3 Myths About The Paris Climate Agreement, Refuted

CREDIT: AP Photo/Andy Wong

U.S. climate change envoy Todd Stern, right, looks at his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua speak during a press briefing of a joint statement on a climate change meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing Friday, May 31, 2013.

On Tuesday afternoon, a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee questioned Todd Stern, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, in a hearing on the forthcoming Paris climate agreement.

Senator Barrasso (R-WY) used the opportunity to make a number of familiar objections to the agreement. He claimed, for example, that the agreement “won’t achieve the environmental gains that have been promised.” He further claimed that the United States is reducing greenhouse gas emissions while fast-developing economies such as China “are getting a pass on having to take any shared economic pain.” He also claimed that the administration is acting to circumvent Congress and that the agreement must be submitted to the Senate for formal consent.

Stern refuted each of these objections. The reality, he explained, is that the agreement has the potential to be successful in addressing carbon pollution. It also will elicit serious climate action from all countries, including fast-developing economies, and will not penalize the U.S. economy. Further, it is not the case that the administration is seeking to illicitly bypass Congress.

Here are the three myths about the Paris climate agreement, refuted:

‘Paris is bound to fail’

One takeaway from the hearing was that it is a mistake to claim that the Paris agreement is bound to fail. The agreement can actually prove successful in limiting carbon pollution.

A key aspect of the Paris outcome will be a set of nationally determined pledges from all parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, to limit carbon pollution. Approximately 150 countries have already submitted pledges to the UNFCCC with target dates of 2025 or 2030.

Pledges submitted to date now cover approximately 90 percent of world emissions and have lowered projected warming to 2.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100, according to an analysis from Climate Action Tracker cited by Stern. By contrast, currently implemented policies result in projected warming of 3.6 degrees C.

This decrease in projected warming is both remarkable and insufficient. The internationally recognized threshold for avoiding the most dangerous effects of climate change is an increase of 2 degrees C.

The Paris agreement, however, can nevertheless prove effective in protecting current and future generations. This is because the agreement will produce a lasting framework, in which the parties improve their pledges over cycles and review progress. “We need successive periods to ratchet up ambition,” Stern said. “We would like to see these every five years.”

‘The United States should not act because the rest of the world will not act’

Another takeaway from the hearing was that it is a fallacy to maintain that the United States should not transition to a clean energy economy because the rest of the world will not act.

In the run-up to Paris, many developing countries are making serious commitments to limit carbon pollution. Approximately two-thirds of the post-2020 climate goals submitted to the UNFCCC to date have been from developing countries. Brazil, for example, pledged to reduce emissions 37 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. South Africa pledged to peak emissions by 2025. Mexico pledged to peak emissions by 2026. China pledged to peak emissions around 2030. India pledged to increase non-fossil energy to account for 40 percent of electric power capacity by 2030.

These are not hollow pledges. As Stern indicated in the hearing, China’s pledge to increase renewable energy to account for 20 percent of energy consumption by 2030 will necessitate a deployment of clean energy electricity capacity that rivals the total electricity capacity of the United States.

In another notable shift, developing countries are increasingly contributing to international climate finance. In September, China announced that it would channel more than $3 billion in climate finance through the China South-South Cooperation Fund on Climate Change. In addition, countries such as Mexico, Peru, and Colombia have joined traditional donors such as the United States, European Union, and Japan in support of the Green Climate Fund.

The Paris agreement will cement a new geopolitics of climate action. It will expect all parties to the UNFCCC to submit emissions reduction pledges, make them more ambitious over time, and report on progress. The Paris agreement therefore stands in marked contrast to the Kyoto Protocol — in which the United States did not participate — which sought emissions reductions only from developed countries. “This is a completely different ball game,” said Stern, calling the Paris agreement “the not-Kyoto.”

Further, it is not the case that the U.S. or any parties to the UNFCCC are trading economic prosperity for emissions reductions. There has been a recent wave of business support for a strong multilateral agreement, through developments such as the October 16 declaration of oil and gas CEOs and the October 18 pledge of 81 large U.S. companies. “Business leaders live in a fact-based world,” Stern said. He noted that support for climate action is not only on the right side of history but also on “the right side of the balance sheet.”

‘The Senate has to approve any agreement that comes out of Paris’

In the hearing, Barrasso claimed that the agreement must be sent to the Senate for formal consent. He further charged that “whatever deal is reached in backrooms of the Paris climate change conference, it has been telegraphed by this Administration that the deal will be a calculated end-run around Congress.”

This narrative is misguided; there is no effort to pursue U.S. participation in the agreement illicitly. Whether the Paris climate agreement will qualify as an executive agreement or a treaty will depend on its content, which is still under negotiation. Elements that would suggest the need for formal congressional consent include legally binding national emissions reduction goals or legally binding national finance commitments.

It is possible, however, that the Paris agreement will lack these elements and will qualify as an executive agreement rather than a treaty. Although the core Paris agreement will be legally binding, the associated national goals are expected to be non-binding political commitments.

As Senator Markey noted in the hearing, the Paris agreement is being negotiated under the parent treaty of the UNFCCC. In 1992, the George H.W. Bush Administration submitted the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to the Senate, which gave its unanimous consent to U.S. ratification. The UNFCCC included the primary goal of reducing global carbon pollution to avoid dangerous climate change. As a party to the treaty, the U.S. is already committed to seek emissions reductions and report on progress.

If the content of the final agreement qualifies as an executive agreement — which is looking increasingly likely as the Paris meeting approaches — the Senate’s consent to the UNFCCC, as a parent treaty, would provide authorization for U.S. participation. The president’s foreign affairs power would provide authorization as well, as would the fact that the agreement would require no new legislation to be given domestic effect.

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Stern made clear in the hearing that opposition to the agreement is economic and diplomatic folly. It is also at odds with the welfare and security of the United States. The agreement should therefore inspire broad bipartisan support.

Gwynne Taraska is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Center for American Progress, where she works on international climate policy. She is in Bonn, Germany, this week for the Paris track negotiating session.