The ‘historic’ Paris Agreement has been welcomed as ambitious and promising by just about everyone commenting on it. Given what is at stake, some wishful thinking may have played its part: the new climate deal is too important to fail. To be fair, a legally binding agreement of 196 states to limit global warming to “well below 2°C” with “efforts to limit it to 1.5 °C” (Article 2) is no small feat. It marks a breakthrough towards global governance. For the first time, we now have an international consensus to act on a key challenge facing humanity. And remarkably, states have acknowledged that their intended nationally-determined contributions (INDCs) collectively will not meet the 2°C target, but rather lead to an aggregate emission level of 55 gigatonnes in 2030 (paragraph 17 of the accompanying decision) which is 10% more than current annual emissions. Such figures and statements set important benchmarks against which future progress will be measured.

We can also assume that the five-year review process following the enactment of the Agreement in April 2016 will lead to more ambitious nationally-determined contributions (NDCs). This is thanks to the set 2°C/1.5°C targets. Yet, the very mentioning of these magic figures causes concern. Instead of saying what actually needs to be done to achieve them – for example, phasing out of fossil fuels within a given timeframe – we are left with mere goals.

As we are almost certain to exceed 1.5°C, there is a risk of celebrating “achievements” that are actually not there. The Agreement is silent on the causes of climate change, does not prescribe specific measures and avoids any mentioning of “fossil fuels”, “oil” or “coal”. It is as if reductions could be achieved without governments interfering with energy markets. At best, we can now hope for growing pressure on the fossil fuel industry and their supporting governments. At worst, the Paris Agreement will lull us to assuming that climate change is being dealt with. The Agreement itself will of course not reduce any emissions, only actions by national governments will.

The most urgent action is the shift to renewable energy. We cannot continue burning fossil fuels and the bulk of existing reserves must stay in the ground. All arguments that this is not realistic, that oil, gas and coal are a necessary part of the energy mix, or that they could only be phased out in the long run, or John Key’s assertion that New Zealand’s offshore oil and gas explorations would be miniscule compared to Saudi Arabia’s, are cheap excuses. They avoid the central question whether or not the market advantages that fossil fuels enjoy can be tolerated any longer. Fossil fuels need to be priced out of the market. Technically, this is not difficult to do. Viable options include stopping subsidies for fossil fuels (estimated by the International Energy Agency at nearly $ 900 billion per year), a global carbon budget with national allocations, carbon pricing or an effective emissions-trading system.

However, any of these options require an understanding that the atmosphere is not an asset freely available to anyone, but a common good for all in need of uncompromising protection by those who govern on our behalf. At present, the atmosphere resembles a wild, uncontrolled rubbish dump. Polluters are free to sink their carbons into the atmosphere simply because they can. From an economic perspective, this is an enormous incentive to ever increase the production – and consumption – of oil, gas and coal, especially as long they are so advantaged over renewables.

To reverse this absurdity, costs for fossil fuels need to go up, so renewables can become competitive. Legally, the closing down of the ‘rubbish dump’ can be achieved by recognizing the atmosphere as a global commons or a common heritage of humankind. Practically, this involves an automatic charge for any excessive use – no negotiations needed. This commons approach should be the rationale behind carbon pricing or a ‘carbon rent’ and not the least-cost approach that, for example, New Zealand has followed so far.

The rationale and justification underpinning any climate action is critical. To this end, the Paris Agreement makes some interesting points. The preamble mentions climate justice and the “intrinsic relationship” that climate change actions have with sustainable development and eradication of poverty. It also refers to human rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, migrants and children and notes “the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems … recognized by some cultures as Mother Earth”. Such sentiments are encouraging. In fact they are not just sentiments, but reflect existing law and should be the sole basis for our thinking about climate change. As long as our political leaders do not accept this, however, the Paris Agreement will remain an empty promise.

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