Paris Agreement: Giving technology a chance

Paris’ climate conference has come to an end and the world is trying to make sense out of it. Some say it’s the greatest thing humanity could have hoped for, others claim it’s a sham. I personally side more with those who think that it is way less than what’s needed but also substantially more than what we hoped for.

First, the not-so-positive bits.

Calling the Paris Agreements binding is a slight over-simplification. It would be more accurate to call it a binding voluntary agreement.

The trick here is that the backbone of the agreement is made by the requirement of submitting what is called ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). These are plans that nations have to submit elaborating on their strategies to cut down emissions.

Make no mistake, countries are required to submit INDCs. They must even update them every five years in an increasingly ambitious manner.

That said, the content of said INDCs is completely voluntary. Moreover, even if a country does set an ambitious plan, the agreement does not have any consideration as to how to deter infractions.

Let’s not be pessimistic by thinking that a country may decide to completely falter on the agreement (although Canada showed that’s possible when it renounced the Kyoto Protocol). Let’s simply think that a country may not be able to fully deliver its INDCs. There would be next to nothing that could be done about this.

It’s like your mom telling you to do something that you promised that takes a lot of effort whilst at the same time telling you that there will be no punishment if you don’t do it in full. It seems natural to expect that some parties will at least under-perform.

As a consequence, the net benefit of the agreement is bound to be lower than what is being promised, which is already accepted as insufficient even by the agreement.

Now, the good bits

The flip side of an agreement where countries may deliver less than promised is that perhaps, and only perhaps, other countries can over-perform. It sounds slightly naive to think of a country over-performing in environmental aspects but it is plausible. Technological progress can help some countries to go above and beyond their promises.

Subsequently, one can perhaps think that technological transfers can level the field and enable generalized improvements beyond what is currently being promised.

For this to happen however, the world does need a technological leap.

This is in fact the greatest bit of the Paris Agreement. It signals a vantage point in which climate politics are likely to be driven even more greatly by competition and technology. This is because, once again, each country decides how to reach its INDCs. This carries on to the implementation, financing and collaboration needed to reach said INDCs.

Namely, there should be finance and collaboration for all solutions that show themselves as effective paths to carbon emission reductions.

In other words, a technology that does not pollute (A) is arguably as good for the purposes of satisfying the agreement as a technology that offsets its emissions (B). That is, of course, assuming not all cars go for A or B, as the agreement calls for a balanced approach.

This means that the Paris Agreement can act as a sort of checks and balances against the pervasive tendency to pick winners and over-rely on single technologies. At least at a global level.

Is that really a good thing?

Wait a second! Before Paris a lot of people were speaking about going 100% renewables (in fact also throughout the conference). But the Paris Agreement can theoretically improve the case for carbon capture and storage (CCS), which some consider to further the role of fossil fuels.

There’s little point in entering a discussion specifically about CCS in this article. However, it does need to be noted that Paris wasn’t meant to find a way out of fossil fuels per se. Such an ambitious transition requires a lot more than just an agreement. It requires change at virtually every level of society. The type of change that does not happen by accident. The type of change that needs guidance.

The value added by the Paris Agreement is that it can serve as such guidance. Assuming that we are willing to accept the message sent by it. And that message is: expect open (and probably brutal) competition between alternative pathways to emissions reductions.

Can opening this bring along a better result than mandatory commitments would have? Hard to tell. In lieu of binding targets, in lieu of the ability to reach said binding targets, Paris at least gives us a chance. Or rather, it gives a chance to competition and technology. Let’s not waste that chance!