Coping with COP21



Even as the world rejoiced in Paris Saturday night, with the slogan “There is no Plan B” emblazoned in light projection on the Eiffel Tower, the accords usher in a lukewarm compromise. While the original United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the subsequent Kyoto Protocol were Type I–enforceable–rather than Type II–voluntary–initiatives, COP21 left us with a platter of good will and wishful thinking rather than a policy with globally enforceable mechanisms or sanctions. What once was considered the gold standard of international environmental agreements has long been tossed aside for the feeble memos of understanding between nations, that in the end are as good as the follow through of individual nations.

The problem with this approach, however, is that there still lurks in the background the implicit assumption many countries hold that only the fool takes initiative and bears the heavy start-up costs it takes to update technology from fossil fuels to renewables. It is a difficult gambit for many countries to sell to their legislatures and populace: present austerity or significant debt in exchange for technological development that may someday prove lucrative on the global market. The asymmetrical time spans for R&D versus BAU skews the calculation often in the direction of sticking with the easiest option, which in the short-term, at least, means not slowing down the growth of GDP through regulating and restricting the unbridled use of unsustainable energy sources and social habits.

Even more pernicious, however, is that unlimited economic growth is still taken for granted as conceivable hand-in-hand with taking the pressure off of ecosystems. With apparent unawareness of the productively critical décroissance or “degrowth” movement, technological panaceas are counted on at every turn in COP21’s rosy strategy. Instead of reducing energy consumption (as Germany has done in the last decade), COP21 has taken the more American-style version of Ecological Modernization, which assume that while some environmentally damaging businesses will have to retool (Beyond Petroleum is but one instance of this), and may take a slight economic hit, that the population at large–at least in most of the OECD countries–won’t have to make major sacrifices, ration water, or decelerate growth on the road to sustainability.

As Bill McKibben has written, if we are actually to achieve anything approaching sustainability, COP21 must become a “a floor and not a ceiling for action.” The Paris accord will only grow its teeth when the UN begins carbon taxes and trading systems that are coordinated worldwide, without allowing polluters havens to subvert global health and instead hold industry accountable for the full lifecycle of its profit-making ventures. If we can achieve this, then COP21’s goals will being to take actual form, and go from moderate ideals to inspiring transformations.