By Chris Lang
The Paris Agreement aims for a target of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing 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.” It’s time to admit that we’re going to sail past the 1.5°C target, and there’s little chance that we’ll hit the 2°C target.
The Paris Agreement was adopted in December 2015, and entered into force on 4 November 2016. 195 countries have signed it. 189 have ratified it. The USA will leave the Agreement on 4 November 2020.
The Paris Agreement has failed to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Until the coronavirus crisis emissions we failed to reduce our emissions. There was a tiny blip in 2008 as a result of the financial crisis, but then emissions shot back up.
The International Energy Agency anticipates that emissions in 2020 will fall by 8%. That would be the largest ever drop in emissions – six times the drop following the financial crisis.
But, according to Carbon Brief, “limiting warming to below 1.5C starting in 2019, without net-negative emissions, would require a 15% cut each year through to 2040”. That’s almost double the reduction in emissions this year as a result of coronavirus. And we have to do that every year for the next 20 years.
The realitys is that since the beginning of the UN climate negotiations in 1992, governments, oil companies, and many so-called environment organisations have relied on negative emissions technologies, instead of focussing on leaving fossil fuels in the ground. The Paris Agreement did not even mention fossil fuels.
Weapons of climate destruction
James Dyke, Assistant Director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter, in an article on the inews website argues that negative emissions technologies are “weapons of climate destruction”:
Initially intended to be a way of helping limit our climate impacts, NETs are at risk of becoming weapons of climate destruction. Because they allow governments a way out of making the required reductions in emissions now, in the hope that at some point in the future carbon can be removed from the atmosphere in huge quantities.
This may be with some combination of planting trillions of trees while deploying machines that will capture carbon from power station chimneys or even directly out of the air.
Unfortunately none of these technologies exists in scale. There are no credible plans for their deployment.
REDD should also be included in the list of negative emissions technologies. The idea of planting trees or preserving forests in order to justify continued burning of fossil fuels has been kicking around for at least four decades. Yet it has utterly failed to make even a dent in global greenhouse gas emissions.
And REDD has not even come close to addressing the deforestation crisis. Since 2014, the world has lost an area of tree cover the size of the UK every year.
There is an ongoing problem about how deforestation is measured, a debate that Fred Pearce analysed in a 2018 article for YaleEnvironment360. But no one (as far as I’m aware) is arguing that the deforestation crisis has been resolved – particularly in the tropics.
And as the climate crisis intensifies, the world’s forests are at ever increasing risk of going up in smoke.
Sacrificing the poor
Dyke’s article focusses on a letter that he an 11 other scientists sent to The Guardian, that was published on 10 May 2020.
Dyke notes that “a significant fraction of the global poor are being sacrificed in order to maintain fossil-fuelled economic growth”.
The letter argues that dangerous climate change is now unavoidable. For the Paris Agreement to have had any chance of success, Dyke writes, “there would need to have been a massive reorganisation of industrialised nations’ infrastructure, at the same time as unprecedented redistribution of resources to some of the world’s poorest nations, allowing them to jump over fossil-fuelled development and go straight to low-carbon technologies.”
Dyke states the obvious: “That didn’t happen.”
The letter to The Guardian concludes that,
Even if the world agreed to maintain all the pandemic-enforced restrictions on travel and consumption, the emissions saved would amount to almost nothing, compared with what’s needed to achieve the Paris agreement’s climate targets. Yet whether it’s to discourage mass fatalism, or prevent the very worst of what the future threatens, those of us with this knowledge still cling to “yes we can”. In this story, it is always five to midnight; it is always the last chance to prevent disaster. In contrast, collective action on climate can only grow out of complete honesty. It is time to acknowledge our collective failure to respond to climate change, identify its consequences and accept the massive personal, local, national and global adaptation that awaits us all.
In addition to acknowledging our collective failure to address the climate crisis, we should also abandon the false solutions to the crisis, particularly those that were specifically created to allow the continued burning of fossil fuels. That means rejecting these (and more) false solutions: REDD; planting a trillion trees; biomass energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS); natural climate solutions; carbon offsets; and the aviation industry’s crazy offsetting scheme, CORSIA.
That does not mean we shouldn’t plant trees, or stop the destruction of peatlands, mangroves, and forests. But it does mean that we shouldn’t rely on any of these to address the climate crisis.
To address the climate crisis we have to look at the driver of climate change – and that means stopping burning fossil fuels. Addressing the climate crisis means leaving fossil fuels in the ground.