Countdown to Paris: Are the Pledges to Cut Emissions Enough to Save the Planet?

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Andrew Jones and Chris Williams discuss the UN submissions from 130 countries and the road blocks to averting climate disaster.

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

On Monday the United Nations released a first draft of the negotiating text for the upcoming climate change conference that will be held in Paris in December. The document includes commitments to limit global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade, and it includes differentiated responsibilities based on different national circumstances. And it includes a boost in climate financing for poor countries. 130 countries submitted their pledges for the intended nationally determined contributions to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but do these pledges meet the 2 degree limit, and what are the economic and political impediments toward meeting that goal?

To discuss all of this I’m joined by two guests, Chris Williams and Andrew Jones. Chris Williams is joining us from New York City, and he’s a professor in chemistry and physical science at Pace University, and a longtime environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crises. And joining us from Asheville, North Carolina, is Andrew Jones. Drew is the co-founder and co-director of Climate Interactive, which is a climate change think tank that creates simulations on climate strategies. Thank you both for joining me today.

ANDREW JONES: Happy to be here.

CHRIS WILLIAMS: Thank you.

PERIES: So Andrew, let me begin with you. The Climate Interactive has made certain projections based on the country’s submissions. So what does the current pledges add up to in terms of the temperature rise?

JONES: We’ve done th calculations on those 130 submissions. We have a little team that added up all the pledges, and they’re coming in from Botswana and Paraguay and Argentina, and a big one from China, and all around the world. And when we add them up there’s basic good news that we’re not headed towards the worst case scenario that we’ve been looking at which, what had us really towards 4.5 degrees C, so rising temperature throughout this century. Instead it lowers temperature by about a degree Celsius to 3.5, and sets us up to have better pledges and bigger actions around the world that would get us down to 2.

So a thing that we’re submitting is that number: 3.5 degrees. If we make no further changes after 2030, which is the end of the pledge period, we would then have warming that’s beyond the goal of 2 degrees, 3.5. However, we’re confident that we can actually get down to 2.

PERIES: And Chris, what do you make of this prediction?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think it’s shunting things down the road in a very dangerous manner. It’s encouraging, one could argue, that countries are finally making certain pledges. But it’s not under any rubric. And everybody knows it’s not going to achieve what we need it to achieve. And the longer we wait, everybody also knows, the longer you wait to take action the harder and harder it’s going to get, more costly, and so on.

And so many reports indicate, for example, even 2 degrees Celsius of warming, we would lose most coral reefs. And that process has already begun with 1 degree C. And the acidification of the oceans and so on is proceeding apace. So the idea that we could toy with the world and come up with some better targets down the road as opposed to, oh, we’ll start weak and then we’ll get stronger, we’ve already been negotiating 20 years on this question, and things have only got worse. The science has gotten more definitive. And world leaders still aren’t coming up with real plans to address the problem for the people who are going to suffer the most, in particular the poorest sections of the world, who are also the least responsible. And you can see it going easily in the opposite direction, which would be towards adaptation as opposed to mitigation.

PERIES: Andrew, in terms of your calculations, your projections you’ve done, what are the most significant pledges, and are they adequate? And who needs to contribute more to make a difference?

JONES: What a good question. So the early pledges that came particularly from the European Union and then followed by the United States are helping in a leadership sense. But what really keeps the most warming out of our future was the news from China that they’re going to cap their emissions, peak their emissions in 2030. That cut out a lot of emissions in the future, and helped a lot.

What we haven’t done yet, and Chris is alluding to this and I agree with him on many of these points, we haven’t yet created the conditions where much of the developing world, the poorest people of Africa, South America, and Asia, have been able to reduce–make pledges that really reduce emissions. They’re waiting for us in the developed world to say all right, we caused 75 percent of this problem. We’re going to contribute to the Green Climate Fund. There’s a goal of $100 billion, it’s only at $10 billion, to help with renewable energy and energy efficiency, and help with adaptation to climate change. And technology transfer, and financing. Things that would help poorer countries avoid the kind of development that poisons people in the near-term, but also would contribute to climate change. Avoid coal, oil, and gas-based development.

So it hasn’t happened yet. That’s what was, really, would be needed next.

PERIES: Chris, you’ve been following this issue for a very long time. These pledges from these countries, is there any hope of expecting them to follow through and ensure that they actually meet these goals?

WILLIAMS: Well I mean, this is one of the major problems. Who is responsible for enforcing anything? The pledges are voluntary, which is what the United States always wanted. And–at this point. And if they don’t meet them, as many countries did not meet the Kyoto pledges, what happens to those countries? Do they get trade sanctions? It doesn’t seem like that is on the table. What levels of enforcement are there to make sure these things actually occur? I think the only hope that we have is ordinary people holding the politicians and the corporations accountable on the streets, and organizing to do that.

Because this has been going on, as you mentioned, for such a long time. And they’ve promised, as Drew was mentioning, this Green Climate Fund specifically to help less-developed countries to miss, leap over, fossil fuel development. And we have the technology to give it to them. The problem is that the Green Climate Fund, they haven’t put the money in. it’s woefully underfunded. They’re supposed to be doing $100 billion a year, which obviously sounds like a lot but is a drop in the ocean for the world economy and the rich nations. And they won’t do it. And there are 600 billion people in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, without access to electricity. At current rates of development it’s projected that that will take another 65 years to get them electricity, and they could have it, or will have it, with fossil fuels if that’s cheaper to develop than the alternative, if they’re not given the money to have it.

