WASHINGTON, Dec. 14, 2015 — The Paris Agreement is sure to provoke criticism from environmentalists and industrialists who feel slighted by the outcome of the just concluded 2015 UN Climate Conference. But the deal does appear to be a balanced compromise.
Unfortunately, the conference was designed as a diplomatic forum, not a science and technology forum. For that reason, the resulting agreement is little more than a political solution to a technology and economic problem.
For those who see this agreement as a successful conclusion to a global effort to tackle climate change, the outcome will be disappointing on two levels:
- First, it will not guarantee emissions cuts, as only dramatic shifts in industrial technologies and the global economy can do that.
- Second, it will reaffirm growing perceptions that diplomatic and political efforts cannot solve problems, which will make it even more difficult for public officials to foster climate change solutions.
Those who welcome the passage of this superficial Paris Agreement are essentially cheering empty campaign promises made by national leaders in a global race for the approval of global citizens. Current global leaders have, however, forgotten that their own citizens are the ones who will determine whether their countries ultimately fulfill the promises made in Paris.
Where the Chinese leadership is willing to address the causes of climate change in hopes of diverting the long-term consequences of climate change from China, political leaders in the United States, India, and Brazil lack the consensus to adopt voluntary emissions controls, especially if doing so hurts their economies.
As the only government of the world’s top five polluters willing and able to aggressively reduce emissions, China is motivated by the civil unrest and instability it will face when climate change undermines its ability to provide for the basic needs of its citizens. Should climate change agreements cost Chinese workers their jobs, thus inviting civil unrest and instability, the Chinese leadership will quickly reverse its commitment to avoid unrest.
The failure of others to follow through with commitments — a strong possibility, given that world leaders have excluded their citizens from the solution-making process — will also pressure China to renege on its commitments.
There are a lot of people who want to protect the environment and eliminate pollution, including this writer. But derailing the economies of the world to accomplish this makes them unwilling to accept current policy options.
That said, the effects of climate change will disproportionately cost geographically vulnerable, poorer, and more densely populated nations the most, whereas preventing climate change will disproportionately cost wealthy nations more under the current approach to reducing greenhouse gases.
Not only will wealthier nations have to commit to larger reductions than poorer and less developed nations. They will also be required to compensate underdeveloped countries, so they can afford to address the ill effects of climate change. Clearly, this is an example of governments trying to fight economic realities.
In other words, there are no economic incentives for nations to reduce their pollution and even less for them to subsidize poorer countries. What this means is that this political solution for climate change cannot be successfully implemented and will, ultimately, fail.
Even if the tax dollars of those living in developed-nations are not siphoned off by corrupt and incompetent leaders within emerging market countries, recipient nations will likely be unable to use funds to compensate for climate change as money alone does not solve problems.
At best, recipients of climate change funds will use what money they get to help develop their economies. But this may simply result in the creation of a successor generation of greenhouse gas generators.
More likely, governments of impoverished nations would use an inflow of outside cash to provide their citizens with basic necessities of life, such as famine aid. Unfortunately, this will only subsidize the existing and increased needs of the impoverished, while failing to solve the underlying economic problems. Subsidizing governments of underdeveloped nations may even perpetuate poverty by denying individuals and small startups the cost-cutting measure that is polluting.
The truth is that underdeveloped nations have an interest in a climate change pact, because climate change will cost them while attempting to address climate change will financially benefit them.
Furthermore, climate change subsidies to underdeveloped countries, which should be restricted to efforts to address climate change, would turn out to be a huge boon for transnational corporations in need of buyers for the “green technology” they develop.
In essence, this would allow big businesses to funnel taxpayer dollars of developed nations through underdeveloped nations back into their own pockets, circumventing the needs of the impoverished and creating fresh opportunities for waste, fraud, and abuse.
The alternative path is to foster efforts to reduce pollution at a profit instead of at a cost. Instead of looking at efforts to address global warming and climate change as a political commitment to the environment, global leaders should treat climate change summits as economic forums.
A large part of the problem with the political approach to climate change is that world leaders see the threat of climate change in terms of geopolitical interests. Pollution is a shared global economic interest. When it costs less to pollute, industries will pollute. When it costs more to pollute, industries will try to pollute less in order to save or earn more money from the waste they produce.
Indeed, this is why the regulatory approach to pollution is to fine violators, thus raising the cost of pollution. In a globalized economy, especially with the forced push to embrace globalized free trade, regulations and taxes only pressure businesses to move where the costs of polluting are less. Current climate change efforts fail to address this fundamental issue. Ultimately, cultivating technologies that turn the costs of pollution reduction into benefits is the only way to economically address climate change.
When President Obama introduced Jack Ma of Chinese Alibaba to an Philippine inventor present at the conference, that signaled, perhaps unintentionally, what the Paris conference should have been focusing on. The investor was seeking private investment in his saltwater-powered light bulb, precisely the sort of innovation that climate change conferences should focus on.
Instead of discussing diplomatic commitments and punitive measures countries can impose on domestic businesses and industries, world leaders should be exploring ways to help cultivate new technologies that can actually reduce pollution, propagate clean energy and transform pollution and waste into profitable industries.