Hope and failure coexist in the Paris climate agreement. One may want to curse or cheer the deal, but it is history now, and we have to get on with it. The agreement provides an opportunity to assess our ecological progress and prepare to be effective in the future.

Dried Out Farmland in Inner Mongolia. 10 Jun, 2013  © Qiu Bo / Greenpeace

The journey to Paris

The road to a Paris climate agreement began two centuries ago in Paris, at the French Academy of Science, when Joseph Fourier researched ice age cycles and determined that atmospheric gases trap solar heat. A generation later, in 1896, Swedish chemist Svente Arrhenius calculated that doubling atmospheric CO2 would increase Earth's average temperature by 5-6°C.

Governments at the time showed no visible interest, as cheap energy from coal, oil, and gas fuelled the Industrial Revolution and accelerated population growth, consumption, and waste, especially carbon dioxide. By the 1950s, scientists understood complex climate feedbacks, including methane release and forest cover, and warned of a methane release from melting permafrost.

The emerging environmental movement caught on quickly. In 1964, Murray Bookchin, warned in Ecology and Revolutionary Thought, that "carbon dioxide … will lead to rising atmospheric temperatures … more destructive storm patterns, … melting of the polar ice caps… rising sea levels, and the inundation of vast land areas." A Science Advisory Committee report to US president Lyndon Johnston stated, "The melting of the Antarctic ice cap would raise sea level by 400 feet," and warned of "marked changes in climate, not controllable through local or national efforts."

In 1979, over a century after Fourier had identified the risk, the United Nations convened the world's first Climate Conference in Geneva. In that same year, British scientist James Lovelock sent the nascent Greenpeace Foundation a hand-drawn graph of atmospheric CO2 rising. We pinned the graph to the wall at our first office in Vancouver and opened a climate file.

In 1988, the hottest on record at that time, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned of a 2-5°C average temperature increase during the next century, and urged governments to reduce carbon emissions. The following year, the petroleum industry began funding the climate denial campaign to cast doubt on the previous 150 years of science. The fight was on.

Siberia speaks

The IPCC met in Kyoto in 1990, the year intended to serve as the baseline for future carbon emissions reductions, but that is not how things turned out. Two years after Kyoto, in Rio, the nations formally recognized the risk and agreed to a "framework" for a deal. That framework appeared a quarter-century ago. Compare the pace of climate action to the pace at which human enterprise built a nuclear bomb after discovering the science that made it possible.

In 1995, as the Antarctic ice shelves began breaking up, the UN sponsored the first Conference of the Parties (COP 1) in Berlin. Two years later, the parties agreed to a Kyoto Protocol for action, but the emission targets remained too weak to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gases. The US refused to ratify the deal, Canada withdrew, the UK and Australia missed their targets, and global carbon emissions continued to increase. Throughout the 1990s, nations signed about 15 international climate agreements every month, thousands of deals, none of which slowed total carbon emissions.

methane levels, graphThen, in 2008, the International Siberian Shelf Study recorded methane — which traps 70-times the heat of CO2 within a 20 year period — rising from the arctic shelf, as scientists and ecologists had warned, and which threatened runaway global heating. The study estimated some 1,400 billion tons (Gt) of carbon locked in Arctic permafrost methane, and that a "highly possible" sudden release of 50 Gt would increase atmospheric methane by a factor of twelve. The following year, Woods Hole scientists predicted warming of 5 to 7°C this century, at which point runaway heating would be well underway.

When scientists first understood global warming, in the 1880s, human industry emitted some 50 million tons of carbon annually. As delegates assembled in Paris, in December 2015, global carbon emissions had grown by 200-times and reached over 10 billion tons annually. Japan's Meteorological Agency recorded December temperatures at 1.4 C above 1890, reflecting a strong El Niño year and continued greenhouse gas accumulation. Methane from melting permafrost had pushed the atmospheric gas heat forcing to an equivalent of 485 parts per million (ppm) of CO2, compared to pre-industrial 280ppm. For the first time in recorded human history, the North Pole could be observed melting in mid-winter.


