We’ll Always Have Paris

Nov 4, 2016 · 15 min read
The Paris meeting of UNFCCC ended on an optimistic note about climate change policy. But the substance of the agreement was deliberately weak.

Today is a red letter date in the history of the world, as the Paris Accord comes into effect. Or maybe it isn’t.

The political and activist side of the climate community is portraying the accord as a breakthrough and the beginning of a turnaround in the world’s self-destructive path. Chris Mooney, one of the best reporters on the beat, has a fairly upbeat summary, coauthored with Brady Dennis, at the Washington Post.

But many of us who are scientific and technical professionals have a far less sanguine view of the whole thing. I’ll try to explain why many of us think we remain very far from a sane trajectory. This article is intended for nonspecialists, and it will show a few related graphs showing future carbon emission scenarios.

The intended reader is one who accepts the broad consensus that the long term future of the earth requires limiting the concentration of greenhouse gases far below the level that an unregulated market is likely to achieve.

The Climate Policy Community

The scientific body which informs this effort, IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) predates UNFCCC and is not formally connected to it.

The COP meetings, being worldwide conclaves, are ironically expensive evernts to which thousands of people, representatives of basically all governments and many other organizations, fly from all over the world. The locations naturally have hotels and ariports, and the events themselves can be and are criticized for having a high carbon footprint. Though the critics are generally from the let’s-sneer-about-climate corner, it must be admitted that they have a point, especially insofar as the meetings have not generally been successful.

Attendees insist that the Paris meeting was different, that it should be counted a success. I’m unconvinced.

Carbon Is Forever

The dominant issue in anthropogenic climate change is CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere as a result of human actions. There are other factors in climate change, both natural and artificial. The natural ones are at this point being swamped by artificial ones. Of the artificial ones, most have short time scales (methane) or are somewhat reversible (land surface uses) or are relatively small in impact (CFCs). But CO2 is different from most human impacts on the environment. Its effect is global and persistent.

On historical time scales, CO2 doesn’t go away. While a given carbon atom will shift back and forth between the atmosphere and ocean (and can undergo chemical changes in the ocean) it persists in the environment for a very long time. In particular, carbon from fossil fuels piles up in the atmosphere and ocean.

This means that to solve the problem, we can’t just restrain our emissions’ growth. We have to shrink emissions down to, effectively, zero. Or even less than zero!

While this is certainly a big deal, your first impression might well be that we don’t need a complicated treaty to achieve it. If our target is zero, everybody should just get to zero as quickly as possible. If one country wants wind power, another nuclear power, and another, what, draft horses, so be it. To each their own. Why create a global bureaucracy, when we can all just pull for a good solution?

Libertarian Environmentalism

A Nobel winning economist, Elinor Ostrom, published extensively on the libertarian solutions to the “tragedy of the commons”.

Elinor Ostrom

Her approach

… cautioned against single governmental units at global level to solve the collective action problem of coordinating work against environmental destruction. Partly, this is due to their complexity, and partly to the diversity of actors involved. Her proposal was that of a polycentric approach, where key management decisions should be made as close to the scene of events and the actors involved as possible. [Wikipedia]

An example she often referred to was how lobster fishermen in Maine allocated fishing grounds:

You don’t expect big tough fishermen to go around tying bows on baskets, or to get worried if they see a bow they didn’t tie themselves… Maine lobster fishermen use this system when another man sets his traps on their patch. It’s a warning to the poacher that he’s been found out. If he persists, he receives at visit at home. If that doesn’t convince him to mend his ways, he can expect a whole range of other sanctions, up to the destruction of his boat.

This is an example of a self-organising system to manage common pool resources.

Economists, easily impressed by Libertarian arguments, found Ostrom’s arguments “challeng[ing] conventional notions whereby enforcement should be left to impartial outsiders” attractive enough to award her the Nobel Prize (*) in economics.

Can we apply this lobster trap management idea to carbon emissions? After all, seven billion people share a single atmosphere. Can we informally enforce nobody using more than their fair share? The impracticalities are too obvious to enumerate.

The Paris Agreement doesn’t do that directly, but it is a sort of Ostromist agreement writ large. Rather than the individual actors being people, they are countries. Can a community of 197 member nations exert social pressure on one another to comply with a collective goal?

Rejoice, Rejoice, We Have No Choice

In 2009, an attempt by the world’s nations to enter into a binding agreement on emissions failed in acrimony. At the Copenhagen COP-15, a last minute visit by newly elected President Obama allowed for a sort of face-saving declaration that achieved avoiding the utter collapse of the UNFCCC but little more. It effectively “kicked the can down the road”, delaying picking it up until last year.

The Paris Agreement, signed in 2015 at COP-21, is not a treaty. This was essentially a requirement placed on the negotiations by the USA, which has a Republican dominated Senate, which is notoriously uncooperative with the world on this matter. The US President cannot sign a treaty absent the consent of the Senate, which consent was never going to happen. So a binding treaty including the US is simply not possible.

Instead, we have a global statement of intent, which is nonbinding. It says we’re going to keep global warming below 2 C, which in some convoluted way became the legalistic definition of “dangerous”.

