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The Political Economy of Paris Agreements on Climate Change: Hope or Unrealistic Promise?

By Aejaz Ahmad

The ‘proud’ commonality and, of course, outcome in all the hitherto convened conferences on climate change is that they have been called “historic” during their respective times. Every time a conference is held on climate change, media and the so-called experts resort to romanticism and write on their historical significances. Ultimately, a new chapter is added to the textbooks on environment science and thereafter taught in hindsight. These conferences are marked by massive promises but less substance. This may precisely be the reason why  James Hansen, a former NASA scientist, hailed as the father of global awareness on climate change, dubbed the recently held Paris climate talks as ‘fraud’ & ‘fake’.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference, also called as COP21, was held in Paris between 30 November and 12 December, 2015. Ever since the Framework on Climate Change concluded in 1992, the parties to the Convention met each year in sessions and COP21 represented the 21st yearly session. What eventually emerged from this conference is now called the Paris Agreement, which entails a consensus among 196 parties to cut down emissions by 2 degree Celsius in comparison to the pre-industrial levels. The conditionality is that as many as 55 parties, which aggregately contribute 55 per cent emissions, must ratify the agreement by April 2017. Adjunct to it is the expectation to reach net zero human-sourced emissions by the third quarter of the 21st century. This is what was hailed as a ‘historic moment’ by the parties to it, perhaps as an expression of sigh after the Copenhagen Conference fiasco in 2009.

What Hansen is pointing to is both serious and alarming. Dr Hansen was one of the earliest climate scientists who in identified a causal link between the green house effect and increasing global temperature in the 1980s, thereafter called as global warming. He was taken lightly at the time but the subsequent researches vindicated his statements. It was only after his assertion that the issue of global warming and climate change begun to percolate into the public discourses. Nearly three decades later, Dr. Hansen has again raised concerns that are being hushed up.

1992 UNFCCC as “Historic Moment” & the Lies in Hindsight

Two decades ago, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), or what is called as the Earth Summit, was described as ‘historic’ for having been a successful convention in 1992. A number of high promises were made to circumcise the anthropogenically caused emissions that destabilize the earth’s climate on the basis of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’. While this recognized the developmental imperatives of the developing world, it put considerable onus on developed countries, given their large contribution to the problem. But the non-binding character of the Treaty ultimately proved to be a human body without soul. According to an IPCC report, “it was very likely that rates of sea-level rise from 1993 to 2010 had almost doubled, from a 0.067-inch-per-year average rate for the 20th century to a 0.125-inch-per-year average rate.” There are several theories that describe the discourse on climate change as farce, but the frequent flooding and uneven rains are the clearest examples that point to this problem. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration accordingly termed 2013 the fourth warmest year and 90 per cent (nine out of ten) of the warmest years on record have been recorded in the 21st century itself. All these speak volumes about the ‘peculiar achievements’ of the UNFCCC in hindsight.

Empty Vessel & Much Noise Again?                         

The Paris Agreement is yet another exalted moment that is now being described as ‘historic’ for the reasons that are still unknown! Well, these reasons will bubble out in the next ten or so years, but there are some serious questions that undergird our pessimism towards the fight against the climate change.

First, there is much uncertainty about the ‘science of climate change’ itself. A number of climate scientists have questioned the credibility of the methods and models used for gauging the climate change. While some researchers, such as from Berkeley Earth Surface Temperatures project (BEST), have provided empirical proofs that the average global temperature has increased by 1 degree Celsius between 1950 and 2009, on the other hand, there are authors including some researchers from the same project who have termed these observations as ‘mistaken’. These skeptics instead argue that the global temperature is actually witnessing a ‘pause’ after 1990s. There is a pertinent need to clear the air.

