Pundits are celebrating the speed at which the Paris climate agreement has come into force. It needed more than half the countries to ratify their proposals and for their emissions to account for more half the global output. When the US, China, India and the European Union got on board, it was a done deal. In less than a year.
Cause for celebration ? Yes and no.
The good stuff is that the fact that the large countries and the heavy hitters signed up so quickly paves the way for all the smaller countries to now step up and sign on to the program. This will happen more quickly now that the big players are showing the way. This movement is hugely positive because it demonstrates that the governments of these countries are in no doubt that climate change is real, that climate change is happening now, and that threats facing the planet requires strong and forceful action. This is real leadership. Remember that concept ? There hasn’t been a whole lot of it around lately. It is particularly pleasing to see the US take a leadership role. When you see the concerted multi-million-dollar effort by the fossil fuel energy companies in America to undermine climate change action by claiming the the science is defective and the findings unclear, it is worth celebrating Obama’s good sense and his determination to move the US in the right direction.
Much of Obama’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions will probably be undone if Donald Trump gets into the White House. It’s hard to think of an election where the outcome holds such alarming importance for the future of the planet. This is not an exaggeration. The hope that carbon emissions could be reduced to the point where global warming will be held to less than two degrees of warming is a pipe dream. The UN itself published a report in May that showed that if all the emissions reductions proposed in the INDC communications were added up, global carbon emissions are still estimated to be higher in 2035 than they are now. So the global battle to reduce carbon emissions cannot suffer a major setback like the one Trump is promising. To say that Trump is a threat to the planet, as Professor Michael Mann has said, is accurate. My guess is that Trump is pretty pleased about all this. How many other people can claim to hold the keys to the health of the planet? If you’re a megalomanic entertainer like Donald Trump this is great stuff.
Degrees of difference
The stated objective of the Paris agreement is to hold global warming to 2°C. The 51 Small Island Developing States (the SIDS), which will be the first countries to be swamped and devastated by climate change, managed to get text inserted into the Paris agreement that ideally the target should be 1.5°C. But this is all academic because the even the 2°C limit is now clearly impossible. There are a slew of reports and analyses that show that even if all the proposed national programs were to be carried out in their entirety (hah…ok, we suspend disbelief for a second), this would not be enough to prevent temperatures rising through 2°C. So after less than a year the target has been shown to be unrealistic and unattainable with the current set of national programs.
But are countries on the right track even if progress is slow ? Is climate change being tackled in the right way ? Are national governments focused on the right targets ? Is money being spent in the most effective manner ? Here there’s a major problem. The big polluters are focused on mitigation—reducing emissions. They should. They are the one making a mess and it’s time for them to clean up their act. But what about the little guys ? The SIDS. The small island developing States contribute a miniscule amount of carbon emissions. Added together, their total emissions are less than 1% of the amount of carbon spewed into the atmosphere each year. For the most part, they are too poor and too small to make any difference to global carbon emissions. If they all stopped work tomorrow and never let another molecule of CO2 escape into their tropical atmospheres, no-one would notice and on-one would care.
Why then, are the SIDS being forced to reduce their already tiny emissions ? Even though these emissions are negligeable, the small islands States are required to reduce their emissions even further. According to the Paris agreement, even miniscule emissions need to be cut back. This is because all countries that signed up to the agreement are locked into a common policy by the expression ʺcommon but differentiated responsibilitiesʺ, when it comes to reducing emissions.
So the SIDS have the responsability, now legally mandated, to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions even though it makes absolutely no difference to the quest to keep atmospheric temperatures below 2C. Some people might say that spending money on an action plan that makes absolutely no contribution to its stated objective was a total, absolute, and scandalous waste of money. Particularly when the need for adaptation is so urgent.
Take the case of Haiti. In 2013, Haiti’s CO2 emissions were about 0.00241 Gt. That’s less than one hundreth of 1 percent of global CO2 emissions. Yet in its 2015 submission to the UNFCCC secretariat, Haiti sets out a program to reduce its emissions by a further 31% by 2030. How much money is the achievement of this ʺcommon but differentiated responsabilityʺ going to cost ? The Haitian Ministry of Environment estimates the cost as $8.773 billion (yes billion) USD, nearly all of which the Ministry is seeking from international funding agencies. This is surreal. It would be laughable except that Haiti is in desperate need for technical and financial assistance to enable the country to strengthen its resilience to climate change. To put it bluntly, for the SIDS, focusing on mitigation is nonsense.
Only one small island developing State has had the courage to come right out and say it. In the 2015 INDC submitted by the Republic of Seychelles, it states : ʺ … the Republic of the Seychelles gives priority concern for adaptation to climate change. In Seychelles, climate change mitigation to stabilize the climate system is not a primary objective.ʺ
There you have it.
It’s time for the UNFCCC to get real about where the priorities lie. For the Small Island Developing States, and in fact for any country whose CO2 emissions are negligeable compared to the global total, mitigation is a waste of time and money. Adaptation should be the primary objective.