World leaders are congratulating themselves on a set of promises they will never be able to keep without taking on the immense power of the fossil fuel industry.
World leaders and the international media are hailing the deal struck in Paris as a “major leap for mankind” in the fight against climate change, but there are many reasons to remain deeply skeptical. Three stand out in particular.
1) NO ACTIONS, JUST WORDS
To begin with, the climate deal contains a lot of pretty words, but no commitments to concrete actions. Nowhere in the agreement do governments stipulate the steps they will take to meet their ambitious target of keeping global temperatures “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.”
This target can only be met if 90 percent of the world’s remaining fossil fuels are kept in the ground. By mid-century, the 195 signatories would need to have achieved a near-complete decarbonization of the world economy.
This would in turn require a rapid and wholesale shift away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy sources. Yet the agreement does not contain any concrete road map on how to bring about such a radical transformation. The words “fossil fuels”, “oil” or “coal” are not even mentioned in the text.
Instead, world leaders have agreed on a voluntary system whereby countries are required to submit emission reduction plans which are then reviewed every five years, with the aim of speeding up reductions over time. These targets are not legally binding, however, and even if they had been, there would be no way to enforce compliance.
James Hansen, the leading ex-NASA climate scientist, is clear in his assessment:
It’s a fraud really, a fake. 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. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will continue to be burned.
2) THE NUMBERS DON’T ADD UP
But let’s assume for a moment that governments really do live up to the letter of their agreement and reduce emissions in line with the pledges they have made under their “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs).
Even if all individual pledges in the INDCs are met, the world would still be on course for an average global temperature increase of at least 2.7°C — an amount widely considered by scientists to bring about a catastrophic destabilization of the global climate and planetary life-support systems.
Assuming an even more optimistic scenario in which governments were to take their collective 1.5°C pledge seriously and adjust their INDCs in line with this goal, the climate change that is already locked into the system as a result of past emissions will make this target next to impossible to reach.
As Myles Allen, professor of geosystem science at Oxford University, notes: “Human-induced warming is already approaching one degree and is predicted to be at 1.2C by 2030, so 1.5C will be a challenge.”
To meet the 1.5°C target, a tremendous amount of resources would have to be made available — both to fundamentally transform energy, transport and agricultural systems in the advanced economies, and to help the poorer countries “leapfrog” the transition to a post-carbon, renewable energy future.
Here again, the numbers fall hopelessly short. Rich countries have pledged to raise $100 billion for investment in green energy in developing countries, but it is not clear how this money will be raised — and the amount remains woefully inadequate at any rate.
The $100 billion pales in comparison to the United States’ $600 billion annual military budget, or the trillions upon trillions spent — without second thoughts or public oversight — on bailing out banks. The contrast in these numbers shows where the real priorities of rich countries continue to lie.
3) CORPORATE POWER REMAINS UNCHECKED
Preventing catastrophic climate change is impossible without keeping the vast majority of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground, and any attempt to keep fossil fuels in the ground will inevitably involve a head-on confrontation with the fossil fuel industry, whose extractive business model would be completely destroyed by any meaningful transition towards a post-carbon economy.
A post-carbon future would mean no more gasoline-fueled cars by 2050, no more coal-fired power plants, no more fracking, no more oil-fueled ships and planes, no more tar sands and offshore drilling, no more gas lines — nothing. Deforestation would have to be brought to a complete halt and methane emissions would have to be drastically reduced, requiring far-reaching limits on the growth of animal agriculture.
Yet in a capitalist world economy that thrives on cutthroat competition between companies and nations alike, world leaders will be hard-pressed to forsake their access to cheap energy, cheap food and cheap building materials — even if they have formally “agreed” on reversing the consequences of such cheap resources for the climate.
Governments worldwide still spend an estimated $5,300 billion per year on various (direct and indirect) fossil fuel subsidies. This would all need to be cut and moved immediately towards research, development and deployment of renewable technologies. Yet where are the commitments to do so? They are nowhere to be seen in this text.
This climate deal has the mark of the fossil fuel industry stamped all over it. By failing to commit to concrete actions and a clear, enforceable road map, by fudging the numbers and not committing sufficient resources to an immediate and wholesale energy transformation, and by systematically refusing to tax carbon and take on the immense power of the fossil-fuel industry, world leaders have signed an accord they clearly cannot keep.
The sentimental liberals among them may be patting one another on the back today, announcing this “historic compromise” to the press with tears in their eyes, but humanity — and the world’s poor above all — will be paying the price for their collective failure to move beyond empty gestures.
The task now falls upon the social movements to confront the immense power of the fossil fuel industry on the ground. Every new coal mine, every new oil well, every new gas pipeline will be one too many. If none of them will stop this madness, it will have to be us. The situation is now critical.
At least this accord will give global legitimacy to the radicalization of the climate justice movement and the intensification of our struggles from below.