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COP21: Greenhouse Gas?

COP21: Greenhouse Gas?

That will be the legacy of Paris. It was a business convention not a climate convention.


PARIS – The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change held its twenty-first annual meeting on climate change from Nov. 30-Dec. 11 north of Paris in Le Bourget, France. The meeting was highly anticipated as perhaps the first real opportunity for a binding global limit on greenhouse gas emissions since the 1997 meetings in Kyoto, Japan.

The proposed solution to climate change in Kyoto relied largely on the market to reduce emissions. Cap and trade, as it became known, permits companies to buy and sell the right to pollute. If one firm reduces its emissions below a specific cap, it can sell the difference between what it emits and what it’s allowed to emit. Signatories believed that the Kyoto protocols provided a market incentive to reduce emissions and penalized those who could not.

It hasn’t worked. Climate scientists consider any carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere above 350 parts per million dangerous. Since Kyoto and cap and trade, levels have spiked from around 360 parts per million to over 400 ppm today.

So I went to Paris as an official observer of the talks to find out what might be different about Paris than every other negotiation.

As I walked into the official observers’ area of the climate conference center on my first day there, I nearly crashed into Bill Gates as he stood on a plywood platform placed squarely in the middle of the conference center. He was staring into a camera talking to the voice of CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

While more than 140 elected leaders from all over the world gave stirring speeches marking the start of COP21 in a cavernous airplane hangar nearby, Gates was telling Amanpour that climate change was a good business opportunity. He planned to recruit other billionaires, he said, in order to create a massive climate fund that would bankroll the climate mitigation schemes he anticipated the talks would produce.

I walked over to the “We Mean Business” kiosk at the center of conference facility to talk to Dirk Forrester, the executive director of the International Emissions Trading Association, a trade group that represents emissions trading firms and investors. I told him I’d just seen Bill Gates. “The thing that CEOs value get paid attention to,” he said.

Later, at a news conference of business leaders, one corporate consultant complained that the agreement lacked the kind of market language that once dominated agreements coming out of the United Nations. But at a meeting later in the day on carbon trading, Andrei Marcu, a business consultant from the Center for European Policy Studies, explained that negotiators have learned they need to “hide market language in the agreement.” What was “carbon credits” is now “mitigation outcome.” Every economist and industry representative I talked to mentioned this shift in language. Paris was different only in how it talked about the market.

Christina Hood, a climate policy consultant with the International Energy Agency, told a room full of climate finance consultants, “we can’t use words anymore like ‘credits,’ or ‘markets,’ or ‘accounting. All are out in Paris.” Instead the agreement uses euphemisms such as “international credited mitigation outcome mechanism.” She explained, “That’s how we refer to markets in Paris.”

The predictions of economists and business leaders during the first week were reflected in the agreement hammered out during the second. The draft agreement at the time this paper went to press relies entirely on a market-based approach to climate mitigation. Through seemingly innocuous phrases like “regional economic integration” and “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes,” the agreement expands the failed policies of Kyoto.

Ironically, the only mention of “non market mechanisms,” an approach one economist called “the Bolivian view of the world” comes in “Article 3 ter” of the agreement, which is the section that actually creates the standards for a global trade in carbon credits.

I met more economists and business consultants than climate scientists. As Lars Zetterberg, the director for business development for the Swedish Environmental Research Institute, explained to me, they were in Paris because “the agreement will finally establish the conditions for an international market in carbon to emerge.”

That will be the legacy of Paris. It was a business convention not a climate convention.

David Correia is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico.

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  • Michael Young
    December 22, 2015, 1:54 pm

    I paid close attention to COP-21, especially to the summary remarks that came both from the attendees and the media, and I found most of it misleading.

    Your article is the best summary I’ve read, and thank you. Honestly insightful, and plainly truthful.

    Kevin Anderson’s remarks were very good as well.

    I work in the general field of climate effects, and I believe it’s time to concentrate on what we can do to help the survivors live and understand the best they can. It will be bad, and we have some resources and knowledge we can draw from now that might mitigate it. I’d like to see more focus on that; I don’t believe we can reverse our cultural imperatives, and if we could, the momentum the system already has is overwhelming. Probably if we face that squarely, we might become genuinely grateful for things we come up with to make it survivable.

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

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