What can I add to the millions of words in dozens of languages that have already been written by the thousands of journalists and commentators around the Paris Agreement? We now have a globally binding agreement that really looks like it could curtail the use of a fuel that has been central to our way of life for more than 150 years.
Of course, if we’d managed to actually make deep cuts in emissions 25 years ago, getting governments to limit warming to 1.5 degrees would have been an awful prospect – who would want that much warming. When I started working on this, it might have been possible to have no warming at all.
And if industrialised countries had actually made deep cuts in emissions when they said they would, would we even be having an argument about equity? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but let’s look forward here. What’s in this agreement?
This is an international agreement based on science.
There are two key paragraphs. The first is under Article 2, (page 21), which aims to strengthen the global response to climate change by:
“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, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”
This needs to be placed alongside Article 4, where the agreement links back to the temperature “goal” where Governments
“… aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible… 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…”
What this does spell out is the end of fossil fuels, despite not mentioning those words – or even a word containing “carbon”?
According to someone who was at the epicentre of the negotiations, scientist and CEO of Climate Analytics Dr Bill Hare tells us:
“To limit warming below 1.5℃ by 2100, the best available science indicates that the world needs to reach zero greenhouse emissions between 2060 and 2080, or between 2080 and 2100 for a 2℃ limit.
“The rate of global reductions, and hence the time at which zero global emissions are achieved, are to be “in accordance” with the best available science, an obvious, but hard-fought clause to ensure that regular scientific assessments play a role in defining when and how zero emissions need to be achieved.”
No, the agreement doesn’t include binding cuts on emissions, and the climage pledges submitted are not legally binding. Dean Bialek of Independent diplomat has spelt out what it means.
“All countries have accepted a legally binding obligation to communicate a new emissions reduction target every five years, to regularly submit information on whether they are achieving those targets, and also to subject that information to an expert technical review to determine its validity.”
While a government won’t be locked up if they don’t meet their commitments, the collective international pressure from the global community will keep the pressure up. A special committee will be set up to oversee technical reviews of action.
What does it require New Zealand to do?
Between now and 2020, legally, nothing – apart from what we are (not) doing already, as our Prime Minister has told us. He wants to get on with opening up oil and gas reserves.
Given the latest information on our emissions from the Ministry for the Environment, mysteriously publicly released after Paris, our emissions are set to be 96% above 1990 levels in 2030. New Zealand ended the Paris meeting by making a declaration for a global carbon market. It appears our Only Game in Town is to try to trade away our emissions, and we’re desperate to get everyone else onside with this plan.
The rapid rise in emissions forecast between now and 2030 is because our “Kyoto forests” that we have used as our own “hot air” will have matured, and be cut down.There is no programme in place to replace these plantations. Indeed, the Government will continue making its own contribution by converting Landcorp estate into dairy farms, an essential double-whammy for our emissions.
We will no doubt hear from our new Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett that we will be forced to pay an increasing amount for our burgeoning emissions, as actually cutting emissions is an alien concept for this government.
However, the UN will undertake a global stocktake of government action in 2018, followed by a formal reviews, and regular reviews every five years, where it will be up to civil society to push governments into action.
Nobody is allowed to backslide on the commitments they’ve already made. New Zealand will increasingly be called out for its lack of action on climate change and there will be increasing numbers of people across the country holding its feet to the fire.
Can Simon Bridges really keep focussing solely on the sparkly new toy of electric cars while continuing to pour money into motorways, reduce spending on public transport, and ignore the fact that New Zealand’s one of only a few countries in the OECD with no emissions standards for cars at all? And continue to open up more blocks for oil drilling?
Civil society has reacted in quite different ways to this agreement, some hailing it as a breakthrough, and others, the activists who went to Paris to protest the meeting, have vowed to ratchet up action against fossil fuels.
It will be up to all of us to make this deal work, but with this science-based agreement, it will be increasingly difficult for our government to continue with business as usual. Meanwhile the biggest El Nino on record will take the world into new and uncharted territory. Let’s see whether Paula Bennett has the gumption to start joining the dots.