Can the Paris agreement on climate change prevent global warming?
Once upon a time, the climate movement yearned for an international climate treaty based on what might be called the Gold Standard.
According to this model, climate scientists would calculate a carbon budget based on the maximum allowable global cumulative emissions that would reduce the risks of dangerous climate change.
Nations would then divvy up this budget by allocating reduction targets based on burden-sharing principles, which include relative responsibility, capability and development needs.
The mitigation burdens of individual parties would take the form of internationally binding commitments and full transparency would enable all national actions to be assessed, with penalties for noncompliance.
Those who are most vulnerable to the harmful impacts of climate change, particularly those who are the least responsible and the least capable of adapting, have good reason to be nervous and angry
Of course, no one expected this Gold Standard to materialise, fully fledged. Under the Kyoto Protocol 1997, the industrialised countries with mitigation obligations were able to choose their targets, if not their own timetables and baselines.
Yet back in 1997, no one expected the climate negotiations to move so far away from this ideal in the tortuous international effort to produce a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.
The Copenhagen Accord 2009 (formally adopted at Cancun in 2010) was a non-binding, bottom up, pledge and review system that represented a complete inversion of the Gold Standard.
What we will probably get
The agreement that is expected to emerge from the Paris negotiations is likely to be more of a hybrid, but much closer to an inversion than an enactment of the coveted Gold Standard.
This approach aims to circumvent the deep discord that has plagued the negotiations by introducing greater flexibility, greater national self-differentiation and softer legal provisions. around certain sensitive commitments.
The US and China have had a major hand in developing this approach through their cooperation over the last two years.
The core of this agreement will be commitments by the parties on what post-2020 climate actions they intend to take, their ‘nationally determined contributions’, with ongoing cycles of commitment.
Many parties, including Australia, resorted to providing very self-serving metrics and data and provided no, or only weak and poorly supported arguments
More than 160 parties, including all members of the G20, have submitted their so-called ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ (INDCs) ahead of the Paris meeting.
However, their plans fall well short of what is required to prevent dangerous global warming - the ultimate goal of the agreement.
Those who are most vulnerable to the harmful impacts of climate change, particularly those who are the least responsible and the least capable of adapting, have good reason to be nervous and angry.
The Lima Call for Climate Action, agreed at the meeting in Peru last year, called on each party to justify the fairness and ambition of their INDC. Yet very few parties have taken this requirement seriously, especially among developed countries which carry an obligation to lead under the UNFCCC.
Many parties, including Australia, resorted to providing very self-serving metrics and data and provided no, or only weak and poorly supported arguments, to justify the fairness and ambition and of INDCs.
What appears to be emerging is new global ‘show and tell’ regime. But if this is to work, then full information is required in the showing and proper justifications are needed in the telling.
This should be a deliberative democratic process under the full glare of critical publicity, otherwise we many end up with no more than a self-serving show and tell façade that legitimates weak actions.
Parties cannot be allowed to be the sole advocate, judge and jury of the fairness and ambition of their own national contributions. They must be answerable to the international community, and especially those who are most vulnerable.
Holding nations accountable
Transnational and national climate NGOs and research organisations have a crucial role to play in this evaluation process as watchdogs, critics, judges and translators of complex information to the public.
Without comprehensive and comparable data on responsibility and capacity in all INDCs, it is difficult to debate and judge whether individual countries are making their best efforts in accordance with their relative responsibility, capability and opportunities.
If the parties fail to provide sufficient information to allow a scrutiny of their contributions, then civil society, scientists and think tanks must provide it, and translate and communicate it in meaningful ways to the public.
It is here that the Gold Standard can be brought back into play by providing a critical vantage point from which to judge progress towards climate justice and climate protection.
Governments must be put in a pincer grip from increasing international pressure through the constant process of revising and publicly defending national contributions, and increasing political pressure from domestic constituencies for aggressive climate action.
This is the dynamism that has the potential to create a ‘green beauty contest’ among states that will break the biggest collective action problem of all time.
Professor Robyn Eckersley will be attending COP21 in Paris as an accredited observer.
Image credit: RobynTPhoto/Flickr