Are international talks on global warming just hot air?

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Flickr/Khuroshvili Ilya

Research by: Phillip Baker, Sam Fletcher, Jonathan Parker, Josh Kneale and Abi Simons.

Global Warming is a term rife throughout media – be it mainstream, counter-cultural or social. Coverage of issues surrounding climate change is as such that nigh on everyone has an opinion. Its ever-presence in the political world is seen, in one Guardian article, as a means of ‘fear mongering by governments’. Yet scientists have inarguably learned that there are several Greenhouse Gases responsible for warming on our planet.

Discussing the issue in detail would require conjecture of great depth. Regardless, attention seems to have turned to how best to respond. This article will focus instead on Climate Agreements and how they’re (mis)represented in many fields of media.

Political posturing in Paris

As it stands, extensive scientific observation and attention from political sects lead to a yearly convention that consider responses to the ongoing issue. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) emerged in 1992, and each year the represented countries gather to evaluate and update development plans. The convention that took place in Paris in December 2015 was the 21st such meet and is referred to as COP21. It resulted in The Paris Agreement, the goals articulated in the Agreement are:

  • Limiting the rise in global temperatures to less than 2 degrees Celsius, with further hope of this number being 1.5 degrees
  • Achieving 0 net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by second half of 21st century
  • To increase the capability of countries to adapt to the effects of climate change
  • For developed nations providing $100bn annually to developing nations to help them combat climate change

The third objective there seems like a wholehearted, unoriginal, over zealous and over-hopeful generalisation of the previous two, when achieving them seems to be in question. The global temperature rise in relation to pre-industrial levels reached the 1 degree mark in 2015. Internationally, we have passed the half way mark for a goal set out by numerous COP agreements. Considering the delay on implementation of these deals, limiting the rise may be insurmountable by the time COP21 comes into action.

The Paris Agreement received widespread and largely favourable media attention following its announcement. The fact is that these are not a legally binding set of goals that the ‘World’, or at least the collective 196 countries that participated, are obligated to achieve by a certain time.

The Paris Agreement, as it is now, is little but a hollow threat of action; it’s little more than loosely pursued numbers and tasks. Until 55 countries that constitute 55% of the world’s emissions agree to ratify the agreement, there exists no strict control over their pursuit. For this to occur, as can be seen in the image below, the U.S and China’s ratification will be required. Although President Obama and General Secretary Xi Jinping ‘agreed’ to limit greenhouse emissions in 2014, the stark industrial re-shaping that this would require in the short term is scarce imaginable.

the top 40 CO2 emitting countries and related in the world in 1990 and 2012, including per capita figures. The data is taken from the EU Edgar database.

The top 40 CO2 emitting countries and related in the world in 1990 and 2012, including per capita figures. The data is taken from the EU Edgar database.

Each country that contributed to the agreement (if not its ratification) submitted a Nationally Determined Contribution: a voluntary climate plan specifying their own goals and targets. Once again, these are not binding and are likely that way to have ensured the participation of major emitting countries. As of February 2016, only Fiji has formally ratified the Agreement.

A history of inaction

It’s worth exploring briefly the results of previous Climate Committee meetings, and how they have developed into the most current set.

The Kyoto Protocol, agreed at COP3 in 1997, has to this date amassed 192 signatures of ratification. Actual implementation of the agreed changes did not occur until 2005. That’s 8 years of lag-time between promise pledge and firm framework. This has continued. China ratified and agreed to the protocol’s cuts. The U.S. however, did not.

It seems to corroborate comments that judge Kyoto as a failure, down primarily to “countries not actually living up to their commitments or staying with the Agreement”.

Revisions of the protocol and general Climate responses, in terms of application and monitoring at least, have been in a state of perpetual delay. This includes The Doha Amendment, which was similarly troublesome. The ratification of the Paris Agreement will occur from 2015-2020, and only in 2021 will it come into action. At the Doha conference (2012), executive director of the UNFCCC, Christina Figueres, noted the “ever increasing gap between the actions of countries and what the science tells us”. Her words mark the insignificant changes that occur – post UNFCCC’s pledge – to reduce and stabilise anthropogenic changes to the atmosphere.

Greenhouse Gases, and limiting their effect, has been and continues to be a major aspect of geo-political relations ever since COP was established. Since then, despite each Conference being termed a ‘last hope’ of global response, the progress of the pursuit has shifted merely from unspecified desires to specified desires – without at any point implementing a plausible framework for completion. What we were subjected to in mainstream media was the crest of a powerful wave, a promise of imminently implemented change. The wave itself seems to be less assured.

As of now, we can only hope that the UN are right – they claim over 130 countries (including the U.S and China) are poised to sign in late April, thus ratifying and legally binding their involvement in the agreement. If this rings true then the perpetual delay regime of prior agreements may be overturned.

This post is written in collaboration with The Richardson Institute. 

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