In Paris, after 36 years of climate meetings, world governments targeted a maximum warming to 2°C, and even mentioned an "effort" to limit warming to 1.5°C. Nations submitted voluntary pledges to contribute to this effort. Predictably, the governments involved, and many environmentalists, celebrated the Paris deal as an historical moment. Time will tell, but governments are in the business of being popular, and as serious ecologists, we have a responsibility to be realistic.

The Paris "deal" is not actually a deal, as it remains non-binding. Since the 1990 Kyoto climate meeting, global emissions have increased by 67 percent. Government climate promises have a poor historic track record.

Secondly, talk about a 1.5° or 2°C warming limit may be delusional. To remain below 2°C, humanity can emit no more than about 771 Gt of carbon (2,900 Gt of carbon-dioxide). We have already emitted about two-thirds of that, emissions are still growing at about 2% per year, and at this rate, we would reach the carbon limit around 2040. The 2°C warming may already be baked into the cake.

The Curuai lake is almost completely dry during one of the worst droughts ever recorded in the Amazon region. 27 Oct, 2005 © Greenpeace / Daniel Beltrá

If every nation signing the Paris agreement actually met its goal, we would still reach the limit around 2050, well on our way to 3°C or more. According to Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, at the University of Manchester, the combined pledges will result in a 4-6°C temperature increase, a 40-50% decline in agriculture, more droughts and violent storms, sea rise, and flooding. We already observe signs of potential runaway heating at 1°C, so at 2°C or more, we risk losing our ability to change the trend.

Furthermore, the pledges are not effective until 2020, so the nations are committing to five years of doing nothing. Steffen Kallbekken, Director of the Centre for International Climate and Energy Policy, explains, "by the time the pledges come into force in 2020, we will probably have used the entire carbon budget consistent with 1.5°C warming."

In the 1960s, when scientists warned political leaders, Earth's temperature was warming at about + 0.3°C/century. Today, fifty years later, Earth's temperature is warming at the rate of about +1.4°C/century. If this was our child, in bed with a fever, would we not feel the urgency and question our strategy?

Flooding In Prague. 4 Jun, 2013 © Jan Rovenský / Greenpeace


The greater challenge, of course, is that global warming is a symptom, just as a child's temperature is a symptom. We need to understand and treat the underlying cause.

Global warming, species decline, desertification, nutrient cycle disruption, and so forth are symptoms telling us humanity has overshot the capacity of Earth's ecosystem to provide resources and process our waste. To reverse any of these trends, human enterprise, particularly the rich industrial nations, have to stop growing and ultimately must contract both population and consumption trends.

Pope Francis emerged as the leader who most clearly understood the deeper dilemma: "Even to limit warming below 3°C," Francis said, "a radical transformation of capitalism will be necessary." No governments, and few environmental groups, appear willing to accept this conclusion. Capitalism demands growth, but when a species overshoots its habitat, nature will insist that it stop growing, and nature doesn't negotiate.

As Albert Bates wrote in Paris Scherzo, "The Paris climate conference is really an economic conference, perched on the brink of a market crash in the fossil fuel sector." Some observers credited the Paris agreement with signalling the "end of the fossil fuel era," but the fossil fuel industry was already in decline, chasing the dregs of expensive, low-net-energy tar sands crude oil and shale gas, and fighting trillion-dollar wars to hang onto the declining mideast oil fields. M. King Hubbert had predicted this as the end of the fossil fuel era in the 1950s. The fossil fuel era will end, and we will build more renewable energy systems, but the fossil fuel producers show no signs of slowing down production.

Coal Fired Power Plant in The Rhenish Lignite Mining Area. 26 Dec, 2014 © Bernd Lauter / Greenpeace

Most nations in Paris did not promise to reduce emissions at all, but rather promised to improve "emissions efficiency," which means emissions per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or economic activity. So, if a nation's economy is growing at 4% per year, and they reduce carbon emissions growth to 3% per year, they can claim to be improving "emissions efficiency," even though their carbon emissions would still double in about 23 years. Some nations measure emission targets against "business as usual," based on their own expected growth rate, and in both cases, emission can continue to rise.