It also has some per-nation not-quite-commitments which don’t add up to an adequate level of decarbonization for even a 3 C target, never mind 2 C.

The hope that this will matter is some equivalent of Ostromist “social pressure”. The parties are to come together in five years and critique each others’ progress. The idea is that each country will strive to do as well as or better than its commitments because of peer group pressure. That is, the idea is that nations will pressure each other as local lobster fishermen do to respect each other’s needs.

Perhaps I’m being a bit more snarky than this entirely deserves. It’s been explained to me that early commitments to the Montreal Protocol eliminating CFCs were inadequate and firmed up over the years. So if we were as competent as our predecessors and the pressures for CO2 emissions were no greater, this might even work too.

But we don’t live in that world. Do you envision “debates” in the US congress being much affected by the desire for approval of America by Maldives or Bangladesh? (In fact, I wonder when the last time was that a vote in the US Congress was affected by testimony or argument from the floor. It must be rare. Bangladesh has no votes.)

The Devil is in the Details

Why is it so hard to pull together a treaty that everyone (at least everyone not in a country where Rupert Murdoch has hypnotized a swath of the population) could agree to, since the stakes are so high? Tribalist climate denial was not a major force running up to the 2009 Copenhagen COP, and Obama was freshly in office.

Well it turns out that while “zero emissions as soon as possible” is clear enough to the negotiators, “zero by when paid for by whom” is not. This is the international equity problem. Countries that have emitted enormous amounts of CO2 in the past have consequentially amassed great wealth. For them to deny that advantage without compensation strikes the poorer countries as a way to enforce the current distinction between rich and poor forever. They suggest that the people with the money be the ones paying for the new infrastructure.

Then there’s the question of how fast “as soon as possible” really is. Without abundant energy, the world is overpopulated. We can’t just shut off the fossil fuels today and wait for the clean energy to come online someday in the future. The farms must produce. The trucks must roll. The lights must come on. And for some reason, the banks have to stay more or less stable! The existing investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is immense. It’s difficult to imagine how we’d manage things if we had to throw it away overnight. But different economies are in different circumstances. How fast each could commit differs.

Then there are social problems. One could argue that North Americans have emitted our share, that our lifestyles are especially consumptive, and that we could live without private autmobiles. But who is going to win an election proposing to every suburban voter that they have to start taking a bus? (Don’t worry, we’ll have train service within two miles of your house in less than two decades!) It would arguably be fair, but it would be a hard sell.

Then there’s the question as to how to count emissions. Global emissions are in principle well-defined. Just check atmospheric and oceanic concentrations, and subtract last year’s value. But how should we count land use changes? How should we count methane emissions? Is the country that pumps the oil responsible for fugitive emissions even if they wouldn’t pump that oil if they didn’t have customers in other countries? What about manufacturing that corporations move to countries where the “as soon as possible” is less soon? (Did Europeans complying with the Kyoto Protocol actually contribute to China’s early 21st century boom by outsourcing heavy manufacturing? Arguably so.)

Trying to get almost 200 sovereign nations to agree on details of this has proven unachievable, even before the rise of widespread climate denial.

One thing we did achieve at Copenhagen was a general ratification of the 2 C target. The previously vague “dangerousness” criterion was replaced, somewhat arbitrarily, with a goal of not allowing near-term global warming to exceed that amount. This agreement was especially ironic, as no treaty was achieved, and no serious progress toward the goal was implemented.

I’ll try below to give you some sense of the urgency that is implied by this goal.

CO2 in the atmosphere. If things are getting better, the atmosphere hasn’t noticed.

We finally drew a line in the sand.

And then we essentially agreed to do nothing about it for six more years. In the intervening years, annual emissions have increased, and the atmospheric CO2 burden has crossed 400 ppmv, about 40% over the preindustrial baseline.

Arguably the objective was falling out of reach at exactly the moment it was agreed to.

The Reality Gap

And the 2 C target, a very difficult goal in 2009, was 6 years further out of reach.

If you are interested in this matter, it’s important to understand how quickly these goals go from feasible to infeasible.

Annual emissions targets to meet a specific goal get much steeper after relatively short delays. In this case, these trajectories limit peak atmpspheric conentrations enough for a 66% chance, on current estimates, for holding to the 2 C warming limit. As the world dawdles, achievable goals on cumulative problems quickly become unachievable. From Copenhagen Diagnosis.

The graph above is the least complicated and easiest to understand of a zoo of future emissions curves. It compares scenarios of global emissions consistent with a likely 2 C peak global temperature excursion. Because CO2 is mostly cumulative, even a short delay means a rapidly increasing effort to get the same result. We have entered the period when the 2 C target is becoming infeasible — emission rate cuts globally in excess of 10%/year.

So just about the time that we agree that 2 C is too much, we missed the boat for 2 C. Should we now fall back to 2.5 C, which there is time to achieve?

Well, in fact, the Paris agreement did quite the opposite. They reaffirmed the incerasingly unachievable 2 C goal and added an “aspiration” of limiting global warming to 1.5 C.

