Though it may be a landmark deal that for the first time binds together developed and developing economies in the fight against global warming, the Paris agreement adopted last weekend at a United Nations conference on climate change in no way ensures that the world will avert the catastrophic consequences of man-made rises in global temperature. Rather, it simply points to the course of action that the countries must take in the coming decades. Whether it will prove to be the historic agreement that it’s touted to be will depend on whether the countries not only honor what they have promised but can go much further to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases.
Japan, the world’s fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, has set a goal of reducing emissions by 26 percent from 2013 levels by 2030, and pledged to increase financial aid to help developing nations reduce their own emissions and adapt to the impact of climate change to ¥1.3 trillion a year by 2020. It’s been made clear that such targets — along with the plans submitted by other governments ahead of the Paris conference — are not enough to tame the rise in global average temperature within 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, as called for in the agreement.
The Kyoto Protocol — adopted at the 1997 U.N. conference held in Japan — imposed the duty to cut emissions of greenhouse gases solely on advanced economies. When the U.N. treaty on climate change was introduced in 1992, industrialized nations were by far the world’s primary emitters. Today, China and India, which had no obligation under the Kyoto Protocol to cut their emissions, and the United States, which signed but later pulled out of the 1997 pact, together account for roughly half of the total global emissions.
Talks for establishing a post-Kyoto Protocol framework were plagued for years by sharp divisions between developing countries, which held the advanced economies chiefly responsible for global warming, and industrialized nations, which contended that emerging powers such as China with their growing share of the global economy as well as emissions should also bear the obligation to fight climate change. In that respect, it was significant that representatives from 195 countries — including the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest emitters — finally adopted the accord at the COP21 conference after eight years of negotiations. While the agreement says developed nations should take the lead in the efforts to cut the emissions, developing countries were also “encouraged” to move in the future toward reductions.
The accord’s shortcomings are clear — an outcome of prioritizing an agreement over breakdown of the talks. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, which placed binding targets on advanced economies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the plans submitted by governments that adopted the Paris agreement are all voluntary, and there is no single common timetable for achieving the reductions. Each of the countries are under no obligation to achieve their targets, although the pact obliges the governments to take domestic measures to meet their goals.
Still, the participants agreed on a review mechanism that calls on the governments to update their emissions reduction targets every five years and collectively evaluate their progress toward the goals under the agreement. In other words, the countries are all aware that their current plans are insufficient to avert catastrophic consequences of climate change to human societies and the global ecosystem.
The agreement says the countries aim to hold the increase in global average temperature to less than 2 degrees above pre-Industrial Revolution levels and pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees. However, the plans submitted by nearly 190 countries ahead of the Paris conference are estimated to keep the rise in global temperature to 2.7 degrees at best.
The pact also calls on the countries to reduce emissions as quickly as possible to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks” such as forests that absorb greenhouse gases — meaning to cut the emissions effectively to zero — in the second half of this century. This is obviously not going to be achieved if the conventional model of economic growth that relies heavily on fossil fuels as key energy sources is to be continued.
After the Paris deal was hammered out, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan will achieve its emissions reduction target “without sacrificing economic growth.” The government set a “pragmatic” target of reducing its 2030 emissions by 26 percent from the 2013 levels based on the trajectory of its current policy measures. The key message of Paris is that such efforts will not be enough. Business as usual will not suffice to combat global warming. The government, along with businesses and people at large will need to pursue and embrace a radical change in the nation’s socioeconomic system for Japan to make substantial contributions to taming climate change. The agreement at the Paris conference should serve as the first step to kick-start such a process.