Bolivia and Costa Rica, however, showed that they understand the deeper challenges. Bolivia pledged to end illegal deforestation by 2020 and to double their renewables to 80% of national supply by 2030. They formally rejected neoliberal capitalism, including carbon market schemes that help rich nations hog the carbon budget. Instead, they proposed a strict carbon budget consistent with the 2°C goal, with most of that budget available to the world's developing nations.

Costa Rica used a "business as usual" formula that equalled a real 25% reduction from 2012 emissions, and they expect to be carbon neutral by 2021, partially through reforestation. However, Bolivia and Costa Rica together comprise about 1.3% of global carbon emissions, so even if they reduced their emissions by half, global emissions would keep growing.

China, the emissions champion, producing about 24% of world carbon, promised to cut emissions versus GDP by 60% of 2005 levels. However, for two decades, China's GDP has doubled roughly every eight years, and both China and the International Monetary Fund project growth to continue. China's emissions could double by 2030, when they claim the emissions might level off. China makes no promise of reducing actual emissions.

The US, Europe, and their NATO allies Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, comprise another quarter of world emissions, and they've pledged to try to reduce emissions, albeit with plenty of loopholes and exclusions. The US pledged to reduce domestic emissions 26% versus 2005, within ten years, not including their military, aviation, and transport emissions. Canada promised a 30% reduction by 2030, but new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau returned home from Paris and began hedging on tar sands pipelines for the sake of the struggling Canadian economy. Australia pledged 26% emissions reduction by 2030, but the Australian Financial Review stated that coal exports would continue "rising quite significantly," undermining that pledge.

The EU pledged a 40% reduction in domestic emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, a more ambitious target. The EU has already reduced emissions by 20% since 1990, although this reduction is partially due to economic recession and it excludes military, deforestation, and land use changes. The EU provides a tenuously hopeful sign, but not nearly enough to avoid a 2°C warming.

The language of "domestic reductions" provides another loophole. Although the earlier Copenhagen draft included aviation and shipping emissions, equal to Britain and Germany combined, the Paris agreement exempts both and exempts military emissions. Global militarism remains the world's largest fossil fuel consumer, and maritime shipping is the 6th largest emitter. According to the Sail Transport Network, just 16 of the largest ships, from the world fleet of some 90,000 large cargo ships, emit as much pollutants as all the world's cars. They get a pass.

Bulk Carriers Moored off Hay Point at Great Barrier Reef. 13 Dec, 2013 © Dean Sewell / Greenpeace

Tech dreams

The Paris agreement attempts to cover up these failures by invoking future geo-engineering technologies, sometime after 2050, to pull carbon back from the atmosphere. Kevin Anderson calls this take-back scheme a "fantasy," and Canadian energy geologist David Hughes says, "The IPCC realizes it is politically incorrect to tell people the truth. The outrageous assumption of massive amounts of CCS [carbon capture and storage] is just a convenient technofix to balance the books in its scenarios, even though it is likely impossible."

Naomi Klein called the agreement "scientifically inadequate," noting that the deal, even if achieved, would lead to a 3-4°C warming. The New Internationalist calls the Paris agreement an "epic fail," and a "disaster" for world's most vulnerable people. The agreement only mentions indigenous groups in a comment about indigenous ecological knowledge, without any commitment to protect that knowledge by protecting those communities. The UK, Norway, US, and EU all objected to any binding indigenous recognition.

Earth's advocates have nothing to apologize for by addressing these troubling realities. Asking for better is not asking for perfection, and exposing the loopholes in the Paris deal is not "pessimism," but realism. For the environmental movement, the Paris experience simply sends us back to work. We know a better world is possible. A realistic path for getting there remains the challenge. Patting ourselves on the back may not help.

Rex Weyler is an author, journalist and co-founder of Greenpeace International.