Connecting Knowledge and People
By Arnaud Koehl and Janto S. Hess
Photo by WWF (COP 21)
On December 12th of 2015, 196 countries signed the Paris Agreement at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This agreement is the result of years of negotiations between nations and incorporates differing perspectives on responsibilities and ways to address the biggest challenge of our generation, namely climate change. The document explicitly mentions that countries should hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C”. This noble target is currently not reflected in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) that detail scenarios of greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions reductions per sector for each individual country.
Many pundits interpreted the Paris Agreement as an unprecedented achievement from the diplomatic world and a solid basis for translation into national law. However, the voice of critical experts could also be heard loudly after the agreement. Apart from criticism about the non-legally binding element of key sections in the agreement and not addressing the mechanisms of loss-and-damage as well as carbon taxation sufficiently, COP21 did not succeed in making the deal appealing to all people irrespective of their moral beliefs on how to value “the environment”. Indeed, climate can be characterized in the vocabulary of economics as a public good. As such, fighting anthropogenic climate change is an aggregate effort that profits little to the entities that bear the costs on a defined period. The point of this article is to expose the enormous potential impacts of COP21 on a short and medium term basis on the social agents that have the power to enforce it.
The following sections will give an overview of theoretically possible implications of a widespread enforcement of the Paris Agreement. We assume that this overview can be beneficial to influence global and individual actions, even though some effects are unlikely to occur in the described way when translated into specific contexts.
Enforcing the Paris Agreement could widely improve health
“Health” is only mentioned three times in the 31 page Paris Agreement (UNFCCC, 2015). This is stunning knowing that curbing climate change could entail four major benefits to global public health:
The India Gate, New Delhi, December 1st, 2015. Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee
These health benefits in turn cause a reduced burden on insurance and health systems costs and increased income per capita. That leads us to our next point.
It could stabilize the global economy and empower local dynamics
Coming back to the theory of environmental economics, the economy, which is part of broader social activities, relies on several environmental functions provided by the Earth ecosystems in which it develops. The environmental functions include the availability of natural resources, the capacity of absorbing waste and space on which to settle. It also comprises the greenhouse effect that prevents us from being burnt by the sun’s rays by maintaining a certain atmospheric temperature. As such, physical and virtual flows are constantly exchanged between the economy and the environment. The indirect effects of the economy on society and the environment are called externalities and can be either positive or negative. A fundamental difference between the economy and the environment is that the economy is a social construct with blurred boundaries while the environment as defined here is delimited to the planet and does not need the economy per se to sustain itself.
The idea settled by the Paris Agreement inherently relies on better inclusion of the greenhouse effect dimension into the functioning of human activities through market and non-market (e.g. regulatory) tools. The variety of instruments used in that regard is absolutely fundamental in satisfying differing contexts, aspirations and ideologies. We consider this pragmatic stance as the only way to make so many actors go in the same direction. Here are the four main benefits on the economy for such a move:
Although there might not be an intrinsic value in technological progress, a successful outcome of a global shift of investments into greener solutions could bring higher diffusion of new technologies and associated lower costs. In that sense, the Paris Agreement sends “a clear signal to business and investors to prepare for a lower carbon future” and to public and private institutions (Tomlinson and Bailey, 2015). This process is already on track with PV solar panels, that are already cheaper than other sources of energy, according to UCL Professor Paul Ekins (UCL, 2016) this is the case in England. Counterproductive in this regard is that most countries in the world still grant billions of dollars to maintain their oil industries profitable (Coady, et al., N.A.). These vast financial flows could be redirected to foster employment in the renewable energy sector and finance research. In a nutshell, the opportunity that COP21 is opening in terms of emission taxations and the implementation of carbon markets could trigger a new global economic cycle.
It is true that some countries will achieve a competitive advantage on specific markets, for example the dominance of the Chinese solar industry. But this enhanced global competition triggers a significant reduction of costs for renewable energy technologies. In comparison to investments in traditional fossil fuel powered energy production, which can broadly be outlined as tending to contain low investment and high maintenance costs, the renewable technologies demand a higher initial investment, whereas the maintenance costs are lower. Renewables also allow a decentralisation of energy generation and, thus, decrease dependencies of local communities.
Original cover of the visionary 1973 book of E.F. Schumacher
It can strengthen peacekeeping efforts
It is the first time that so many countries sign such a global deal. All countries will participate in the climate effort at their pace; developing countries interests are taken into account. The conference was rooted in transparency, with consistent pressure from civil society and the private sector. Moreover, once you have signed up, you can only drop out of the agreement at a cost, be it diplomatic or other, which shows the strength of the signature process (Morgan and Northrop, 2015). COP21 experienced the largest number of participants in UNFCCC history and largest number of Heads of State gathered under one roof on a single day in world History (150, on November 30th). That is why according to Michael Grubb, the writer of Planetary Economics: energy, climate & three domains of sustainable development, the new dynamic from Paris is as important as the content (6). As outlined in another article on climate-exchange.org(11), effective action to tackle climate change could lead to:
The Paris Agreement partly values the concept of climate justice
The implementation of the Paris Agreement would acknowledge in international law, the concept of climate justice to some degree. For the first time since the Kyoto protocol a global agreement acknowledges the right of future generations to live in a relatively not-afflicted climate. The agreement furthermore is constructed in a way that all countries will be involved in climate action through the principal of common but differentiated responsibilities. This concept involves all countries, and its citizens, to reduce carbon emissions, but acknowledges that, for example developing countries will not have the same ability to decrease emissions without reducing their chances to develop economically. Some people would claim that this principle leads to more climate justice, as major polluting countries are obliged to bigger efforts and have to pay weaker and non-emitting countries to reach their targets. International climate finance acknowledged in the Paris Agreement, will include a payment from industrialised to developing countries of 100 billion USD per annum from 2020 onwards.
Conclusion: climate-change centrism is not accurate to ensure effective action
This article showed some potential impacts of the implementation of the Paris Agreement. The main deduction from this attempt is that climate-centrism as a didactical choice to deal with climate itself is not the more accurate way to trigger change (Vazquez-Rowe, et al., 2015). Academics and policy-makers must therefore take more consideration of health, economics and other trends into account when setting up tools and strategies.
Having the people involved will be particularly necessary to actually achieve the 1.5 °C to 2 °C temperature increase target, from which cumulated INDCs are still very far. The social choice that is entailed in the Agreement does indeed mean that pressure by civil society is fundamental in going beyond the UN ceremonies, as Lord Ashcroft, an experienced UK scientist and climate diplomat, pointed out recently. In a remake of Common Sense by Thomas Paine, the participation of society at a global scale is, at a critical historical momentum, required to dispose of out-dated trends once and for all.
Koehl, A and Hess, J. S., 2016. Potential non-environmental benefits of the COP21 Paris Agreement and why it could be important for you. [Online]. Available at: https://climate-exchange.org/2016/02/09/potential-non-environmental-benefits-of-the-cop21-paris-agreement-and-why-it-could-be-important-for-you/ [date accessed].