Foreign Policy Blogs

Paris Climate Agreement: Mixed Reviews

French President Hollande at the COP21 in Paris.

French President Hollande at the COP21 in Paris.

Written by Matthew Barbari

When delegates from nearly 200 countries convened in Paris in late November 2015, many were hopeful about the 21st yearly session of the Conference of the Parties or COP21. It could be a watershed moment when the world would unite and finally put forth a plan to combat climate change.

While similar sentiment was shared before the Copenhagen Summit in 2009 and the meeting in Kyoto in 1997, there was a feeling that now—with China, India and the United States on board—a universal climate policy could be agreed upon.

This, however, is not the end of the story. While an agreement was reached, many experts within the scientific community remain dissatisfied. The watershed moment for politicians arguing for their respective countries was not what environmentalists had envisioned, with many criticizing the agreement as nothing more than too little, too late.

Dr. James E. Hansen, a highly respected authority within the climate science community, sees the prospect of the Paris Agreement as “just worthless words,” and criticizing it as “no action, just promises.” Hansen makes a direct reference to the provision within the agreement that allows countries to set their own standards of emissions to keep the global temperature from rising by 2 degrees Celsius. Further arguments are also made about how much money developed countries should provide to developing ones in order to limit the latter’s carbon emissions, as well as any prevent any catastrophic events that climate change could trigger.

Dr. Hansen argues that the notion that renewable energy sources will magically replace countries’ dependence on fossil fuels is silly as long as those fuels remain the cheapest source of energy production. Dr. Hansen also argues for an increase in nuclear energy, which puts him at odds with some within the community.

He believes that nuclear power is necessary to combat climate change as it provides a massive source of energy that does not involve burning fossil fuels. Those against nuclear power point to the massive construction costs of nuclear facilities, events such as the disaster at Chernobyl and Fukushima power plants or the issue of getting rid of nuclear waste.

While the Paris Agreement aims high, it also limits itself to being nothing more than a promise: no penalties are imposed should nations not reach their own targets for limiting carbon emission and developing renewable energy sources. There are also several provisions within the agreement that are not binding, such as the fact that countries can withdraw from the agreement at any time without any penalties.

Further issues arise with the 2 degrees target. Environmentalists argue that this temperature rise would still cause a drastic change in the global climate and that the cuts need to be more severe. This is the biggest concern with the Paris Agreement: it does not attempt to stop climate change but only to mitigate the damages.

Besides these criticisms, there is much positive about the agreement. First, there is a formal agreement, as previous attempts have seen major powers such as the U.S. and China walk out of meetings. The biggest challenge of a universal agreement is the different level of economic development of each individual countries combined to the inherent asymmetry of climate change effects. This is why the agreement pushes for each country to develop a climate policy for themselves.

While the agreement might not have gone as far as some would have liked, it shows that nations around the globe are now finally getting serious about climate change. And that is something to be hopeful about.