The Paris Climate Agreement: Hope or Hype?

It has become a predictable pattern at the annual UN climate conferences for participants to describe the outcome in widely divergent ways. This was first apparent after the high-profile Copenhagen conference in 2009, when a four-page non-agreement was praised by diplomats, but denounced by well-known critics as a “sham,” a “farce,” and a mere face-saver. UN insiders proclaimed the divisive 2013 Warsaw climate conference a success, even though global South delegates and most civil society observers had staged an angry walk-out a day prior to its scheduled conclusion.

So it was no surprise when this happened again on December 12th in Paris. Francois Hollande praised the Paris Agreement as “ambitious,” “binding,” and “universal.” Ban Ki-moon said it ushers in a “new era of global cooperation,” and UN climate convention executive secretary Christiana Figueres described it as “an agreement of solidarity with the most vulnerable.” Barack Obama waxed triumphant and proclaimed the outcome a testament to American leadership in diplomacy and technology.

Friends of the Earth International, on the other hand, immediately denounced the agreement as a “sham of a deal,” adding that the most vulnerable people around the world would “feel the worst impacts of our politicians’ failure to take tough enough action.” The renowned elder climate scientist James Hansen called it a “fraud,” adding, “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words.” British climatologist Kevin Anderson, among the most politically forthright of current scientists, described the agreement as “weaker than Copenhagen” and “not consistent with the latest science.” More moderate in their criticisms were key figures such as Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace International, who described the agreement as “one step on a long road …, but it is progress,” and’s Bill McKibben, who emphasized the agreement’s underlying challenge to the supremacy of the fossil fuel industry. “This didn’t save the planet,” McKibben wrote, “but it may have saved the chance of saving the planet,” in part by challenging the growing climate justice movement to keep moving forward.

Perhaps the most realistic assessment was posted by Guardian columnist George Monbiot on the day of the final deal. “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle,” he wrote. “By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.” It is clear that those who are praising the agreement and those who emphasize its shortcomings live in almost entirely different worlds.

One such world is dominated by the protocols of international diplomacy, the very real threat of obstruction by the Republican-controlled US Congress, and the logistical near-impossibility of getting representatives of 195 countries to agree to anything substantive. Consider China, whose overheated economy may be just beginning to slow down, and India, which is still growing rapidly and claims that continued economic expansion is needed to help its hundreds of millions of impoverished citizens. Saudi Arabia, according to long-time oil industry analyst Antonia Juhasz, was very active behind the scenes working to suppress even rhetorical limits on continued fossil fuel expansion. And the US delegation, led by John Kerry and climate envoy Todd Stern, was lobbying hard for a more “inclusive” agreement – superseding the historic responsibilities of industrialized nations – while struggling to minimize the financial cost to the richest countries. Recall that it was Stern who argued, with unsurpassed arrogance during the lead-up to the 2013 Warsaw conference, “It is unwarranted to assign blame to developed countries for emissions before the point at which people [sic] realized that those emissions caused harm to the climate system.”

The world the diplomats inhabit couldn’t be farther removed from the places where the impacts of continuing climate chaos are felt the most. In that world, people are working harder year by year to grow food and sustain their lives in the face of an increasingly unstable global climate. They struggle through seasons of devastating floods, droughts and wildfires that become more intense every year. The groundwater in numerous small island nations is increasingly contaminated by saltwater from rising seas and some Arctic communities are literally collapsing into the melting permafrost. The Philippines are now assaulted by unprecedented late-season typhoons year after year, and this year’s extreme El Niño current has heightened the impact of protracted droughts from northern Mexico to South Africa and the Middle East. Many of the million or so refugees that have swept into Europe from the Mideast’s expanding civil wars first saw their lives upended by those droughts, which killed as much as 85 percent of the livestock in parts of Syria, for example. While global warming brought balmy mid-December weather to the northern tier of North America, it has strengthened deadly tornadoes across the US South, flooded major cities in northern England, and threatens a pattern of perpetual extreme weather throughout the tropics and sub-tropics. In that world, the Paris Agreement’s rhetorical promise to “pursue efforts to limit the [global] temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels” is far too little, far too late.

Inside the Agreement

So what does the Paris Agreement actually offer to those facing an increasingly unstable future and what is it lacking? First, it’s important to distinguish the agreement’s various parts. The final Paris document consists of a twelve-page “Agreement” and a twenty-page “Adoption” text. The former outlines most of the substantive steps that were agreed to by the 195 countries represented in Paris and the latter describes just how they will be implemented.

Perhaps most widely cited is the Agreement’s one-page preamble, which appears to embrace all the diverse concerns that various countries and civil society representatives brought to Paris. It preserves the original UN climate convention’s focus on “common but differentiated responsibilities” for climate action among countries, as well as the “principle of equity” that was nearly lost in Warsaw and Lima. It acknowledges that some people are “particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change,” as well as the “specific needs and special situations” of certain countries. The preamble links climate action to poverty eradication, invokes an end to hunger, and affirms the “imperatives of a just transition of the workforce.” There is an acknowledgment of the rights of indigenous peoples, migrants, children and others, along with an appeal to “gender equality” and “intergenerational equity.” The “integrity of all ecosystems” is “noted,” along with the imperative of biodiversity protection, “recognized by some cultures as Mother Earth,” and even “the importance for some of the concept of ‘climate justice’,” albeit safely embedded inside quotation marks. The preamble was carefully crafted to offer something to nearly everyone.

