Climate Change

Will the Paris Agreement Fix the ‘Climate Crisis’?

Preparations are now underway for COP25, a global climate conference of thousands of politicians and observers, opening  December 2 in Madrid.  This conference was to be held in Chile, but the Chilean President cancelled hosting it because of violent riots, sparked by large increases in transit fares and electricity prices.

One COP25 agenda item is the 2015 Paris Agreement, which was supposed to fix the climate crisis. Even if there is such a crisis, the Paris Agreement won’t fix it. [But is there really a climate crisis? You may want to read my two earlier posts on that issue, starting here: The Climate Crisis: Don’t Panic, It’s Not the Titanic.]

Everyone talks about the Paris Agreement, but hardly anyone reads it. The mainstream media says it was to reduce global CO2 emissions.  But that is not what the Agreement says or does. It doesn’t require any country to reduce its emissions Some of the planet’s largest emitters say they will increase their emissions — not just a little, but a lot.

China, the world’s largest emitter and growing rapidly, already accounts for 29% of global CO2. (The USA represents only 13%, Canada 1.6%.)  India, with its less developed but rapidly growing economy, creates another 7%. Yet both China and India (and several Africa countries) project increased emissions with no numerical limit.

Even if all the 195 nations that signed the Agreement do what they said they will do, the net effect will be no significant reduction in CO2 emissions. There is a huge disconnect between what the Agreement is supposed to do and what the nations have said they intend to do.

The current panic over the ‘climate crisis’ makes it politically essential for most governments to respond with dramatic displays of determination to “fight climate change” and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Unfortunately, as Nobel Prize-winning economist William Nordhaus has written in The American Economic Association Journal of August 2018:

“The reality is that most countries are on a business-as-usual trajectory of minimal policies to reduce their emissions …. The international target for climate change with a limit of 2°C appears to be infeasible with reasonably accessible technologies even with very ambitious abatement strategies.”

The only safe political path between the panic and the possible is to pretend to do the impossible. And that is the real purpose of the Paris Agreement.

Already, after just four years, only 17 of 195 countries on track for their Paris targets. Canada is not one of these. Figure 1 below compares Canada’s actual emissions with its stated intentions in four international climate conferences. Canada has fallen short of what it said it would do three times, and is again falling short of Paris.

Promised and actual

Focusing more broadly, if every country met its stated 2030 goals, how close would the planet come to the year 2100 target of  1.5 °C maximum warming? According to economist Bjorn Lomborg  the reduction in warming would be less than 5% of 1°C.  Even if the nations stay on track all the way to 2100 that gets us only 13% of the Agreement’s 1.5 °C target. Why is that?

Why The Paris Agreement Won’t Fix Climate Change

The Paris Agreement has two essential elements: CO2 emissions and wealth transfer (from developed to developing nations, to help them to emit less CO2).

1.   CO2 Emissions

Although the media and our Prime Minister have talked of Canada’s Paris “commitments”, the Agreement’s wording doesn’t even mention commitments.  Instead, Agreement Article 4 (2) requires each Party to submit successive “nationally determined contributions[NDCs] that it intends to achieve. Good intentions aren’t commitments.

Think of the global atmosphere as being like one large global bathtub with water now at a comfortable temperature. There are two taps, one each for cold and hot water. The developed countries use the cold water tap, to let in a tiny trickle of cold water. The developing countries use the hot water tap, fully open. What do you think will happen to the temperature?

2.   Wealth Transfer

18 developed countries (including Canada) have agreed to transfer $100 Billion Annually, to developing countries, starting in 2020.  The US, which had been expected to pay about $45 billion annually, recently announced its withdrawal from the Agreement. With the US out, this key part of the Agreement will probably fail. 

Protests Won’t Fix The Paris Agreement

Getting the entire planet totally off fossil fuels by 2050 would require a complete global energy transition, from the current global energy mix of 80% fossil fuels and only 1.3% wind and solar. Canadian energy expert Vaclav Smil, in his 2017 book Energy Transitions, wrote:

As in the past, the unfolding global energy transitions will last for decades, not years, and modern civilization’s dependence on fossil fuels will not be shed by a sequence of government-dictated goals.

Greta Thunberg’s demonstrations in front of Sweden’s Parliament, and the other eco-celebrities and protesters focus on the wrong political leaders.  The developed countries account for around 1/3 of global CO2 emissions, the developing countries around 2/3.    China and India, not Sweden, the US or Canada, is where most new emissions will come from. Yet no one is even trying to protest in front of the Chinese legislature in Tiananmen Square against China’s numerous new coal plants.

In the US, the proposed Green New Deal talks about using World War II style mobilization so that “we” (i.e., Americans) can effectively fight climate change and achieve the target of complete decarbonization by 2050 or even sooner. And if America can mobilize for a war, surely “we” can mobilize to save the planet in the 11 years to 2030.

This is thinking of “we” as one country, as if the “we” in the US was the entire planet, so that if “we” fix the US “we” fix the planet. The US is not alone in this kind of self-important thinking. One sees similar calls to Green New Deals in many other countries, including Canada. But the only relevant “we” is all 195 nations.  If the entire US disappeared off the planet tomorrow, the 13% reduction in emissions would soon be surpassed by increases elsewhere.

