World leaders can spin this however they like, but the real meaning of the Paris agreement is that the world is as far from adopting the kind of climate strategies greens want as ever.
Nobody is serious about this “agreement,” but the diplomats have agreed that a hollow facade of an agreement is preferable to the PR disaster that failure would have been. There will no doubt be many follow-ups, jet-setting conferences in many more attractive destinations, and climate diplomacy will continue to produce more greenhouse gasses than climate agreements block.
The agreement is a far cry from the binding international treaty eco-activists envisioned in the run-up to the summit. Instead, it is the codification of national pledges called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) made by UN members.
Overall what came out of Paris was the diplomatic equivalent of a New Year’s resolution to go on a strict weight loss regime involving no more than six chocolate eclairs between meals.
Much as the last great Malthusian panics (the population bomb and peak oil) quietly fizzled out, the panicky, Chicken Little aspects of the green movement are likely to fade over time.
The Chinese are rich enough now to care about how filthy their air is; that will drive change more than anything that happens in Paris. Fracking has made natural gas cheaper and more reliable than coal in the United States. Online shopping is keeping people home from the malls, and more and more workers are working remotely. Down the road, more changes will come as the world shifts from a manufacturing economy based on metal bashing to an information and service economy. Technological change is also coming: self-driving cars, renewable energy that can actually compete with fossil fuels without generous government subsidies, genetically modified plants that don’t need fertilizer or pesticide, safe nuclear power. Always and everywhere, capitalism is pushing companies to produce more goods using fewer raw materials and energy, and generating less waste.
It’s also worth noting that the annual $100 billion climate fund, established with great fanfare in 2009’s failed Copenhagen summit as a way for the developed world to help the developing world cope with the effects of climate change, wasn’t exactly enshrined in “legally binding” language. From the relevant section (Article 9, paragraph 3):
As part of a global effort, developed country Parties should continue to take the lead in mobilizing climate finance from a wide variety of sources, instruments and channels, noting the significant role of public funds, through a variety of actions, including supporting country-driven strategies, and taking into account the needs and priorities of developing country Parties. Such mobilization of climate finance should represent a progression beyond previous efforts.
Notice the distinct lack of specific numbers there, and the aspirational tone. The world’s advanced countries, so theoretically keen to address the evils of climate change, have refused to commit themselves to handing over the cash. This won’t just disappoint developing countries looking for compensation for growth-restrictive eco-friendly policies; it’s a bitter blow to the “greentrepreneurs” whose long-term goal remains to use climate politics to mandate huge subsidies for inefficient green tech (like ethanol). Getting taxpayers in the developed world to subsidize inefficient green energy generation in the developing world remains the key goal of many of the investors and money people funding a lot of the climate movement. In the run-up to this summit, we saw the UN rush its first eight climate fund projects through an expedited review process in an attempt to allay the developing world’s concerns. In reality, that sort of shoddy green-lighting only exacerbated the developed world’s concerns over the fund, and now the world’s rich countries have once again backed away from it, perhaps wisely so.