

I confess I was wrong to snark at this, thinking it an empty relabelling. In fact it’s a specific and interesting technique for conflict resolution, used effectively by Fabius. The Guardian’s John Vidal:

Zulu and Xhosa communities use “indabas” to give everyone equal opportunity to voice their opinions in order to work toward consensus. They were first used in UN climate talks in Durban in 2011 when, with the talks deadlocked and the summit just minutes from collapse, the South African presidency asked the main countries to form a standing circle in the middle of hundreds of delegates and to talk directly to each other. Instead of repeating stated positions, diplomats were encouraged to talk personally and quietly about their “red lines” and to propose solutions to each other.

How does this work? Key factors seem to directly addressing your adversary instead of appealing to undecided third parties, with eye contact, plus silent witnesses expecting the parties to deal. A useful piece of social kit.

  • Hugo Grotius

Hugo_Grotiusand the other intellectual fathers of modern international law as the rules of a society of equal sovereign states; and the practical diplomats in Westphalia in the 1640s, Mazarin, Oxenstierna, de Witt and the rest, who embodied it in the Peace of Westphalia treaties in 1648. Their peace worked pretty well for 150 years, and its theory survives today. The non-Westphalian features of the United Nations system like the Security Council played no part in the Rio Convention mechanism. I think Grotius, de Witt and company would have been astonished that the scheme still works for 196 countries, on a really difficult problem. Only just, and it took 23 years since Rio, not counting the Kyoto false start. But Monnet was wrong: there is still life in the old model of international cooperation. We may still be forced by climate disaster into supranationalism but not yet.

Postscript: Santa’s bonus for good behaviour

And while the talks were going on, we had a third study indicating that global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels have peaked or just about. This is so important it’s worth recapping. If the inference is right, the fairly gloomy analyses of the INDCs are obsolete, and we are much closer to the 2 deg pathway – though still a long way from a 1.5 degree one.

  • IEA, March 2015:

    Preliminary data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) indicate that global emissions of carbon dioxide from the energy sector stalled in 2014, marking the first time in 40 years in which there was a halt or reduction in emissions of the greenhouse gas that was not tied to an economic downturn.

    This good news was later walked back to a 2.2% increase, as China lowered its pre-2014 data on coal and emissions.

  • Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency for the EU, Trends in global CO2 emissions: 2015 Report, pdf section 2.1 : growth in global emissions from fossil fuels and industry of 0.5% 2013-2014, compared to GDP growth of 3%.
  • Tyndall Centre (University of East Anglia) and the Global Carbon Project, November 2015 – peer-reviewed article in Nature Climate Change : emissions from fossil fuels and industry grew 0.6% in 2014, and are projected to fall in 2015 by 0.6% (central estimate, range +0.5% to -1.6%).

These estimates are from people who know what they are doing, and presumably working independently. They are not however truly independent estimates, as they are working off the same national statistics, especially the problematic Chinese ones.

These show a continued and quite rapid fall in Chinese coal consumption: 5% a year (September to September).  Can we trust them?

The revisions for years before 2013 certainly reveal problems in the statistical administration. But they don’t support a conspiracy theory that Chinese statistics are Stalinist lies made up for PR reasons. Who reads corrections to old data but nerds? True, the corrections do not put Xi Jinping in a bad light – they represent the bad habits tolerated by his predecessor, no? Ockham’s razor supports the commonsense interpretation, that the revisions mark a tightening up of reporting standards (consistent with Xi’s disciplinarianism), and make current data somewhat more trustworthy. Scapegoats have no doubt been identified and sent to count chickens in Urumchi.

The main reason for trusting the Chinese coal data is rather that they are consistent with other evidence, on coal imports and stocks, stagnant output in pig iron and much lower growth in other sectors of heavy industry like cement, and declining utilisation in thermal coal plants. Any conspiracy to cook the data would have to be economy-wide. It is far more likely that the Chinese economy is simply being restructured at breakneck speed towards the developed-economy domination of services and consumption. The Party knows that it must cut air pollution soon or risk its monopoly of power.




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

31 thoughts on “Joyeux Noël”

  1. I am not sure I understand what a "framework agreement" is. I presume it is not a legally binding treaty, because the U.S. Senate is not being asked to vote.

    1. "Framework" is not in the title. IANAL but as I understand it the agreement is worded so that Obama can sign it as an executive agreement implementing the (framework) Rio Convention of 1992, a treaty which passed the Senate nearly unanimously. The INDCs are political commitments not treaty obligations. I may be wrong. Who will sue Obama on this?

      1. Who will sue Obama on this?

        I would assume no one…why bother with an election less than 10 months away? I was wondering more whether the next POTUS would be bound by this in any way. Tying it to a previously approved treaty was certainly clever and perhaps will help in making the commitments real.

        1. Executive agreements, like any secondary legislation, stay in force until they are revoked. A President Rubio/Cruz/Trump could unsign the Paris Agreement with a stroke of the pen. A President Clinton/Sanders/O’Malley would not have to do anything to keep it in force.

