COP 21: Coping with a cop-out or decoupling?

There is a mixture of hope and cynicism ahead of the COP 21 climate meeting in Paris this November. Hope because the well-being of people and the planet depend on drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, cynicism because past meetings have failed to produce anything that would avert a climate crisis—which is where we seem to be headed. But beyond the outcome of this next meeting, a climate agreement will only be part of the solution; the move towards a low-emissions society will require progress on many other fronts.

This is not to say that global climate agreements do not matter. They do. When the international community comes together to seriously commit to curbing CO2 and other greenhouse gases, this is meaningful action to combat climate change. Similarly, it mattered when countries united to ban ozone-harming CFCs in 1987 under the Montreal Protocol. We were able to phase out the use of these harmful substances and prevent us all from getting skin cancer.

But the problem with the ongoing climate negotiations is not that they don’t have the potential to make a meaningful impact, but that countries who participate in them lack the political will and grit to make this happen. While commitments may be international, their implementation takes place in individual countries. The international collaboration to phase out CFCs might seem like a guiding example, however the solution to the climate problem is much more complex and expensive.

Despite the alarming need to act in the face of the climate crisis, countries that participate in these meetings—basically every country on the planet—are under no binding obligation to agree to anything. Because global bodies like the UN have limited political authority, countries tend to put their national interest above all else. So if a plan to reduce emissions would hurt a country’s GDP, they usually reject it. Many national delegates have their hands tied because it is completely outside of their country’s current political and economic trajectory to move towards a low-emissions economy. Even when moving in this direction would maintain the same level of national economic growth, there is often strong resistance from interest groups that benefit from emission-intensive industries. Try telling the Saudis to invest in solar energy to capitalize on all of their sunshine, and they’ll probably tell you that it’s more profitable to just pull liquid energy out of the earth. Those who benefit most from oil extraction will be even more vocally opposed to a shift to green energy. The country has no incentive or requirement to change.

Any major reduction in global emissions will require a decoupling of economic growth and fossil fuels. Companies and countries will need to be able to grow through low-emission alternatives, otherwise, it is hard to imagine any realistic scenario in which they voluntarily take a loss for the planet and future generations. The leaders of companies are beholden to their shareholders and politicians are beholden to their constituents (including campaign contributors). Neither of these players are in an ideal situation to make decisions that hurt in the short term and pay off in the long term. Many of them justify their resistance to change by listening to the climate deniers, who give the illusion that the jury is still out on the science—never mind that 97% of peer-reviewed papers with opinions on climate change take the position that climate change is real and man-made. That is why it is essential that these decision makers have the ability to do what is good for the planet and for the economic well-being of their support base.

Decoupling fossil fuels and economic growth will require more than a climate agreement. Like any other monumental change in history, a number of other factors will have to be in place, including the following:

  • Technology: It’s one thing to say that we want to shift away from burning fossil fuels and another to say that the current alternative are scalable and can adequately meet our massive energy needs—15 terawatts, or 15 trillion watts of energy globally—without any polluting energy sources. While alternatives exist, their current energy output is modest compared to global energy demand; this is partly a question of their scale, though also the current efficiency of these technologies. Solar power is advancing, as are other energy sources such as algae-based biocrude.
  • Scale: Even with technologies that could produce enough energy to phase out fossil fuels, their support infrastructure would have to be brought up to scale. This would require massive investments that likely wouldn’t pay off until years later. Again, this is not a popular path for politicians or the leaders of private companies to take.
  • Funding: It takes money to develop and scale up any technology, whether through public funding or private sector investments. There needs to be money available to develop these alternatives, though there is currently little money on the table.
  • Political will: If governments are going to invest in the shift to a low-carbon society, they will need political backing. Likewise, political pressure from informed and concerned citizens can push them in that direction. If politicians are only making decisions that will maximize their reelection, they might not make the most prudent environmental decisions, instead choosing to allocate funding to other areas that are more politically popular.
  • Market incentives: If the private sector is to innovate cleaner technologies, they will need to have market incentives. This implies a strong demand for their products within the market. The government can also make this motivation stronger through subsidies and other financial breaks.
  • Public sentiments: Society needs to give a damn about reducing emissions. There needs to be a general public awareness of the issue; this drives changes in the political and economic realm. Perhaps the biggest impact is through what people choose to consume; the boom in hybrid cars and environmentally-friendly household products in recent years is evidence of this. But we can’t expect “green capitalism” to completely lead us to the promised land—a place where atmospheric CO2 stabilizes below 400 parts per million.

None of these points above should seem like groundbreaking new ideas. They are pretty common-sense requirements for a societal shift that will allow humans to realize economic well-being while not having to suffer through environmental collapse. Mad Max films are entertaining to watch, but who would want to live that reality?

Back to COP 21. Rather than being a complete solution to global warming, a climate deal can help drive change in many of these broader areas. For example, if countries pledge to invest in R&D (better solar energy storage), scale up green infrastructure (more wind farms), regulate certain industries (phase out coal-fired power plants), create market incentives for producers (subsidies for green producers along with a steep carbon tax on fossil fuel production), and educate the public about the reality of climate change, then the deal could put us on the right path to stabilizing greenhouse gases at a level that jibes with human survival. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like many countries are lining up for such ambitious of promises. The best-case scenario for Paris will be modest commitments in a few of these areas.

So in anticipation of the COP 21 meeting—and around the whole damn climate negotiation process—we are left with hope and cynicism. We know we can and must avoid societal catastrophe but we are watching this train wreck in slow motion, with the conductor’s hands tied.

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