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Don't let COP21 Become Symbolic Politics

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 22 December 2015

This blog COP21 was written with my most excellent colleague and global climate modeller Ben Houlton.  We tried to get it into some newspaper editorials, but we were somewhat late off the mark in the policy wonk COP21 feeding frenzy.  I happen to know the editor of the CEPB blog (funny thing that), so here you go.

On December 12, the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris produced an ambitious agreement that observers are hailing as a landmark in the fight against climate change. For the first time, large developing countries like China and India have pledged to reduce their emissions and each of the final 186 signatories submitted strategies to reduce their emissions. Developed countries agreed to help developing countries pay for adaptation and transitions to cleaner energy systems.  COP21 represents an unprecedented level of global effort. 

But there is a major risk that COP21 will become symbolic politics, where a policy victory placates the demand for change by offering a solution that has no real chance of success. We must resist the tendency of human beings and organizations to relax in response to symbolic victories.  

Climate model projections suggest that the current plans in COP21 will result in 3.5 degrees C warming by 2100, with a range between 2 degrees C and 4.6 degrees C.  This level of warming poses major threats to the planet, economy and human health. Many of the most severe impacts of climate change are expected to occur at 2 degrees of warming, including rapid sea level rise, biodiversity declines, and reduced food security.

The COP21 proposal to achieve carbon neutrality is overly optimistic. It relies on forest carbon sinks canceling out carbon emissions to the atmosphere by 2050. While this could encourage forest protection and conservation in developing countries, relying on forest carbon storage is risky. Fires are an inevitable part of natural ecosystems and climate change is already increasing fire size and frequency, especially in drought stricken regions like California. Our global models (namely, Ben Houlton's work) also show that soil nutrient scarcities will limit the amount of carbon that trees can absorb from the atmosphere.

On the political side, COP21 does not require ratification by individual countries. The commitments are voluntary, and achieving the 2 degrees C goal requires future adjustments. Given the political costs of reaching the current agreement, we question the global capacity to make future changes. There are no credible enforcement mechanisms that can truly deter individual countries from failing to live up to their commitments in the face of domestic constraints. For example, Republican politicians in the United States are already developing strategies to stall domestic policy changes needed to implement the agreement. Many developing countries are likely to balk in the face of economic costs of slowing down energy development, or when the expected international investments are slow to appear. 

Given risks of COP21 becoming symbolic politics, it is essential to maintain a high level of attention to global climate change issues. Now is not the time to relax. Rather, COP21 has pointed the world in a new direction and we must put the pedal to the metal—hopefully with more climate friendly vehicles.