Second, the possibility of COP21 assuming the binding character is perceptibly least. There are several reasons to predict that. The contemporary discussions on environmental protection and climate change are intrinsically marked by what Garret Hardin, an American ecologist, calls ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, which is similar to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. It refers to the problem wherein individuals acting in their self-interest will behave in a manner which is contrary to the collective benefits. This is true of all common resources. Climate change, being the common concern, is therefore no one’s particular concern, rather a general concern of all, and ultimately no one’s concern. The result is destruction of the common resources. The Paris Agreement, as a matter of fact, makes it conditional for the Agreement to be called ‘binding’ if it is ratified by at least 55 parties to it. However, even after the stipulated ratification, there is no mention of enforcement that would force the parties to comply. There is just what is called as ‘name and encourage’ plan. Hence, in this context, we can predict that the neo-liberal times are not going to compromise ‘economics’ for the sake of ‘survival’! There is a perpetual construction and re-construction of every environmental concern in neo-liberal terms. It is just like the ‘neo-liberalized sustainable development’ and not any intrinsic idea of it. Thus, in the absence of any clear legally enforceable provision, there will be nothing but a blame-game show until a new conference is held.

Third, there are some subtle concerns in Dr. James Hansen’s remarks on Paris Agreement that point to some unpalatable truths. His essential argument has been that there is no point of talking about reduction of emissions unless there is a proper taxation system that would penalize those releasing large emissions. He seems to be reiterating Prof. Thomas Pogge, who had suggested Global Resource Dividend as a method that would tax the quantum of resources used by the countries which could be used for combating poverty. In both cases, Hansen’s and Pogge’s, there is one common thread that makes their suggestions ‘unsuitable’ as a solution for the parties in the developed world. The top three greenhouse emission contributors are China, USA, and the EU, followed by India. The Carbon Footprint of American households is nearly about five times greater than the global average and is estimated at approximately ten tons CO2e per household per year. In other words, it implies that if Hansen’s suggestion is implemented, mostly US, China and the EU will have to pay billions of dollars towards taxes, given their needs. Almost the same is true in the case of poverty debates because the developed world is utilizing most of planet’s resources. Given the reluctance of the developed world to accept such a taxation system and their perpetual efforts to put all onuses on the developing world, we have less reasons to affirm faith in the potentiality of the Paris Agreement.

Finally, it is a truism that without the cooperation of the developing world, where much of the world populace resides, any agreement whatsoever will not be effective. It is equally true that much of today’s climate change is actually driven by the gases already emitted by the developed world in the last century. And the development concerns of the developing world are genuine under their ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ doctrine. But at the same time, it doesn’t give a freehand to the developing world to play havoc with their own environment. We are already witnessing worrisome climatic changes in the developing world. The developing world needs a genuine gospel of sustainable development and not the neo-liberalized one. Unless the developing world commits itself towards a sustainable goal in the real sense of the term, and not always hide under the ‘differentiated doctrine’, and the developed world shuns its double standards, there can be no genuine agreement that can address the climate issues seriously.

Concerns for India

While the Paris Agreement seeks to cut emissions by 2 degrees targeted somewhere between 2060s & 2080s, the challenges that this Agreement poses to India are both serious as well as difficult. Much of India’s electricity (nearly 60 %) comes from coal, a meager amount from nuclear power (nearly 2%) and not much (16%) from hydropower. In the present circumstances, nuclear option can meet up its requirements only marginally and may witness a quantum jump in the coming half a decade. The most probable option seems to switch over to hydroelectricity. However, the large-scale construction of dams exhibits its own challenges to the environment. Away from these challenges, India has witnessed some drastic cases of flooding, uneven rains, and other problems. Some examples include the Uttrakhand and the September 2014 floods in J&K, where it had been historically very rare point to the sensitivity of the area in responding to the climate change. The deluge in Chennai has also been attributed to the climatic factors. The human made ponds and lakes, that used to absorb much of the flood waters, were already encroached. The latest pollution menace in the capital city of India is alarming. All these factors demonstrate that India needs genuine sustainable solutions at the domestic level that may be influenced by economic factors, but must not be wholly determined by neo-liberal needs. If that is so, then the economic development at the cost of environment will be equally supplanted by the environmental damage it will cause.

Thus, the fight against climate change is not an open choice for the world. It is as much a Hobson’s choice. Under the present circumstances, the Paris Agreements seem to be yet another set of tall promises that will await another such conference, unless environmental concerns are given as much intrinsic importance as the economic goals in the neo-liberal times.

Aejaz Ahmad
studied Political Science at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi. He is contributing author to Political Process in India and a forthcoming book, Modern South Asian Thinker, to be published by Sage.


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