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Climate change inaction under the Paris Agreement

Climate 2022-02-28, 4:00pm


This piece analyses the risks and implications of the ‘inadvertent inaction’ embedded in the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The authors present that as humanity searches for lasting solutions to climate change; solutions will necessarily involve questioning political beliefs and enhancing global governance, which must be put to the test in reality, as learned during the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors are both former Climate Change and Forest Secretaries of Brazil and currently postgraduate research fellows at PUC Minas University.

By Thiago de Araújo Mendes & José Domingos Gonzalez Miguez

To facilitate the reader’s understanding of the subject, it is deemed necessary to harmonise knowledge by affirming the scientific bases relevant to the issue of global climate change.

Currently, about 99.95% of the atmosphere of planet Earth is composed of the sum of nitrogen, oxygen and argon. However, a tiny fraction of the atmosphere is composed of so-called greenhouse gases (GHGs, in which CO2 – carbon dioxide – is the most relevant). The amount of such gases is so insignificant in the composition of the atmosphere that they are collectively and statistically called trace gases, as they represent less than 0.05% of the total air.

However, the occurrence of these gases is what makes life possible on planet Earth as we understand it, because if these gases did not exist naturally, the average temperature of our planet would be about minus 15 degrees Celsius. Science has already shown that it is due to the variation and concentration of GHGs that the average surface temperature of the planet Mercury is much lower than the temperature of the planet Venus, despite the former being much closer to the sun.

Likewise, numerous scientific studies confirm that our planet in previous geological eras recorded average surface temperatures that were warmer than today, as well as much higher concentrations of GHGs. However, over a process that lasted millions of years, much of the CO2 that existed in the prehistoric atmosphere was removed by photosynthesis from aquatic and terrestrial vegetation, and this carbon was stored in the form of fossilised biomass in underground deposits.

Currently, ‘Economy’ calls such places ‘fossil fuel reserves’; that is, coal, oil and natural gas reserves, in a very simplified way, are the biomass of prehistoric plants, which helped to remove carbon from the atmosphere and ‘cool’ the planet over time. Therefore, the natural greenhouse effect is fundamental for life on our planet, and the dynamics of rising CO2 concentration in our atmosphere is an outstanding indicator of what the average surface temperature on Earth will be like.

The point of concern is that when evaluating the variations in CO2 concentration in our atmosphere during the last 800,000 years, there are no records higher than about 300 parts per million volume (ppmv). It was on the basis of this temperature pattern that most human knowledge, for example in agriculture, was developed over the last few millennia. The CO2 concentration levels in the pre-industrial revolution period (18th century) were around 280 ppmv, levels well below the current ones (in March 2021 the Mauna Loa Observatory recorded a CO2 concentration of 417 ppmv). The Earth’s average temperature according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is 1.03°C above the historical average and this temperature is higher than that predicted for 2020 in all scenarios of the previous IPCC reports (TAR, AR4 and AR5).

The need here is to disseminate the understanding that there is a physical process which objectively and unequivocally correlates the increase in the concentration of GHGs with the action of human beings, which leads to the process of increasing the average temperature of the surface of the planet. This physical process of increasing temperature can be represented in simplified mathematical form by a double integral equation (there is a ‘double accumulation’). Annual emissions accumulate in the atmosphere and increase the concentration of various GHGs. With the increase in this concentration, there is a greater absorption by the GHGs of the infrared rays of solar radiation, which arrive annually on the planet, and which would be returned to space, causing an increase in the temperature of the Earth’s surface.

Both the amount of GHGs emitted and their residence time in the atmosphere (taking into account the decay by natural or anthropogenic removal processes), as well as the warming of the Earth’s surface, point to an exponential growth of the global climate change problem. In short, this process occurs as if they were two spirals of speed and, regardless of the view of the political world, the physics of the atmosphere follows its dynamics and makes it evident that the time when a climate change mitigation action is carried out has substantive implications for its overall outcomes to fight global warming.

Therefore, the earlier the emission reduction occurs, the greater the effect of this reduction in combating global warming, whereas if this same reduction occurs later it would cause more warming between these two periods.

Thus, political, economic and social agents, when facing the issue of climate change, in a simplified way, are faced with three options: the first option is the so-called ‘mitigation’, which is to make anthropogenic emissions of GHGs less severe. In the case of climate change, mitigation focuses on the causes, that is, how to reduce anthropogenic emissions of GHGs originating in the different sectors of human activities (or alternatively, increasing the removal of GHGs by sinks). The second option is ‘adaptation’ to the effects of the problem, that is, acting to organise social, economic and environmental processes to resist impacts and increase resilience in relation to the adverse effects of the increase in the average surface temperature of our planet. This cannot be treated as a long-term solution by its own if no mitigation is implemented in conjunction. The third option is ‘inaction’, that is, not acting, which can occur deliberately or inadvertently. Deliberate inaction usually occurs when the economic or political agent decides to delay action, usually with the justification that the high costs of acting in the present are prohibitive and with the hope that they will be smaller and less traumatic in the future with the advancement of energy efficiency and technology. Inadvertent inaction also occurs when economic and political agents enter into agreements containing criteria to guide action, but the practical materialisation of the agreed criteria will mean absence of action in the present, even if the agents involved do not realise that the agreement to act will actually represent ‘inaction’ in the present justified by the preparation of the agreed action.

