The Paris Agreement is a fitting testament to how years of diligent and meticulous science has ultimately weathered relentless and well-funded attempts to undermine its legitimacy. Building on this science base and under the inspiring auspices of the French people, the global community has come together as never before to tackle what is arguably the first truly globalised and self-induced challenge to humanity.
However, whilst the 2°C and 1.5°C aspirations of the Paris Agreement are to be wholeheartedly welcomed, the thirty-one page edifice is premised on future technologies removing huge quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere many decades from today. If such highly speculative ‘negative emission technologies’ prove to be unsuccessful then the 1.5°C target is simply not achievable. Moreover, there is only a slim chance of maintaining the global temperature rise to below 2°C.
In the absence of negative emissions, staying below the 2°C commitment demands levels of reductions in emissions far beyond anything discussed during the Paris negotiations. If we are serious about climate change, the 10% of the global population responsible for 50% of total emissions need to make deep and immediate cuts in their use of energy – and hence their carbon emissions. In addition, the huge and growing emissions from aviation and shipping, currently exempt from the Paris negotiations, need to be included for there to be any meaningful control over climate change in line with 2°C.
The inclusion of a 40Gt figure for 2030 as being in accordance with the 2°C commitment, underscores the techno-utopian framing of the Paris Agreement. It is hard to underplay the fundamental reliance on the massive uptake of untried negative emission technologies to maintain the legitimacy of the Agreement. However and despite this reliance, there is no direct reference to such technologies throughout the thirty-one-page document.
If the global community is to maintain emissions with the 2°C carbon budget, there needs to be much greater recognition of the profound and immediate challenges we face. The scale of emission reductions will not be delivered through eloquent speeches, win-win rhetoric and green-growth spin. Zero carbon energy technologies are a prerequisite of a 2°C future – but they are far from sufficient. They will only deliver the necessary levels of mitigation if they are accompanied by fundamental changes to the political and economic framing of contemporary society. This is a mitigation challenge far beyond anything discussed in Paris – yet without it our well-intended aspirations will all too soon wither and die on the vine. We owe our children, our planet and ourselves more than that. So let Paris be the catalyst for a new paradigm – one in which we deliver a sustainable, equitable and prosperous future for all.