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Green Or Gone

Why The Paris Climate Conference Promises A Lot Of Hot Air

Though 146 countries have pledged to fight global warming ahead of the UN's COP21 conference, market realities and other forces means such commitments are unlikely to materialize.

Beijing, air pollution, fog, evening
Beijing, air pollution, fog, evening
Stéphane Foucart

-Analysis-

PARIS — The 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference, known more commonly as COP 21, is fast approaching, and we can already evaluate which countries are ready to help fight global warming. By early October, 146 countries representing 87% of global emissions had already announced their planned contributions.

According to Climate Action Tracker, which measures the payoff of these commitments, the world is on track towards a probable warming of 2.7 °C compared to pre-industrial times, even with the reduced emissions pledges. It's a lot more than the 2 °C limit the international community has set, but many observers believe it nonetheless represents undeniable progress.

But bear in mind that, so far, these commitments are mere words. And there are a few reasons to suspect that the promises made at the conference in Paris (from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11) will never be fulfilled.

Let's first consider the figures. To have a reasonable chance to stay under the 2 °C limit, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that we still can emit the equivalent of 850 billion tons of carbon dioxide, about 20 years' worth of emissions, according to 2014 levels. A "reasonable chance" is a 66% probability, so for an even better chance of keeping warming under 2 °C, we must bring emissions in under that level.

Based on current trends, it would only take us some 20 years to reach the 2 °C limit. And if the contributions announced by the international community are indeed implemented, they'd only buy us a few years. It goes to show what sort of efforts need to be made in Paris to change the course of things in a meaningful way.

But political leaders don't seem terribly informed about how their commitments will affect their economies. And that's another reason to be weary of whatever promises will be made in Paris. Our leaders seem to ignore everything about the physical mechanisms at play here, the most simple of which is that when we burn oil, coal or gas, it produces CO2 that will remain in the atmosphere for 100 years.

Double speak

Recent months have demonstrated that it's possible to proclaim publicly a commitment to reverse global warming while at the same time supporting the construction of a new airport (French Prime Minister Manuel Valls) or authorizing the hunt for oil in the Arctic (U.S. President Barack Obama).

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Photo: Friends of the Earth Scotland

European leaders are all about big words while pressures from gas and oil lobbies in Brussels are successfully denting support for renewable energies, according to an investigative piece published by The Guardian in early September.

The third reason to be doubtful about these promises is a corollary to the previous two. Given that the required effort is considerable and that political leaders don't seem to have grasped how critical the issue is, investors also doubt that the necessary measures will be taken.

To understand this, we need to keep in mind the fact that the known reserves of fossil fuels represent 2,800 billion tons of CO2, according to the think tank Carbon Tracker. This is a whole lot more than the 850 billion tons that we can emit in the next 20 years without going over the 2 °C limit. And the value that markets put on fossil fuel giants relies at least partly on their assets — that is, on what they'll be able to extract and sell.

In other words, if we were to take seriously the political willingness on display about remaining below the 2 °C limit, then it's inevitable that a large portion of fossil fuels currently known to exist will never be extracted. But if they do remain in the ground, unextracted, this means that all those assets and a great part of the market capitalization of fossil fuel giants will disappear at the same time, representing tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars.

And as everybody knows, this market crash hasn't happened. Of course, some oil stocks have lost value, but that's more likely due to low oil prices than the prospect of being forced to abandon fossil fuels.

The value we place on things is mostly dependent on collective beliefs, and these are embodied in how markets behave. Despite civil society's campaign for "disinvestment" and its relative success, we remain collectively positive that everything that can be extracted from the ground and burned will be extracted and burned. If that should be the case, we can only hope that carbon capture and storage techniques are fiendishly efficient.

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