The option of inaction is the most ‘disguised’ of the three possible options in the treatment of climate change, as most of those involved in debates on the solution of the issue try to avoid it as an explicit option. However, as analysts of the problem note, to refuse the existence of the option of inaction is to deny a substantive part of reality, and it is to present an imprecise diagnosis, and, consequently, to diverge from the correct proposal of solutions and their effective implementation.

The three options are difficult to analyse, as they involve the search for solutions that will have long-term impacts for political and economic agents who have short-term mandates (generally, around four years for the political level and 12 months for the business level). The decisions of these agents will affect present generations (who do not want to incur the costs of mitigation or adaptation) and future generations (who are growing up or have not been born and, thus, do not have the power to influence the decision). The political decision is to choose options that require promoting social, economic and climate change and, therefore, affect collective behaviour at local, regional, national and global levels. Finally, creating a solution to global climate change is a complex problem, as it involves intergenerational relationships at different scales and, also, understanding that the production and consumption model that generated the problem is not universal. The human causes of the problem were created from a historical moment in a certain place, and it expanded unevenly around the planet. There are records of human communities for more than 10,000 years on the planet; however, the warming generated by human action has basically occurred in the last 250 years.

Thus, if the search is for efficiency in the result of the action, the first option should be adopted as a form of priority action for developed countries (the largest historical consumers of fossil fuels) and there should be incentives for countries that emitted little to contribute to the global effort without any binding obligation.

Mitigation carried out in a place where the cost is lower, for the same amount of invested resources, would achieve more emission reductions. Therefore, seeking to carry out mitigation in the least-cost places is more efficient from an economic and environmental point of view. This was the strategy adopted by the Kyoto Protocol, that is, only the fraction of countries that contributed the most to the problem had binding targets, in the form of national ‘carbon budgets’ and annual measurements of results. Differentiation and comparability were at the heart of the solution, as in 1990 the emission of developed countries (Annex I) was around 16 tonnes of CO2 per capita, while the global average was around 6 tonnes per capita. Each Annex I country had different national targets under the Protocol; for example, the United Kingdom (cradle of the industrial revolution) had higher absolute reduction targets than Australia, which had much more recent industrialisation. Annex I countries had a subdivision, as some of them were considered ‘Economies in transition’ (EIT), that is, European countries that had changed from a centrally planned economy (usually linked to ‘real socialism’) to a market economy. The EIT countries had mandatory mitigation targets, but they did not have the same financial obligations as the other Annex I countries, which had much higher per capita incomes. At the time of negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol, science indicated that in order to solve the problem, such countries should arrive in 2010 with a reduction of 20% in relation to the emission levels of 1990 and of 40% in 2020. However, the targets inscribed in the Protocol were around 5% for the first commitment period (around 2010) and 18% for the second commitment period that ended in 2020 (both without considering land use emissions and removals, the so-called ‘land use change and forests’ or LULUCF).

According to the UNFCCC Secretariat, comparing the years 1990 and 2018 (most recent data published by countries), aggregate total emissions without LULUCF for all Annex I Parties decreased by 12.5%, while with LULUCF they decreased by 16.6%. For EIT countries, GHG emissions with and without LULUCF decreased by 36.6% and 44.9% respectively in 2018 compared with 1990 levels. However, in the remaining Annex I countries (which do not have economies in transition) GHG emissions with and without LULUCF decreased by 1.5% and 3.1% in 2018 compared with 1990 levels. It is noteworthy that comparatively some of the EIT countries had GDP losses greater than 50% throughout the 1990s. Therefore, part of the mitigation achieved by the EIT countries in the period was the result of an economic decrease process, a phenomenon that was not observed in the other Western powers.

In parallel with the Kyoto Protocol under the Convention, Annex I countries committed in 2010 through the Cancun Agreements to provide US$100 billion annually in financing for developing countries to carry out mitigation and adaptation actions by 2020 in favour of the objective of controlling the temperature increase well below 2ºC towards 1.5ºC. According to the Convention Secretariat, total support provided reached an annual average of US$48.7 billion for the 2017-2018 biennium, with an annual average of 83.3% of support reported by countries as ‘committed’ and the remaining 16.7% reported as ‘disbursed’. It is noteworthy that, unlike the Framework Convention, which was ratified by the US Congress, the United States of America never ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

The action strategy adopted in Kyoto was politically abandoned to meet the desire of Western powers to relax the rules of compliance, comparability of efforts and measurement of annual results, which made it more explicit every year that among Annex I countries it was the EIT countries that had actually reduced emissions. However, the narrative used to justify the regime change was based on an assumption impossible to prove that indicated that if such flexibility had existed in Kyoto, the United States would have ratified the Protocol. Likewise, the narrative was based on the need for a new agreement to encompass a regime that is applicable to all countries, and in doing this, transfer a substantial part of the burden of combatting climate change to developing countries.