  2. " pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.

    Are we not already locked in to at least 2C ? Can we take Paris in good faith?

    1. a) Not as far as I know. Expert takes on the agreement vary, as do those of NGOs. James Hansen says it's a fraud, Nicholas Stern says it's historic. Professor Myles Allen, Oxford: "To limit warming to 1.5 degrees, CO2 emissions need to fall, on average, by 20% for every tenth of a degree of warming. At the rate we’re warming at the moment, a tenth of a degree means 5 to 10 years. So 1.5 will be tough." Not impossible.

      b)Whyever not? If it weren't being taken seriously, the negotiations would not have been so tough. It's in the nature of law that parties are free to disregard their undertakings – and pay the consequences. In this case, the consequences in domestic political discredit would probably be more serious than the international ones. Even before adoption, the process did serious political damage to Abbott in Australia and Harper in Canada. States and politicians care a lot about their reputation.

      1. From what I have read, reducing CO2 emissions, even if by Professor Allen's schedule, can not avoid +2C. [GHG] simply can not come down fast enough from where they are now – at ~ 400ppm (actually, it's worse, because [GHG] = ~ 490 CO2-equivalents) regardless of emission reductions . And 400 ppm [CO2] has delivered +2C in the past. We have not reached equilibrium forcing yet, and the half-life of [GHG] are too long. Professor Allen's explanation seems to not appreciate the significant difference between short-term and equilibrium forcing.

        This lock-in of 2C seems to be pretty solid among the sources I have read…. so I really have to wonder about the sincerity – or at least how well informed are the litigants – of a 1.5C proposal

        1. The reference is usually to short-term equilibrium. Long-term has other ways to address it.

          Related, I think the pessimism about negative emissions is overblown, especially given the wealthy economies in just a few decades.

          1. Allen is upset by the UK government's cancellation of its one CCS project. I would have thought it makes sense to draw a line under the failed technology tried so far – liquefaction and deep injection of CO2 – which was pushed as a way of keeping coal generators going. This it cannot do. It's not the only game in town. We know tree planting works. Research need to be ramped up quickly on higher-tech approaches like biochar and olivine weathering. We can't run out of olivine, it's the commonest mineral in the earth's mantle.

          2. Add to that deep ocean iron fertilization; It has the advantage, compared to many approaches, of looking like it's going to be wildly profitable. That one experiment that was done paid for itself many times over in increased salmon runs.

            Absorbing CO2, AND renewing fish stocks. Makes a lot of people wonder why so many warmists are horrified by the idea.

          3. It should be noted that the person who ran the Southern Ocean Iron Experiment, the one that has you so excited, has since been busy explaining that you shouldn't just run with the first order effects it noted and extrapolate from them to OMG! WE'VE SOLVED GLOBAL WARMING!. There are second order effects that significantly reduce the first order effects in regards to carbon sequestration, there are issues with scaling the idea up to a level that would have any meaningful effect on global carbon emissions, and, contrary to your extraordinarily simplistic enthusiasm, there are probably significant negative impacts from the iron seeding:

          4. Granted, all of that. But the first order effects are enough to pay for the experiements necessary to be sure of the second order effects.

          5. Sure, but we also need to slow down and then stop carbon emissions. All of these geoengineering things are, at best, partial solutions that we won't know the efficacy of until a long time from now. Meanwhile, we do know of other things that will help. You just don't happen to like any of them, so you're looking for excuses not to implement them.

  3. It's in the nature of law that parties are free to disregard their undertakings – and pay the consequences. In this case, the consequences in domestic political discredit would probably be more serious than the international ones.

    What I fear is that, in the US, there may be those who come to power who will pay consequences for respecting the agreement, and reap rewards for disregarding it.

    1. It was easy and vote-winning for the Bush administration to sabotage the climate negotiations, struggling slowly forward towards an agreement. President Rubio would face a very different situation, with the Paris Agreement a settled feature of the foreign policy landscape. Disregarding it might pay off domestically, but would be very costly internationally. Retaliatory carbon tariffs are only one possible tactic. The US by itself can't save the fossil fuel industry in the face of a global transition.

        1. A congenital blanket defect, surely. I mostly write about other things where I am more likely to be right, or at least interestingly wrong.

          BTW, I appreciate your revealing e-mail address, though I can't share it with other readers.

          1. My publishing company (which will have a published novel for sale hopefully by the end of January!) is Melancholy Donkey Press.

        2. Just out of curiosity, which part do you disagree with? That it wouldn't be costly domestically, to try to tank this?

          I am not sure what I think yet, but I tend to think with James that very soon, it will look really bad to be against this. We are herd animals after all. Still like to hear what you think though.

          1. It might be costly for the GOP as a whole to break the agreement, though it also might not be; I suspect that the American electorate's commitment to fighting global warming is very shallow and will come in well behind how people react to other issues. And, especially among Republicans, a policy opposed by foreigners is often considered a virtue rather than a sin.

