The moment is finally here: This week kicked off the much-anticipated two-week COP21 climate summit in Paris that greens hope will be looked back upon as a watershed moment for humanity’s approach to climate change. From where we’re sitting, that kind of game-changing outcome doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Here’s why.
The great green hope—a binding international treaty limiting global greenhouse gas emissions—is dead in the water. Indeed, it always has been. The EU is one of the few blocs of countries that would actually sign on to such an agreement (though even the green-minded group lacks consensus on this), but it wouldn’t do so out of the goodness of its heart. Rather, it would sign on out of a desire to see the rest of the world put in place the sort of economically damaging green policies Euro leaders have already rushed to enact. For Europe, these Paris talks are a way to erase a competitive disadvantage the Continent placed on itself.
Unsurprisingly, moreover, the only way to convince other nations to sign on to a treaty isn’t by appealing to green morality, but rather by putting up cold, hard cash (or “climate financing” as it’s come to be known). This financing comes in the form of the Global Climate Fund, established at Copenhagen’s failed 2009 summit with the hopes of funneling money from richer countries to help the developing world mitigate and adapt to climate change. Here, too, the news is grim: The developed world hasn’t funded this project, leading poorer countries to look on this new summit with mistrust. And make no mistake, if the money isn’t there, the developing world loses all impetus to enact growth-restricting green policies.
The U.S. Senate is the final nail in the Global Climate Treaty’s coffin. Secretary of State John Kerry explicitly said Paris wouldn’t produce a treaty last month because he knew President Obama lacked the necessary support in the Senate to ratify any formal deal. True to form, Senators have threatened to attach to an upcoming spending bill riders that would stop America from contributing to climate financing, and have promised not to ratify any Paris treaty.
So we know what Paris won’t produce, but what can negotiators now accomplish? The key point of “progress” this time around has been the introduction of Individually Determined National Contributions (INDCs), a cumbersome moniker for national pledges to reduce future carbon emissions. True, most UN members submitted these plans ahead of the conference, but as Bjorn Lomborg points out, the sum of these INDCs would reduce global temperatures by just 0.048°C (0.086°F) by the end of the century. And that’s assuming that countries follow through with their promises, which is a big jump, considering there aren’t any enforcement mechanisms on the table.
Thanks to Wired analysis, we know that the Paris conference will produce roughly 300,000 tons of CO2, and we can reasonably expect plenty of hot air over the next two weeks. But while delegates fruitlessly toil for a meaningless agreement, others on the outskirts of these talks are making concrete progress. Bill Gates has unveiled the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, which extracted promises from 20 governments to double research and development investment in the next five years.
Gates gets it: Empty promises can’t save us from the effects of climate change, and today’s crop of renewable energy technologies aren’t up to the task either. Every dollar spent on staging these pointless summits or propping up current-generation wind and solar power is a dollar that could have gone towards the research of a breakthrough that could actually make a difference.