Thus, in 2015, the Paris Agreement model was created, a strategy to create ‘national contributions’ for all countries, whether or not they have contributed to the increase in the temperature of the Earth’s surface, adding the same temperature objectives foreseen in 2010 in the Cancun Agreements. In order to accommodate such large asymmetries and to be applicable from the United States to Tuvalu, from Monaco to China, through Haiti and Russia, each country would define the content and form of its national contribution. The comparability of efforts and any sanction rule for non-compliance with contributions were sacrificed in order to apply the motto ‘we are all in the same boat now’. However, in this ocean of inequalities, the motto became ‘applicable to all, but each one does what it can afford’.

Thus, for developed countries such rules represented a considerable backsliding in relation to the rules of behaviour, comparability of efforts and transparency adopted in Kyoto. On the other hand, developing countries do not have the human, technological and economic resources to implement significant mitigation measures. Given the political, social and economic fragility of developing countries, this transfer of burden will not be translated into concrete actions and the objectives of limiting temperature rise are very likely not to be respected.

In this Paris scenario, there are strong implications and risks that it may not be possible to achieve adaptation within the limits of 1.5ºC or 2ºC without drastic long-term mitigation being carried out, because of increased emissions and their impacts. An adaptation strategy on a planet 3º, 4º or 5º Celsius warmer will potentially lead to deliberate inaction by those countries that will benefit from the positive impacts (free riders) and will demand much higher costs for those that will suffer the adverse impacts of climate change. In short, there are indications that countries should analyse their vulnerabilities to climate change and decide whether the resources, that would be better used to mitigate the problem, should be used in a palliative way to mitigate adverse impacts for a period, until a new level of even higher temperature sets out. For example, global models indicate that an average increase in global temperature of 2ºC would represent a regional increase of 4ºC or 5ºC in the Midwest of Brazil. The great competitiveness of the current grain agro-export industry in South America and in particular in Brazil is fundamentally based on technological packages designed to maximise regional soil and climate conditions, especially in the availability and predictability of rainfall, which can be dramatically altered. Other locations, such as the demographic void in northern Russia, could become the most competitive locations to meet Asia’s growing grain demand.

From the perspective of Paris, the third option – inaction – opens up two aspects: a) deliberate inaction due to the belief that investments made in mitigation will be less costly if they are made when current technologies end their lifetime and will naturally be replaced by more efficient and lower-cost technologies with less GHG emissions. This aspect goes against the Precautionary Principle present in the Framework Convention and consists of a bet that such technologies will be available in the future and that they will be socially and economically acceptable; b) inadvertent inaction – it is speculated that this was the pragmatic result of the adoption of the Paris Agreement. As explained above, the Paris Agreement was a clear backsliding for developed nations in terms of compliance and transparency rules compared to Kyoto; however, it delegated to developing countries the same responsibility to act. It is a fact that developing countries do not have the capacity or resources to implement mitigation plans and their state of human and economic development will demand an increase in human activities in sectors that emit GHGs, and that the existing alternatives of renewable technologies will imply higher costs and capacity-building. It can be imagined that the scenarios foreseen in the ‘national contributions’ of the various developing countries either will not be implemented or will only be partially implemented, ultimately leading to a potential renegotiation of the Paris Agreement on new terms, when it becomes evident that it would not fulfil the objective of controlling the temperature rise well below 2ºC.

Furthermore, it must be considered that this transfer of the mitigation burden to developing countries is unethical, insofar as the increase in temperature and concentration of GHGs is predominantly the responsibility of developed countries (in particular and with the largest share those countries where the industrial revolution began, including the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Germany and the Russian Federation).

During COP 26, the postponement of the US$100 billion target committed by Annex I countries to the year 2023 is an additional symptom of the importance of debating inaction, especially that of an inadvertent nature. At the same conference, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), a coalition of 450 financial institutions from 45 countries, presented that the investment demand to achieve the fulfilment of the 1.5ºC scenario would demand a current annual investment of US$2.6 trillion in the period between 2021 and 2025. About 30% of this expected investment would have to come from the public sector (an amount seven times greater than the amount committed and not fulfilled in Cancun) to enable the leverage of the other 70% from the private sector. The figures for the private sector are so much higher and contradictory in relation to the movement seen by the governments of developed countries that the ability to materialise such financial plans in the necessary time is in doubt.

In addition, COP 26 regulated the cooperative mechanism in such a way that it will either lead to no cooperation or increase the burden of contributions of developing countries, penalising trade of emission reduction and changing the nature of contributions that would no longer be nationally determined.

Finally, dealing with inaction in this article is a provocative reflection in a world currently characterised by ‘post-truth’. We affirm here that there is the possibility of the existence of discourses that are quite ‘progressive’ in the sense of taking on promises of actions, but their physical reality beyond words may not correspond to the discourses and may lead us to an unprecedented climate crisis. Therefore, as we have learned in the COVID-19 pandemic, the search for lasting solutions to climate change will necessarily involve questioning political beliefs and enhancing global governance, which must be put to the test with physical reality.
- Third World Network