Climate Emergency and The Impacts of The U.S.A Pulling Out Of The Paris Climate Agreement
Author : Rashi Malik
Climate change is a burning issue and one that is taking place right in front of our eyes. Every individual is contributing to it but only a few have pledged to take responsibility for the same. It is indeed a defining issue of our time which, if not catered to properly might carve the destruction of human race and its resources. From rampant forest fires to rising levels of chemical pollutants in the sea, the consequences of climate change don’t discriminate against anyone and are unprecedented in scale.
The Human Contribution of Greenhouse Gases
Greenhouse gases arise in a natural manner and are a natural makeup of the atmosphere. Our planet, is sometime referred to as “Goldilocks” planet- it’s not too hot, not too cold and the conditions are just right allowing life forms to thrive. Part of what makes Earth so amenable is the greenhouse effect caused by the greenhouse gases which keep the temperature at a friendly 15 degrees Celsius. However, quite obviously, in the last century or so humans have meddled with the energy balance of the planet leading to unseen and unwanted climate changes. Carbon dioxide levels have been on a constant rise trapping extra heat near the surface of the earth causing temperatures to rise continuously. Concerns arise upon realization that many of these gases stay for tens to hundreds of years in the atmosphere, after being released, their warming effects persists in the climate for a long time therefore affecting both present and future generations.
The Oxford dictionary defines climate emergency as a situation wherein urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and to potentially avoid irreversible environment related damage arising from it.
The United Nations have explicitly mentioned some well-established links in the regard of climate emergency such as the fact that the concentration of GHGs in the earth’s atmosphere is directly linked to the average global temperature on Earth. They have further mentioned that this concentration has been rising steadily, and mean global temperatures along with it, since the time of the Industrial Revolution and the most abundant GHG, accounting for about two-thirds of Greenhouse gases (GHGs), carbon dioxide (CO2), is largely the product of burning fossil fuels.
Global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius: A special report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October, 2018 revealed that limiting global warning to 1.5 degrees Celsius would necessitate rapid and far-reaching overall changes in the society. This goal they believed would go hand in hand for the assurance of a more sustainable and equitable society.
The report also highlights various climate change impacts such as rise in global sea levels that could be totally avoided by limiting the global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius as compared to 2 degrees Celsius. This goal however, can only be achieved with rapid and fast reaching transitions in areas of land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities. The global net human-caused emissions of CO2 would need to be reduced by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ by 2050.
United Nations Legal Instruments
The United Nations is at the forefront of all efforts to save the planet. In 1992, its Earth Summit produced the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as the first step towards addressing the climate change problem. The 197 countries that form the membership of this convention have ratified and accepted their ultimate goal as prevention of dangerous human interference with the climate. The primary objective of the UNFCCC is to achieve stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.
The commitments made by New Zealand along with other developed country parties include :
adopt national policies to mitigate climate change through limiting anthropogenic (human-induced) emissions of greenhouse gases and protecting and enhancing our greenhouse gas sinks and reservoirs
report detailed information on greenhouse gas inventories, national actions and projected human-induced greenhouse gas emissions and removal by sinks, according to timeframes set in the UNFCCC
take into account climate change considerations, in relevant social, economic and environmental policies and actions
promote, and cooperate in, relevant scientific and technological research and exchange information in such areas (including transferring technology to developing countries)
provide additional financial resources to meet the agreed full costs incurred by developing countries in complying with their obligations under the UNFCCC
promote public awareness of, and education about, climate change issues.
The Kyoto Protocol was adopted on 11th December, 1997 and came into implementation on 16th February, 2005 owing to a complex ratification process. The protocol works to operationalize the UNFCCC by committing industrialized countries and economies in transition to limit their greenhouse gases emissions in accordance with agreed individual targets. It only binds the developed countries together under the heavy burden of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities” because it establishes that they are mainly responsible for the expanding levels of GHG emissions.