Pulling a Rabbit Out of a Hat

eight possible pathways that society could take to have a two-in-three chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The blue line represents our current emissions trajectory. The red line represents the path that society will be on if countries adhere to the Paris Agreement. The gray lines represent other possibilities, all of which require more stringent emissions cuts in the near term but fewer negative emissions later NCAR

This picture is similar to the other one — steeper reductions allow some residual emissions in the long term, but these are generally regarded as unrealistic — we don’t really know how to keep a market economy going under the circumstances shown by the sharpest curves.

But there’s a new feature — the target trajectory now goes below zero. How are we to do this?

It’s, frankly, unknown.

The leading idea is called BECCS (bio-energy with carbon capture ans sequestration), which means growing crops for energy (on an increasingly land-limited and perhaps food-stressed world), burning them in place (there’s not enough energy surplus to ship the crops long distances) capturing the CO2 in place, piping the CO2 to underground formations, and hoping it stays there.

This may seem implausible to you, and you wouldn’t be alone, but other schemes that have been so far proposed (Cow patties to create soil is a popular one!) turn out to have even bigger holes than this one. This is mostly because, like everything in the energy domain, they are scale limited.

Anyway, suppose it were feasible. Which countries will pay for this enormous operation? What will the motivations be for it? Do we have the right to saddle future generations with a burden like this?

Sorry. It’s too late to ask the ethical question. We’ve made our choice. We have already saddled future generations with this task if we take 2 C as a limit.

It strikes me how different this is from the theoretical way democracy should work. Meeting 2 C or not, committing to carbon negative or not, these are in theory things the public should have put considerable effort into discussing and agreeing upon.

In practice, we have at best backed into a commitment for carbon sequestration. Oliver Geden was the first to point this out, and he got a great deal of resistance for even raising the issue.

More likely, of course, is that large scale capture and sequestration won’t happen, and we need to get by on just limiting emissions. Which in turn means that there is no practical path left to 2 C. Which is what we were saying in 2009, when we warned that the doors to a 2 C outcome were closing.

The Reality Gap

INDC = Intended Nationally Determined Contributions

These contributions just don’t add up to what we need. (Well, they don’t subtract up. It’s a peculiar sort of contribution.) To make matters worse, these “contributions” are not commitments. They are more like good intentions. Negotiators at COP-21 were not empowered to make national commitments. But let’s suppose we all manage to live up to our stated intent.

By century’s end on the basis ofthese existing good intentions, we have long since blown past 2 C and are moving toward 4 C, a level which there’s some doubt civilization could survive. We can also surmise that each nation will interpret the fuzzy parts of the calculation to its own benefit, and so emissions will manage to happen that are not counted.

In the end, Paris has left us closer to business as usual than to avoiding climate danger.

But Wait! There’s Less!

Of course, low-lying island nations are already feeling the pain of climate change, and they would like to limit it below 2 C. So they added an “aspirational” goal of limiting warming to 1.5 C. I won’t throw another graph at you. It’s very unlikely we’ll stay below 2 C. 1.5 C is science fiction.

But since we’re announcing things that won’t happen anyway, why not? Let’s also send everybody a pony! I don’t know why free ponies for everybody wasn’t in the agreement too. It’s just as likely as a peak global temperature anomaly limited to 1.5 C.

You Can’t Run A Planet Like a Lobster Fishery

We need a complex, technical treaty with clear allocation of responsibilities to meet a firm target. And we can’t have one anytime soon.

Perhaps “producing a failure and declaring a success” is so ingrained into the modern world that this bizarre episode makes sense. I know that almost everyone who attended Paris left happy and hopeful. It seems cruel and even malign to pop the balloon.

For now, the Paris Agreement what we’ve got and we should try very hard to make it happen. As you see, I’m pessimistic, but I can’t adequately express to you how fervently I hope to be proven wrong.

Logically it’s time to argue for a hard 2.5 C target (or better, a 500 ppmv concentration target), a real treaty with teeth and lots of paragraphs and subparagraphs about who is responsible for which molecule, and a real global agency which can enforce it.

Emotionally it seems more like it’s time for talking about ponies, and unicorns, and 1.5 C (which is admittedly plenty of climate impact) and to each country their own efforts and different strokes and good luck and kumbaya.

Let’s keep in mind that costs scale nonlinearly. 2 C is not just 33% worse than 1.5 C. Consider that somewhere this side of 80 C, the world simply dies altogether. Impacts appear to increase steeply and nonlinearly with global temperature shifts.

We seem to have attained 1.0 C already, and there’s more warming in the pipeline.

The future will be what it will be, I suppose. It doesn’t look pretty about now.

I just don’t see how wishful thinking helps. I think an ambitious but realistic path to 2.5 C would do more good than a path to 2.o C that depends on fantasy. We still need a global treaty, with realistic goals, detailed national obligations, and teeth.

Planet 3

The new Planet 3 Magazine


Written by


Michael Tobis PhD, actual climate scientist, writes on climate and sustainability issues for the informed nonspecialist, and codes in Python and Javascript.

Planet 3

Planet 3

The new Planet 3 Magazine

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