In contrast, the most specific outcomes of the Paris Agreement mainly reflect the process that went into it, i.e. the expectation that countries will continue to present voluntary “Nationally Determined Contributions” toward reducing climate-altering emissions. These quasi-pledges will be renewed periodically (every five years for now), with a loosely-stated expectation of increasing ambition over time. As previously reported in this space, the “intended contributions” submitted by some 187 countries prior to Paris represent a path toward 3.5 degrees Celsius (6.3 °F) average warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100, or perhaps 2.8 degrees C. if various countries’ commitments are strengthened over time in line with current trends. Given the level of climate destabilization we have experienced at just below 1 degree of warming, this is indeed a recipe for global chaos, though the rhetorical nod to 1.5 degrees suggests that it has become unacceptable to nearly everyone – at least in principle.

Still, the means for limiting average warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees are largely aspirational, and this is reflected in the agreement’s language throughout. Words like “clarity,” “transparency,” “integrity,” “consistency,” and “ambition” appear throughout the text, but there’s very little to assure that these aspirations can be realized. UN staff are to create all manner of global forums, working groups and expert panels to move the discussions forward but, as was clear prior to Paris, the main focus is to instill a kind of moral obligation to drive diplomats and their governments to take further steps. Article 15 of the agreement proposes a “mechanism to facilitate implementation and promote compliance,” but this takes the form of an internationally representative “expert-based” committee that is to be “transparent, non-adversarial and non-punitive.” This compliance “mechanism” is described in three short sentences in the main Agreement and another couple of paragraphs in the Adoption document; as predicted, there’s nothing to legally pressure intransigent countries or corporations to do much of anything.

Discussions in the lead-up to Paris did raise some hopes that the world might come to terms with the obligation to end the combustion of fossil fuels by mid-century at the latest. Studies by James Hansen and others suggest that time is of the essence, and that the actual pace of reducing carbon emissions could determine whether destabilizing climate chaos will continue to unfold for decades, or instead persist for many centuries into the future. It appears that an explicit goal of “decarbonization” was even part of the pre-Paris conversation for a time. Article 4 of the final agreement falls far short of that, however, stating that total emissions should peak “as soon as possible,” fall rapidly thereafter, and aim for a “balance” between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases sometime after 2050. Paragraph 17 of the Adoption document admits that current national “contributions” fall considerably short of a 2 degree goal, much less 1.5 degrees and a later paragraph “invites” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to study the specific impacts of warming above 1.5 degrees. However the Paris Agreement’s emphasis on sources and sinks represents a substantive step back from the goal of decarbonization and echoes the IPCC’s 2014 policy report, which promoted highly speculative carbon capture technologies as a means to compensate for continued fossil fuel use. This approach also bolsters largely fraudulent carbon offset markets (see below) and could enable a host of outlandish geoengineering schemes that would only further destabilize the earth’s climate systems.

The hotly contested issue of how climate mitigations in the global South will be financed was postponed once again to next year’s planned conference in Morocco, with the document “strongly urging” developed countries to fulfill Obama and Hillary Clinton’s 2009 Copenhagen promise of $100 billion per year in climate-related financing by 2020. By 2025, countries are to “set a new collective quantified goal from a floor of USD 100 billion per year,” but there’s a distinct lack of agreement about what actually counts as climate finance. Global South delegates insist that rich world is obligated to fund non-polluting energy developments in impoverished regions in order to help curtail their continued economic dependence on fossil fuels, but northern diplomats prefer to emphasize “public-private partnerships,” seek credit for existing aid and loan programs, and have proposed countless other loopholes. The documents are full of calls for new information-sharing platforms, but are virtually silent on how rich countries can ever be held to their implied financial commitments.

Even more disappointing was the language on “loss and damage,” i.e. how countries will be compensated for the continuing destruction of life-sustaining infrastructure in the face of accelerating warming. India’s Business Standard reported halfway through the Paris conference that the US had proposed to “recognize the importance of averting and minimizing loss and damage from climate change,” but only “on a cooperative [sic] basis that does not involve liability and compensation.” The final text (Article 8) is a bit more specific in describing those losses and damages, but paragraph 52 of the Adoption text states specifically that “Article 8 … does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”

A related financial uncertainty in the lead-up to Paris concerned the future of the carbon markets that were established under the now-mordant Kyoto Protocol to nominally help facilitate international emissions reductions. It is well-established by now that carbon markets like the European Trading System have proved virtually useless for reducing emissions, that “cap-and-trade” legislation failed in the US Congress despite an overload of corporate giveaways and loopholes, and that the international offset markets enshrined under Kyoto’s “Clean Development Mechanism” (CDM) have been riddled with fraud and double-accounting. The value of international carbon credits is an all-time low – well below a dollar per ton of carbon emissions. And the Kyoto principle of “additionality” – the idea that credits to offset domestic emissions growth should support overseas projects that would not otherwise have happened – proved to be a farce. By some estimates, a considerable majority of projects funded by “Certified Emissions Reduction” credits under the CDM were already well underway.

