The cruel optimism of Paris

First Posted Monday, December 21, 2015 in the Chronicle Journal
By Jason MacLean

Cultural critic Lauren Berlant defines cruel optimism as the desire for something that’s an obstacle to our flourishing. We fantasize about a “good life” — of enduring reciprocity in romantic couples, organizations, political systems — despite the evidence of their instability and diminishing returns.
The optimism about the recent Paris climate agreement is a cruel case in point.
According to the world’s leading science journal Nature, “the Paris agreement represents a bet on technological innovation and human ingenuity.”
Why? Because the agreement is a legal and scientific failure.

First, the law. The final draft of the agreement contained a provision mandating developed countries like the U.S., Canada and the E.U. to reduce GHG emissions, the very raison d’être of the agreement.
In article 4.4 on page 21 of the 31-page agreement, U.S. government lawyers discovered the word “shall” — “Developed country Parties shall continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets.”
The very next line read — and still reads — as follows: “Developing countries should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts, and are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in light of different national circumstances.”
Shall is legally mandatory language. If you shall do something you must do it. Should, on the other hand, is discretionary. If you should do something but you don’t, no biggie.
C’est pas possible! Developed countries, which have historically emitted the vast majority of GHG, could not be mandated to reduce their emissions while up-and-comers like China and India are merely encouraged to do so.
Enter French diplomacy: It was agreed that the negotiating team had made a “typographical error.” Shall was replaced by should, and the champagne was popped.
The Democratic Republic of Congo’s lead envoy took a different view of the “gaffe”: “It’s a typo we will refer to many times because frankly speaking, nobody’s buying that.”
Bottom line: the commitments by developed and developing countries alike to reduce GHG emissions are voluntary. The heart of the agreement is aspirational, not legally binding.
OK, but what about those aspirations? They’re scientifically ambitious, right? Canada was part of the “ambition coalition” to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures.
The 1.5 degrees aspiration is just that, an aspiration; the agreement’s official target is to keep warming below 2 degrees above the pre-industrial average.
Worse still, it’s a fantasy. We’re already 1 degree warmer than pre-industrial times.
If you add up the 186 “intended nationally determined contributions” made by the parties to the Paris agreement, we’re on track for warming of 3 to 4 degrees above pre-industrial times.
To limit warming to another half-degree requires deep and immediate decarbonization.
But that’s not going to happen.
Consider: The U.S. is poised to lift a 40-year-ban on the export of crude oil in response to industry lobbying, increasing oil production and GHG emissions. Alberta’s new climate plan expects emissions from the oil sands to increase by 43 per cent by 2020, when the Paris agreement takes effect. Finally, before the ink on the Paris agreement was even dry, the U.K. announced sweeping (65 per cent) cuts to its renewable energy subsidies. The U.K. has not announced, however, any intentions to cut the £27 billion in the annual subsidies it provides to the fossil fuels industry. In fact, the U.K. is increasing those subsidies.
Making matters worse, the Paris agreement failed to establish a global price on carbon that would internalize its negative externalities and send a clear market signal to the energy industry.
Which brings us to the cruel optimism of the Paris agreement’s bet on technology.
Absent a legally binding agreement and the political will to immediately transition away from fossil fuels, we must hope for new technologies capable of removing GHGs from the atmosphere, or “negative emission technologies” (NETs).
Potential NETs include carbon capture and sequestration (CCS, which the U.K. recently defunded, calling it “too expensive”), direct air capture of carbon, enhanced weathering of minerals, afforestation and reforestation, fixing atmospheric carbon in biomass and soils, biologically and/or chemically altering the ocean, storing carbon in soils and others.
Sounds optimistic, right? Wrong.
In a recently published review of NETs in the journal Nature Climate Change, the authors warn that “a failure of NETs to deliver expected mitigation in the future, due to any combination of biophysical and economic limits examined here, leaves us with no ‘plan B’.”
“As this study shows, there is no NET (or combination of NETs) currently available that could be implemented to meet the (under) 2 degrees Celsius target without significant impact on either land, energy, water, nutrient, albedo or cost, and so ‘Plan A’ must be to immediately and aggressively reduce GHG emissions.”
That’s just the cruel truth.

Jason MacLean teaches environmental law at Lakehead University