On the face of it the Paris summit on Climate Change seems to have been a remarkable success, but already the naysayers are pouring cold water on the celebrations. For some, like James Hansen, the process has been close to fraudulent in its failure to embrace clear strategies for implementation of its goals.
But what is the truth about this process? One way of understanding it is as a ‘System of Trust’. Every complex act of co-operation among higher animals can be conceived as a system of trust. This includes systems of justice, education, taxation, health care etc. They are all marked out by the need to establish public confidence that they will deliver.
The Paris agreement is interesting because it is an attempt at a wholly new system. Never before have 195 countries come together to try to achieve something so important on such a grand scale. These countries have agreed to a set of goals for the world community in terms of temperature rise and to a protocol for regular revision of each countries pledges, together with monitoring of the progress they are making towards meeting those pledges.
The key question for this, as for every system of trust, is whether the participants in the process can trust the others that they will genuinely work together to meet the agreed goals and, if individual countries fail in that regard, that they will be robustly held to account and forced to reform.
The answer to this question, to some extent, lies in the minds of the conference participants. Did they leave this conference recognising that their own policies needed to change radically and urgently towards a low carbon future or were they relieved to think ‘that’s okay we can go on as we are’.
A similar question hangs over the wider community. Will the fossil fuel industry now recognise that their end is coming and that fossil fuels need to be left in the ground? Will fossil fuel shares trade lower on the market and governments cease to subsidise this industry? These will be the signs of an effective system of trust having been delivered.
The problems with this system of trust may lie in the systems of accountability. The right wing newspapers today ( Dec 14th) are already bemoaning the fact that UK will embrace tough new measures while other countries will fail to deliver. They denounce the agreement as toothless.
At heart the Paris agreement may not be so much an agreement about policies to limit carbon emissions, but an agreement to a process of working together to create and evolve each country’s strategy for delivering on the global goals. If this is understood to be its legacy, then it might indeed be ‘historic’, as so many world leaders have claimed.