In its Annex B, the Kyoto Protocol sets binding emission reduction targets for 37 industrialized countries and economies in transition and the European Union. Overall, these targets add up to an average 5 per cent emission reduction compared to 1990 levels over the five year period 2008–2012 (the first commitment period).
The most striking element of this protocol is indeed its flexible market mechanisms which are based on the trade of emissions permits. These countries must meet their targets primarily through national measures. However, there are additional measures provided to them including International, Emissions Trading, Clean Development Mechanism and Joint Implementation. This has parallel benefits of stimulating green investment in developing countries and including the private sector in this endeavour to cut and hold steady GHG emissions at a safe level.
In order to ensure the success of this protocol and make it efficient in the long run, countries actual emissions have to be monitored and precise records have to be kept of the total trade activity being carries out. Under this monitoring technique, the following methods are adopted:
· Registry systems work to track and record transaction made by all Parties under the given mechanism. In essence, these transactions are required to be consistent with the rules of the protocol.
· Reporting is carried out by parties who submit their annual emission inventories and national reports as prescribed by the protocol.
· Furthermore, a compliance system ensures the fulfillment of commitments and helps them achieve these commitments if they have problems doing so.
· Adaption is another mechanism which is designed to assist countries in adapting to the adverse effects of climate change. It can help increase the resilience to the impacts of climate change through development and deployment of appropriate technologies.
· The adaptation fund finances adaptation projects and programs in Parties to the protocol that are classified as ‘Developing countries.’
Loopholes of the Kyoto Protocol
JOINT IMPLEMENTATION (JI) AND CLEAN DEVELOPMENT MECHANISM (CDM): These mechanisms in place allow for credit to be claimed by one county for measures being implemented somewhere else. However, the question arises that if investing in CO2 reduction abroad was more cost-effective, why weren’t these problems addressed there first?
In reality, JI project must result in saving that are additional to what would otherwise occur and its credits is supposed to be supplemental to domestic activities. However, the content and means of deciding upon what is or not supplemental or additional has not been defined in the Kyoto Protocol.
Similarly, the CDM is intended to be certified on an individual basis by as yet undefined operating entities.
EMISSIONS TRADING: The complexities of this regime are undeniable. What percentage of a country’s reductions may be achieved by trading, which GHG can be traded and many other variables were not resolved in the Kyoto and have continued to remain unresolved ever since.
It is important to note here that under this protocol, Russia and Ukraine secure the right to stabilize their emissions at 1990 levels in the coming years. However, their industries will not conceivable be able to grow this fast.
SINKS: As with the other flexible mechanisms, the motive of Sinks is unclear. Politicians fear the public and corporate reaction to cutting back on fossil fuel usage far easier, then, to use their nations forestry and agricultural sinks to partly offset their obligations to reduce GHG emissions.
Furthermore, scientist have pointed out that there is not enough data to establish exactly how much carbon is being absorbed by a country’s sinks and whether carbon moving into the forests and soils will actually stay there.
PERVERSE INCENTIVES: Under this scheme, countries will be able to earn credits by logging an area, leaving it as grazing land and then after a few years installing a pulp plantation on it. In this case, as the UN climate convention secretariat points out, countries will be able to convert naturally existing forests for other uses and later begin a plantation scheme there. In such a case of cheating, the reforestation practice would lead to net emissions and not sinks. And the result here would then be deforestation instead of reforestation.
PLANTATION FORESTRY: As a fact, the total amount of carbon stored is generally greater in the natural forests with its rich soils and forest debris and not the tress themselves.
In the view of this, the Protocol faces the problem in a reverse manner where instead of viewing forests for a way to avoid facing up to our fuel addiction, we have got to deal with it in a way that doesn’t disrupt the endangered forests.
“These limitations offer an extended yet unrevealed view into what it contributing to the climate emergency apart from the obvious number of cars on the road.”