An important warning about the future of the CDM arrived midway through Paris from Bolivian climate activist Pablo Solón. Solón was summarily removed as Bolivia’s chief climate negotiator after the Copenhagen and Cancún conferences, likely as punishment for his highly effective critiques of the US strategy to replace Kyoto’s mandated emissions cuts with the present system of voluntary “contributions.” On December 7th, Solón warned that a new “Mechanism to Support Sustainable Development” was hidden deep inside the conference text. That provision indeed appears in Article 6, albeit only to be used by countries “on a voluntary basis.” While the same article touts the need for unspecified “non-market approaches” in two places, there is a clear mandate to continue to use what are euphemistically referred to as “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes.” In practice this means that the earth’s remaining carbon sinks, including forests, will continue to be managed for the enhancement of carbon markets, and invoked to demonstrate paper compliance with emissions-reduction goals while the planet continues to burn.

A final hidden item in the Agreement is the omission of any steps to regulate rising pollution levels from international shipping and aviation. This was one of the key issues cited by climatologist Kevin Anderson when he compared the Paris outcome unfavorably with Copenhagen’s. While these emissions now amount to only 4.4 percent of the world’s total, according to the Wall Street Journal, they are projected to grow rapidly, even as other emissions sources are beginning to decline.

What’s Next?

On the Monday morning immediately following the Paris conference, the New York Times reported on page 1, “If nothing else, analysts and experts say, the accord is a signal to businesses and investors that the era of carbon reduction has arrived.” Indeed Peabody Energy (formerly Peabody Coal) reported a nearly 13 percent decline in its share value that week and a prominent solar stock index was up 4.5 percent. The Times predicted more bankruptcies in the coal sector and reminded readers of the public support for a carbon tax announced last spring by four leading European oil companies. Major coal-dependent utilities are diversifying into large solar projects and Ford is working to expand its fleet of electric cars. More than $3 trillion in financial assets have been divested from fossil fuels in just a few years. The recent congressional deal on taxes and spending included an unanticipated five-year extension of tax credits for solar and wind projects, and Bloomberg News predicted that this could spur a doubling of current US capacity.

But energy markets are fickle and levels of renewable energy investment have fluctuated widely in recent years. The persistent decline in oil prices has helped shut down some of the most troubling new exploration efforts, such as in Alaska, but it also makes investments in renewables appear less favorable. While the expansion of renewable energy promises a boom in “green jobs” and may help facilitate the “just transition” alluded to in the Paris text, large renewable energy projects can be highly resource- and capital-intensive. For example, to meet the ambitious renewable energy goals proposed by Mark Jacobson and his research group at Stanford University would require some 1.7 billion new energy installations worldwide, from modest rooftop systems to massive solar and wind farms. While Jacobson and his colleagues have demonstrated the feasibility of meeting all current energy needs by mid-century with genuinely renewable energy (no nuclear, no biomass, no new mega-hydro), some questions remain as to both the environmental and economic feasibility of an expansion of renewables on that scale.

Meanwhile, it appears that most new renewable capacity may still be adding to the total energy mix rather than replacing fossil fuels. A 2012 study suggested that just a quarter of non-fossil energy replaces fossil fuels, and only a tenth of non-fossil electricity; all the rest is simply adding more capacity to the system. When it comes to saving energy, corporations are still reluctant to commit significant capital; a study described in the New York Times a few years ago concluded that most companies insist on a two-year payback for investments aimed to increase the energy efficiency of their operations. A pre-Paris discussion paper from San Francisco-based Eco-Equity reported that direct fossil fuel subsidies – roughly $775 billion worldwide in 2012 – equal the combined annual cost of a transition away from fossil fuels in developing countries plus the estimated need to fund adaptation, losses and damages from climate change. Clearly, it will require more than statements of ambitious climate goals to corral the overarching capitalist imperative to grow and expand, or even to rein in political pressures to keep diverting public funds to support fossil fuel corporations.

This, of course, is where the worldwide climate movement comes in. My earlier discussion highlighted the potential convergence of “Blockadia” and “Alternatiba” that public actions in the lead-up to Paris were designed to symbolize. Opposition to new fossil fuel infrastructure has spread throughout the world in recent years, as have an impressive array of practical, grassroots alternatives to business as usual. The network and its global allies are now planning a worldwide mobilization against the fossil fuel industry for May of 2016. It will be preceded by countless local and regional rallies, marches, and direct actions, culminating in a unified focus on the world’s most destructive sites of fossil fuel extraction. Perhaps if enough people are in the streets to say no to continued fossil fuel dependence and yes to community-centered alternatives, grassroots pressure can succeed where diplomacy continues to fall short.

Brian Tokar is the director of the Institute for Social Ecology (, a lecturer in environmental studies at the University of Vermont, and a board member of 350Vermont, an autonomous statewide organization. His most recent book is Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change (Revised edition 2014, New Compass Press).