Close to Home: The Paris climate agreement needs a cap

If the world responds with business as usual, the plans presented in Paris are predicted to lead to warming of 3.7 degree Celsius by 2100.|

Without a doubt, the Paris agreement is historic.

It provides some much-needed relief to the U.N. process and the leaders of the world who suffered a major setback after the Copenhagen breakdown in 2009. It lets a term-limited president of the United States claim to have set laudably ambitious goals, and it lets him enjoy his retirement, sipping margaritas on a beach somewhere while others try to implement actual actions to meet the goals.

It gives the protesters something to support (the 1.5 degree goal), and it gives the business community quite a bit of wiggle room (for example, nobody is in charge of enforcement, and there are no consequences for missing targets). The fossil fuel lobby seemed to have the least to show for itself. It looks like it will be out of business sometime in the second half of the 21st century. And, in the meantime, oil prices are very low, and (at least in the U.S.) coal companies are feeling the pinch.

Many environmental groups have issued statements of general support for the agreement. Others have been somewhat ambivalent because the only thing missing from the agreement is who, what and how. The Paris agreement’s vision of 100 percent renewable energy and complete phase-out of fossil fuels within just a few decades is inspiring, but inspiration alone will not reduce emissions.

If the world responds with business as usual, the plans presented in Paris are predicted to lead to warming of 3.7 degree Celsius by 2100. This translates into sea level rise of several meters (one scientist estimated 5 to 9 meters per degree), potential food crop failures around the world and a major refugee problem. Another possible response, previewed in Paris at various expos and side events, is business as usual but cloaked in green. Large companies and banks signed on to future commitments to fund renewables, while their current balance sheets overflowed with fossil-fuel assets (or, as we environmentalists call them, “liabilities” and “stranded assets”). If you squint one eye tight enough, you may be able to see a slight transition occurring, but it seems unlikely to result in an economic transformation that addresses global poverty and inequality. There was quite a bit of technological wishful thinking on display, even from well-known environmental groups. Rather than push for a “politically unfeasible” carbon price, they argued that renewables are falling in price so rapidly that a carbon price is unnecessary.

Then there was my group, a delegation from the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, with support from Sonoma County’s Center for Climate Protection, which called for a rising carbon price under a declining global carbon budget. A legally binding limit on fossil-fuel production would be enforced by a new international institution, a Global Climate Commons Trust, which would auction production permits to upstream fossil fuel companies and returns the revenues to people. No greenwashing. No wishful thinking. Just actual science, being implemented by signed agreements. But it won’t just happen on its own. A citizen’s movement needs to demand it. We are calling this movement CapGlobalCarbon.

To the extent that the Paris agreement empowers NGOs, activists, and others to investigate this pathway, then the Paris conference can be considered a success. To the extent that the agreement promotes the other approaches or provides cover for business as usual, the Paris agreement may be interpreted as an invitation for the people of the world to rise up and demand that the lofty promises of a peaceful, just, and climate-protected world be made a reality.

Mike Sandler, co-founder of the Center for Climate Protection Campaign in Santa Rosa and a former program manager at the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority, recently returned from the Paris climate talks. He now lives in the Washington, D.C., area with his family.

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