Was the Paris Climate Change Summit too little too late?

Environmental issues have become a more prominent part of global politics over the years, largely due to them being a by-product of the rapid industrialisation of the world. As a global concern, states have recognised that they must take a liberal approach in coming together and developing solutions with mutual goals so that they can tackle problems such as climate change. The Paris Agreement of 2015 followed two previous agreements by the UNFCCC, in an attempt to deal with greenhouse gas emission mitigations. While its existence demonstrates progress in the right direction, the critical question is whether or not it can be deemed a success.

 As of today, 195 states have signed the agreement implying a success as it demonstrates a global consensus which is vital in tackling climate change. Due to the problem affecting the whole world, it is imperative that the solution involves the cooperation of all countries and so this is significant because with all states committed to reducing their carbon emissions, progress is inevitable. While the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 was ratified by 192 states, in due course, many countries dropped out after failing to meet their targets and it neglected to take into account how developing countries would go on to become major polluters such as China, and so, emissions have drastically increased since and co2 emissions went up by 61percent. The Copenhagen Accord that followed in 2009 did not have the scale of commitment that the Paris Agreement has and quickly fell apart due to lack of structure. Considering the theory of The Tragedy of the Commons, it can be understood that having a global agreement is a key success because the global management of greenhouse gas emissions involves controlling open access aspects and this can be done through open communication between all states and through the understanding that what is good for all of us is good for each of us.

However, this consensus quickly falls apart as states can leave the agreement and act on their own self interests. At the summit, former President Obama said, “the world has committed to a low carbon future”, yet with the US under new leadership, President Trump has decided to leave the agreement by 2020 which reflects that it was not a success because the critical aspect is cooperation and with a major power and major polluter leaving, the world becomes at a disadvantage. According to Machiavelli’s core principles of realism, self interest if a driving force of individuals and Trump, more interested in winning his core electoral base, acts on America’s national interest which breaks down the fundamental requirements in achieving the collective goals. In addition, there is the matter of inequality in that states have different timelines for beginning their carbon cuts. Developing countries such as China should reach their peak in carbon emissions by 2030 before reducing their emissions whereas Britain has had to do so right away. This can be seen as certain countries having a free pass. This reflects the ‘free rider’ concept of Hardin, rendering the agreement ineffective.

Unlike the Copenhagen Accord, the Paris Climate Change Summit had clear structure and specific goals. This illustrates that the agreement is a success because states agreed on a commitment of not allowing global warming to increase above 2˚C showing clear targets that make for solutions. All states were also asked to present an action plan which were detailed and specific meaning that they were based around the individuality of each state and could therefore be more easily implemented. Alongside this there was a committee set up to monitor these plans year by year which is effective in ensuring that states are in line with their targets and are working towards their plans for emission cuts. The Alliance of Small Islands States (AOSIS) are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and so despite being much smaller actors, they took on a leadership role and became strong advocates for developing ambitious targets which shows the level of commitment to resolving the problem. Samoa’s ambassador said “It just goes to show that if we put our minds collectively to anything as a global family we can do it” which establishes some of the core liberal beliefs in that cooperation is they key to success and Paris has succeeded in bringing about this cooperation.

Radical ecologists on the other hand, would argue that this is not enough, and the efforts have been insufficient. Naomi Klein, an eco-social activist has claimed that temperatures are on the way to rise by 4-6˚C despite the Paris Agreement wanting to cap at 2˚C which is a dangerous tipping point. Emissions since Kyoto have gone up by 61% even though it was an attempt to reduce them and many argue that this will be the same for the Paris Agreement because the plans are not enough to match the rate of climate change with 14 of the 15 hottest years on record having occurred between 2001 and 2016. The Low-Lying Coalition have also criticised the 2˚C maximum being too high because they are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change such as flooding they want 1,.5%. The agreement only comes into effect in 2020 which gives 5 years in between for conditions to become worse which could result in irreversible damage; and for developing countries such as India and China, their emissions are still set to peak until 2030 and from the perspective of deep ecologists such as Arne Naess who are concerned with the intrinsic value of nature, fundamentally, this does not reflect the best interests of the planet.

Success of the agreement can be seen through kick starting innovation of green technologies in recent years. China who was considered one of the largest polluters has excelled and become a world leader in green technologies after signing on to the Paris Agreement. They are the world’s largest exporter of solar panels and are rapidly developing wind power with one turbine going up every hour. This has showed significant progress considering in 2012 they did not have any of these turbines and were also apprehensive about signing any climate change agreements. Al-Gore has described climate change as the number one problem in the global economy but the events since the agreement have shown that states have recognised this and are using renewable energy as the way forward in developing their economies. While from a realist perspective states will continue to serve their national interest, if it is recognised that renewables are the way forward, countries will compete to excel in this market which will encourage the use of eco-friendly developments. With the stimulated growth in green technologies, with China aiming to create two global brands in the field by 2020 and the development of green alternatives by large existing brands such as Tesla who have developed electric cars that grown in popularity, the Paris Climate Change Summit can be considered successful as it was able to encourage this. On the side-lines of the summit, a new coalition called the Break-through coalition was established by Bill Gates and a number of ‘Green Capitalists’. They promised to invest $1 bn in startup companies that found innovative solutions to climate change. In this view, entrepreneurism and innovation, hallmarks of capitalism, will solve the problem.

Although, some would claim, that this is simply capitalism continuing to take course and feeding a consumerist society. The concept of green capitalism is controversial in that ecologists would state that capitalism and being eco-friendly are mutually exclusive. Naomi Klein argues that society has not done the things necessary to tackle climate change precisely because of deregulated capitalism. The development of green technologies is, as such, a response to climate change that breeds materialism and grows national markets rather than strategically tackling the problem. This is because the motives behind the innovations are unclear meaning that they could be to serve the self-interests of countries; China’s rise in this field may be due to them wanting to promote themselves as a global leader and to defend themselves from the US who could cut of their non-renewable energy supply – oil, via the Malaga Strait. The significance of this argument is that once states have reaped the benefits of this market, they may abandon it and adapt to what can continue to build their economy. In addition, the current development of green technologies continues to use a vast deal of resources and materials which defeats the goal. Hence, the summit was unsuccessful as the actual measures needed to fight climate change are not being acknowledged.

In conclusion, it is evident that while the summit is the most significant step seen so far in solving climate change, the efforts are insufficient. This is largely due to capitalism being a priority over the environment and states are more concerned with short term success rather than focusing on long-term problems that may arise. While developments in green technology have proved effective, until this is accepted by a global majority, sufficient progress cannot be made.

Shrayah Patel

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