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Limping to Paris
What Good Is an Unenforceable Climate Deal?

With just a little over a month and a half left to go until the world’s next big climate summit kicks off in Paris, every indication is that we won’t be getting a binding international treaty, much to the chagrin of the green movement. Reuters reports:

For all their efforts to get 200 governments to commit to the toughest possible cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, climate negotiators have all but given up on creating a way to penalize those who fall short. […]

Nick Mabey, chief executive of the E3G think-tank in London, says a Paris deal is likely to be more like international agreements limiting nuclear weapons than accords under the World Trade Organization, which can impose sanctions…A watchword of nuclear non-proliferation – “trust but verify” – could be the basis, he said.

This is hardly surprising. Back in May, Christiana Figueres, the UN’s climate chief, told the world that negotiators would be concentrated on hammering out a deal focused on “enabling and facilitating” climate mitigation and adaptation policies, as opposed to (in her words) a “punitive-type” treaty. With one of the most important individuals involved in the push for a Global Climate Treaty essentially admitting defeat months ahead of time, the agreement could be worth less than the paper it will be printed on.

Figueres wasn’t wrong in attempting to deflate expectations this spring. Paris won’t produce a binding agreement and delegates won’t ultimately insist on one, because doing so would alienate important players at the negotiating table, chief among them the United States. It doesn’t seem likely that Congress would ratify any sort of internationally-enforceable deal.

That leaves us with a treaty focused more on “good vibes” than lasting policy changes, and, while that approach may be familiar to many greens, it has to be seen as a setback for a modern environmental movement that has invested so much in this quixotic GCT endeavor. The best-case scenario for Paris is the production of a kind of eco-version of the Kellogg-Briand Pact—a fact that’s long been evident but is just now starting to feel real for greens.

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