            Beyond all that, and one place I think James often errs, is that it's a mistake to think of U.S. political parties as the sort of unitary actors that European parties usually are. In predicting what a politician here is going to do, going by the party's preference will lead you astray, as what is in that individual's best interest and his personal ideology are both significantly more relevant. And, for various reasons, at this moment, that logic is pushing Republican politicians to oppose any attempts to deal with global warming to a degree well beyond what is in the party's best interests. A President Rubio, let alone a President Cruz, would kill this agreement in a heartbeat if elected.

          2. It is CW in the pol sci trade that American political parties have been getting steadily more coherent ideological and more disciplined, so that they – and especially the Republicans – now look much more like European parties than the loose coalitions that held up to the 1960s. The leftmost Republican congressman is to the right of the rightmost Democrat, isn't it so? In disciplined parties, there is more room for lemming death marches. GOP congresspeople are bound hand and foot to both Grover Norquist's anti-tax crusade, the Koch-funded denialist network, and the nativist Tea Party base, media and lobbies. It's far from clear that these commitments correspond to all their individual electoral interests outside the Old South. The GOP platform is a long way from the preferences of the median American voter, the Democratic one close to it. The trouble-with-Kansas mystery is why in the polling booth these same voters often vote Republican, against their interests and policy preferences. Cultural and racial animus doesn't look a sustainable basis for a party in a two-party system. Trump and Carson may have lit the fuse for the implosion.

          3. The parties have certainly become more ideologically coherent. Watching the way that John Boehner was treated by his caucus, I think the argument that the parties are becoming more disciplined is false. There are certain sorts of things in which the appearance of party discipline is created by ideological coherence leading to members of each party voting the same way on legislative proposals. To the extent that political scientists mean only that, the statement that discipline is increasing is true. However, that does not imply that the party controls what its individual congressmen or president does any better than they used to. If anything, the Citizens United ruling means the party has even less control over the individual, since candidates for office now have more access to money from sources outside the party's control.

          4. Maybe, but that's an awfully optimistic view, I think. Remember that there are an awful lot of Republicans who not only are skeptical but actually seem to believe the whole thing is a hoax. This includes at least Trump and Cruz, and possibly some of the others – I haven't checked.

            Now if you are "merely" a skeptic you can always play the "more recent evidence convinced me" card. But if you are one of the paranoids it's hard to see how you back down and stay politically viable.

            There is a huge political investment in denial, and it's not going to be easy to throw it away. It will be an Emily Litella act like no other.

      1. I'm not sure disregarding COP21 would pay off for a Repubican president in 2018 or more importantly 2020. Even now, Rs are split into a small minority that want to do something about climate change in theory (e.g. Graham), a large minority that acknowledge human caused change but don't want to really do anything about it (e.g. Fiorina), and a plurality that mix levels of denial with refusal to take action. Climate impacts and decreasing renewable prices should shift support towards realism increasingly.

        On the political elite level, Republicans are divided while Democrats are united on this issue. It won't play into Republican hands, although they can do enormous damage over the short term.

        1. Wait until electric cars get cheaper and have great range coupled with extremely cheap solar power. Then it’ll be like the transition from whale oil.

  4. Developing and third world countries are going to have a hard time telling their citizens that they will have to continue living in developing and third world conditions just because first world countries tell them that they have to limit the use of fossil fuels.

    1. Do you have any evidence for this? China's city-dwelling millions suffer from horrific air pollution, and it's even worse in Delhi. Beijing was just shut down for three days. If this is first-world living, why should they want it?

      It's an extraordinarily persistent myth that renewable energy is expensive. Recent Indian auctions for solar came in at around 7c/kwh, Brazilian ones at 8c/kwh: both in the early stages of the ramp-up, and with limited domestic supply chains. Brazilian wind has been around longer and comes in now at 5.3c/kwh. In Brazil, fossil generation can't compete any longer.

      Indian coal is still cheaper on paper, if you don't add in anything (as you should) for the health costs. There is considerable doubt whether the planning coal prices are in fact attainable. India drew up plans in 2005 for 16 giant "Ultra-Mega" coal plants. Two have been built, the others are all stalled or cancelled. Reliance walked away from one earlier this year as uneconomic. And coal generation needs more transmission.

      For the billion peasants who live far from any grid, the centralised model of generation (which coal implies) does not offer them any chance of electricity any time soon. Offgrid and microgrid solar is already making a big difference across South Asia and Africa, and is accelerating. Even a single solar-powered LED light with phone charger is life-changing, and affordable to very many. In this market, charities are being replaced by profit-making businesses like M-Kopa and Greenlight.

      1. For the billion peasants who live far from any grid, the centralised model of generation (which coal implies) does not offer them any chance of electricity any time soon. Offgrid and microgrid solar is already making a big difference across South Asia and Africa, and is accelerating. Even a single solar-powered LED light with phone charger is life-changing,

        This is an interesting point. I think something very similar happens with cell phones. It is much easier to spread cell service than landline based service to rural areas

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