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Paris climate agreement is diplomatic fudge

Under pressure from the people of the planet, including some millions whose homes will disappear in short order if action is not taken, the Paris climate talks ended with an agreement claiming a global commitment to a 1.5˚C temperature rise.

A failure on the scale of Copenhagen was unthinkable for politicians already struggling to maintain any legitimacy with their electors. They have said they will decarbonise the economy by 2050. However, whilst this agreement is legally binding as a whole, the specific elements of it are not – a diplomatic fudge of a typically French type, in fact.

Political leaders know they must act – but remain unable to do what is required. And that’s because action – real action – to reduce emissions would require a break from capitalism, the unsustainable, growth-based, profit-driven system that has brought us to this disaster.

Looking into the actual commitments on emissions made by the treaty countries – none of them legally-binding it should be added – we are still facing a rise of between 2.5 and 3˚C in global temperatures.

The 1.5˚C figure has been pulled, like a rabbit out of a hat, to show that governments take this issue seriously. EU climate boss Miguel Arias Cañete admits he has no idea such a figure will be achieved. There is simply the figure, and a commitment to come together again in 2018 to check progress and seek advice on doing more.

Because of the reckless emissions of recent decades, not just decarbonisation, but negative carbon – that is more carbon extracted than emitted – would be needed. In the agreement itself, there are two main themes for achieving decarbonisation – one is unproved geo-engineering, the other is a restart of the already disastrous market in carbon.
In terms of geo-engineering, carbon capture and storage, a high risk unproven technology, is the most likely candidate. The fond hope is that you can extract CO2 from coal-fired power stations and bury it in underground fissures – say former coal, oil or gas seams or natural formations. Who knows if it will stay there, or leak out, further acidifying the oceans on its way to the upper atmosphere?

The Chinese government finds CCS attractive though, because whilst China has burned less coal over the period since 2010, it is still building massive new coal-powered capacity – 39 gigawatts in 2014 alone, as this Greenpeace report explains.

Much of the new capacity is unused and uneconomic; they have to find a way to get some return on this insane level of investment, and becoming a CCS pioneer is one possible route.

Then we have counsel of despair number 2, restarting the failed carbon trading model. In a response to Paris, Professor Steffen Bohm explains that whilst the term itself does not appear, there are plenty of weasel words that amount to the same thing.

Bolivia and Venezuela were strongly against its inclusion; others including Brazil, the UK, New Zealand, the World Bank, the IMF and business groups were strongly in favour.

Professor Bohm points to Article 6 which refers to “voluntary co-operation” between countries in the implementation of their targets “to allow for higher ambition in their mitigation and adaptation actions” and the document refers to “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes”.

As Professor Bohm concludes:

Carbon markets basically function as a delaying tactic. It’s been that way ever since their first inclusion in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The EU-ETS for instance, the first, biggest and most significant of all trading schemes, simply hasn’t delivered. It took the best part of ten years for it to start after Kyoto, and once in action it was riddled by fraud, corruption, over-allocation of permits and perverse incentives for carbon offsetting – all contributing to the fact that the price for carbon is so low that nobody cares.

Offsetting projects in developing countries have been responsible for the expansion of polluting industries and land grabs among other unintentional yet real negative consequences. We’ll see more of this once forest-based offsets are included. Many bilateral forest and UN-REDD projects have been running for years, while critics say they have led to fraud, support of monocultures, forest enclosures, and forced displacements and evictions of indigenous people from their land in countries such as Kenya, Congo, Papua New Guinea or Brazil.

It is in the development of further inappropriate and unplanned reforestation schemes that geo-engineering and carbon trading will come together in a deadly embrace.

As far as the UK is concerned, we will not even achieve the current targets, and the government’s policies are heading in quite the other direction, as this Greenpeace news report explains.

Subsidies and requirements placed on the energy industry to develop new wind and wave capacity have been scrapped. A plan to investigate CCS has been abandoned. The feed-in tariff for domestic solar will be cut by 87%. The government has banned local energy co-operatives, making community-based initiatives uneconomic. It has cut funding for energy-saving insulation schemes. And finally it has toughened up planning laws to make it harder to build wind farms, whilst ensuring local authorities can’t prevent fracking.

In other words, for the UK government, decarbonisation = more fracked gas and nuclear, with renewables not a priority. The exact opposite is required, and a shift in priorities from a profit-driven energy market to ones that are community-led, democratically-decided, not-for-profit and based on renewables.

What this People’s Plan for Our Energy Future could look like will be the topic for Assemblies for Democracy Scotland, when it next meets on February 6 in Falkirk. Democracy activists, anti-fracking/UCG groups, community-based renewable energy groups and planning and development experts will come together to talk about how to empower communities and achieve real democracy.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
15 December 2015

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