Let’s Stop Pretending Now

Human-caused climate change can only be controlled through universal global action in which every country does its part. But that raises difficult questions. How much is our part, and what is the evolving whole? Without knowing that we cannot rationally determine what our part should be.  And, with most other countries not doing enough, should we be the exception and do more, or should we also continue to do less?

If the planet’s capacity for additional CO2 emissions is limited and needs to be rationed, how do we do this, who does it, and by when?  Protesters blocking traffic or taking a day off school to demonstrate with placards may provide drama, but not the answers.

At election time voters have judged governments on their success in raising overall well-being. The yellow vest protests in Paris and the violent riots in Chile show that public patience with large, government-created price increases for essential goods and services is quite limited.  A sudden transition off fossil fuels would drastically reduce living standards. Painfully high carbon taxes without rebates and big increases in other taxes would be needed to fund massive new energy infrastructure to replace the heavy reliance on fossil fuels for manufacturing, transportation, heating and air conditioning. Are we really willing to do this for no net global effect, while China and others are massively increasing their emissions? If not, Western governments need to listen to William Nordhaus and Vaclav Smil and stop pretending the Paris Agreement will fix the ‘climate crisis’.

4 replies »

  1. Well, you misunderstand Smil, for starters. No reasonable person expects the energy transition to be measured in years. How could it, this one is already 20 years old (depending upon where you set the goal posts)?

    But, as I commented on your last post, you’ve fallen prey to the expert fallacy…frankly, you’re not qualified to opine about climate change and the energy transition. I can’t count the number of lawyers, engineers, and high school science teachers who have railed against climate science in blogs and social media over the years.

    You’re not a climate scientist. Sit down before you do real damage.


    • It seems to me that you don’t like the conclusions I have drawn, so would prefer to silence me rather than respond. You mischaracterize my writing as being about “climate science” and, without knowing much, if anything about me, attack my credentials to say what I have said. Your argument is not about me, but about the straw man you have constructed.

      I am not opining on climate science. I am analyzing the Paris Agreement and the NDCs, a type of multinational contract. As someone who has drafted, analyzed and litigated numerous contracts I am better qualified to analyze this Agreement than the hundreds of non-lawyer journalists and politicians, and even some climate scientists, most of whom, obviously, have never read it. William Nordhaus, an economist, has read it and understood it, which is why I quoted him, even though he is also not a climate scientist. If you are qualified to analyze the Paris Agreement too, by all means do so.

      I posted a chart comparing Canada’s promised emissions reductions versus its actual reductions. It doesn’t require a PhD in physics or meteorology to read and understand these numbers, to see that we have never kept our promises so far, just like most other nations. Everyone pretends to care about climate change until it comes time to doing something serious.

      I have read several of Smil’s books and articles, and watched hours of his videos. I think by now I understand what he is saying. If no reasonable person expects the energy transition to be measured in years, what do you think of the reasonableness of all the politicians seeking election or reelection who are promising to reduce their entire country’s CO2 emissions by 30% or more versus 2005 over the next 11 years when they are nowhere nearly on track to do that? And in Canada’s case, our governments have made three previous promises, none even nearly kept.

      I don’t know why you say that the energy transition is 20 years old already when the only thing done in Canada at the federal level so far is a modest carbon tax, recently introduced. I don’t know what technology Canada will use, and at what cost, to become carbon neutral by 2050? Do you? The reality is that Canada’s emissions are up 35.4% in 2017 over 1990. That doesn’t look like a transition to green energy. Canada now emits 16.9 tonnes of CO2 per capita per year. That is the highest of any developed nation, even higher than the US. By comparison, another cold country, Sweden, has reduced its emissions by 12.5% since 1990. Sweden emits 5.1 tonnes/capita/year, which is less than 1/3 of ours: In a future post I will be comparing Sweden’s progress versus Canada’s lack thereof, and what Canada would have to do to become more like Sweden.

      However, I would like to know how Canada is actually going to reverse its current trend and go from 16.5 to zero in the next 30 years. This is not a matter of climate science but economics and politics. The yellow vest protests in Paris and the violent riots in Chile a few weeks ago were not predicted in climate science models, they just erupted. Which climate scientists can predict what energy cost increases Canadians will tolerate? Canadians may not riot, but the political pendulum may swing back, to give us a populist right of centre government if the current government pushes too hard too fast. What do climate scientists have to say about that?

      China and India are saying in their NDC responses to Paris that both of them will greatly increase their emissions, even if the $100 billion is fully funded and available.. Do I need to be a “climate scientist”, whatever that is, to be able to read what China and India say they will do?

      If you read and interpret the Paris Agreement differently from the way I have, or see its purpose as different from how I see it, why not post your alternative opinion and explain? There is no harm in making your comments constructive.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks to Markham’s comment, you have actually posted a great amount of additional information to your original post.
    I’m impressed, actually! 🙂


    • Thank you. I try to limit my posts to a certain length, but then the occasional comment requires a longish reply. What you see on all my posts is the result of hundreds of hours of research and reading.


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