Paris Climate Agreement
The agreement entered into force on 4th November, 2016. The central aim is to keep the global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius along with strengthened action towards the impacts of climate change. To reach this goal, requisites like financing framework, regulating body, enhanced capacities and collective action have been encouraged on a global scale as well.
The U.S.A Pulling Out Of The Agreement
To begin with, the Federal government will play no role in supporting the shift to a non-fossil fueled economy, which is contrary to what almost all governments wish to do. It will put U.S.A. at a clear disadvantage as even countries like India, are switching to green energy instead of coal for it is cleaner and cheaper. It is almost unbelievable because Trump mentioned his desire for America to use and produce more coal by exiting the agreement whereas the countries, he gave the example of are doing the exact opposite as seen in the case of India.
On a much larger scale, there arises a big fear of a fall-out domino effect on this agreement wherein the other countries might feel free to do the same, particularly the developing ones. It undermines the universality of this agreement which is the backbone of the global climate regime.
The American departure from this deal also means an end to all financial contributions by the U.S.A. which will increase the pressure on the poorer countries to finance a global fund. This decision has induced a major pause in the ongoing climate projects. Weather stations were to be installed in the Caribbean for mapping the topography of the seafloor to predict storm surges so that these nations could become more resilient to the impacts of climate change. However, the Trump administration reduced the funding which will have deteriorating impacts on these Caribbean nations.
However, the U.S.A. didn’t need to withdraw the agreement all together in the first place. The agreement includes a framework to assess progress every five years which enables governments to alter their commitments, known as nationally determined contributions (NDC) ideally.
The economic windfall of it all is especially humongous. The U.S.A. could have potentially tripled its clean energy innovation investments therefore racing to the top of the world and reducing the cost of clean energy technologies at the disposition of the rest of the world. These could have been sold in the commercial markets where demand is inevitable high. It missed this opportunity. Indeed, by walking away from the agreement it has globally exposed its aim to gain more emission space while lowering mitigation costs at the expense of other nations.
Trump’s delayed action is already costing the world a window of maximum opportunities in climate mitigation. And with the U.S.A. now relaxed of any obligation to cut down the emission, the goals will be harder to achieve. On top of achieving the goals, it is also their analysis and information relay to the people that will face a backlog. The United States accounts for approximately 58% of the most cited climate papers by 2015 and among all the lakhs of paper of papers published on climate change, 23% are from the U.S.A. which is the most amount of contribution from any single country. With a lack of proper data reported, citizens and research groups will be left ambiguous and with no conceptual clarity regarding the most active and burning global phenomenon. In essence, it will deprive people of their basic right to information.
In the recent U.S.A. election, it was indeed the environment that the citizens were voting for or against on the ballot. Joe Biden has promised to re-enter the Paris Climate Agreement if elected and act on it through day one. Biden had outlined his commitment to protect the environment with a proposed $5 trillion plan to address the climate emergency and reaching net-zero emissions no later than 2050.
With the U.S.A. being the second-largest emitter of GHG, the next couple of years will be extremely crucial for the globe and its community.
The Future Is Daunting
If the world had gradually started reducing their emissions, it would have been possible to achieve this mammoth task. However, in the recent years, there’s been virtually nothing but delays and too many efforts need to be undertaken in very less time.
Bridging the gap will require all countries to the reduce their emission by 5-8% annually, a task no country has yet achieved. None the less, such massive efforts will incur major finances which not every country is in a position to afford.
Ultimately, the nations will do what the national politicians will do. This agreement reflects, but cannot change, the fact that collective will to address climate change is sorely lacking.
(1) United Nations Climate Change, Processes and Meetings, The Kyoto Protocol, available at: https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings [accessed 7th December 2020]
(2) United Nations Climate Change, Processes and Meetings, The Paris Agreement, available at: https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement [accessed 7th December 2020]
(3) United States Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Topics, Climate Change, available at: https://www.epa.gov/ [accessed 8th December 2020]