But at the same time, debt repayments cost $700 billion a year. So I think one thing that could easily be done is the cancellation of all developing world debt. And that would make–that in itself would be an immense stride towards helping developing countries have more access to cash. And then it’s a question of we need to give them the technology that already exists in order that rather than coal plants they’re building wind farms and solar panels, and it can be distributed. It can be centralized, it can be a mix of things. We know a lot of the technical answers to that.

But it really has to be the people themselves, I think, involved in all of those decisions, if they’re going to be viable. And we have to reverse the outflow of money from the developing world to Western financial institutions under a completely different paradigm if it’s going to be successful within the time frame that we have, because we know that the laws of physics are not open to negotiation in the way that the corporations and governments think.

PERIES: Drew, now, it’s very clear in addition to meeting these targets we have to actually address innovation and building a renewable economy here. And the UN in terms of their calculations have put corporations back in the center of the solution. I’m wondering, given what Chris just said in terms of reliance on corporations to solve a problem that they have had such a great role in creating, is a viable solution, and whether that was taken into consideration in the projections you did in terms of corporations’ involvement in renewable energy innovation.

JONES: Now, well, I particularly agree with Chris about the core of this is supporting and believing in a huge civil society movement. It’s not until we see this like ending apartheid or ending slavery, or peace in Northern Ireland, the Berlin Wall coming down, that we will garner the kind of support we really need. And I don’t think it’s as simple as, say, corporations are the ones that will produce the solar panel and the energy efficiency that’s really needed. So we can’t throw them all the way out because there are parts of it that we really need.

But Chris is right, we need as people to wake up to the possibility that we could actually win this one and think that way, and emphasize broadly investing in the power of people to speak up and demand change when it comes to getting beyond fossil fuels. We saw that in New York with the People’s Climate March a year ago. It was amazing to see the broad spectrum of people from health, from social equity, from justice, from poverty, from business. Many people behind, everyone rising up and saying we really need a different future.

PERIES: All right. Chris, let me give you the last word. The UN, I guess all member states came together just before the debate at the UN General Assembly to discuss sustainable development goals, you offline told me is perhaps inadequate. Can you briefly address what was discussed, what was proposed in terms of solutions, and if they came to any commitments there?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. The sustainable development goals are meant to replace the millennium development goals, which have just ended their 15 years. And even by the UN’s own accounting the goals were not achieved in large part, or at least were mixed. And so these are the next set of goals, which have been broadened to include kind of the whole world and expanded from 8 to 17.

And there’s a lot of great-sounding language and concern for poverty and inequality, gender inequality, the environment. A lot of it sounds really good. But I think that there are two very dangerous things that are included in the goals, one of which is that growth, the same kind of [inaud.] growth that we have now is the solution to poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation. This is going to trickle down and lift all boats. And I’m pretty certain we’ve been trying that for the last 30-odd years. And we see the results all around us with collapsing social systems and collapsing ecological systems.

So the idea that growth, that the same thing that got us into this problem, is going to not only alleviate poverty but solve the environmental crisis, is completely misplaced. And the wrong paradigm to continue under. It’s failed. And secondly, the voices who crafted these goals and where they get specific with how they’re going to be implemented are the same corporations who are spewing out all of the fossil fuels in the first place, and selling us lots of things, or trying to sell us lots of things that we don’t need or want.

So it’s also quite insidious in that it represents the first steps towards corporations having a voice at the UN in a parallel way to countries. And so it’s about the privatization or the future privatization over the next 15 years or so of the UN. So if you think the UN is useless or bad at the moment, wait till you see it when the corporations have their seats at the table, too. Not behind the scenes anymore, but at the desk. And I think that it’s those two things that are very dangerous about the sustainable development goals, for all of the improvement in terms of recognizing the scale of the problem and how in other ways we might go about addressing it.

PERIES: And Andrew, let me just give you an opportunity to respond to what Chris just said in terms of the corporate involvement in the solution again. In terms of your calculations, does that for you appear to be a viable solution?

JONES: Well, for our calculations, one of them really looks at what is needed to get to, to get down to 2 degrees. Not just from countries, but what kind of energy transition? And there would have to be a radical change of what’s going on in the business world in this energy transition. We would need to peak oil at least by 2020, 2030, and have it drop. Coal in the next five years. Gas around that 2020s period and then rapidly falling throughout the century.

So if you think about the role of corporate America in that they are redesigning what exactly they’re making their businesses about, because we just can’t keep burning those fossil fuels. So there’s going to be a very different role, and that’s going to be a very challenging transition, I think, for many. But it’s one that we need to do, and it increasingly clearly needs to happen.

PERIES: And one of the key issues in this area seems to be the de-linking of GDP from greenhouse gas emissions, GGH now. Can you describe what that de-linking would look like over a period of time?

JONES: Over a time we both de-linked energy use from GDP a lot, energy efficiency has grown globally very much, and is expected to continue. What hasn’t changed much is the carbon intensity of the GDP. And so that’s where there needs to be huge progress. And that’s where the key of it is what we talked about earlier of getting the developing world the proper technology, the proper leadership and support such that they can avoid carbon-based development, avoid coal, oil, and gas, so that we can meet basic needs for people without having emissions go up. We need to make that de-linking. Technology helps some, but also redesigning broader systems so we aren’t so fossil fuel dependent is the other approach.

PERIES: All right. Gentlemen, I thank you so much for joining me today and shedding some light, at least in a clearer way than UN-ese that we’ve been bombarded with lately. Thank you so much.

JONES: Thank you.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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