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How does the Paris climate deal measure up against past efforts?

As the world processes the new agreement on climate change, history has troubling news for David Cameron. 

By India Bourke

“History is coming, in fact, history is here,” declared French President François Hollande, as he coaxed delegates through the final hours of the UN climate conference in Paris. 

For two gruelling weeks negotiators wrestled with a document containing over 1,000 square brackets, all indicating areas of disagreement. But by Saturday night there was just one verb left to settle. The result is an accord which aims to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and to reach net-zero emissions by the second half of this century. 

Yet, while the brackets have gone, their uncertainty remains: pledges on emissions reduction are still too loose, the phrasing of commitments still too vague, and the aid promised to developing nations is still too limited. 

So how fast will countries act to meet and exceed these, largely voluntary, commitments? Comparisons with previous environmental treaties hint at an answer. 

The present Paris deal stands up well to the debacle in Copenhagen six years ago. Never before has there been a universal agreement on climate, as Barack Obama pointed out in his speech from the White House: “[This deal] shows what is possible when the world stands as one.”

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But its prospects look less bright when set against the UN’s most successful environmental treaty to date: the 1987 Montreal Protocol for the protection of the ozone layer. By phasing out the substances responsible for ozone depletion, experts estimate the Protocol has not only saved more than 11 times its costs in prevented cases of cancer and cataracts, but has also reduced carbon emissions by 5.6 billion tonnes. This is almost double any other single emissions reduction policy, ever. 

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The Protocol’s chief architect, Richard Benedick, attributes two features in particular to its success: close co-operation with industry and strong political leadership. Neither of which he sees abundant evidence for in today’s, much more complex, climate crisis.

Just look at the Republican presidential candidates still questioning the science of global warming, he says, or the energy companies teaching kids that oil spills are good for tourism. It thus shouldn’t come as a surprise that the responsibility for both shipping and aviation emissions have been left out of the new climate treaty altogether. To adequately invest in solutions, Benedick argues, America would need to “tax, tax, and super tax the oil industry,” but you can’t do this, he says, “because [big industry] is paying off Congress.” 

Benedick also contrasts Obama’s hamstrung policies with the decisive leadership that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (eventually) provided for the ozone treaty. Thatcher set the stage for her game-changing 1989 UN speech on global warming, and in turn earned cross-party respect as an unexpected eco-warrior. 

Sadly the same cannot be said of David Cameron’s performance in Paris. Where Thatcher’s speeches called upon metaphors as epic as the space race, Darwin’s voyages, and Milton’s poetry, Cameron pursued the relatively pedestrian question of how we will be judged by our grandchildren.

And what Cameron’s rhetoric lacked in style, his policies failed to make up for in substance. The UK may have topped a recent international index of countries combating climate change, but the government has also been warned against plans to extend the use fossil fuels and renege on investments in renewable energy. 

Even on the question of international climate aid, Britain’s once-solid record is increasingly dubious. Our £5.8 billion contribution may seem generous, but dig a little deeper and questions soon emerge over both the provenance and distribution of the cash. What, for instance, will be sacrificed when this funding is diverted from the existing foreign aid budget? And why, despite promises to help poorer countries develop sustainably, has the government spent twice as much on overseas fossil fuel projects as on renewable energy? – as the charity CAFOD revealed last month.

The history of the Montreal protocol, however, may also provide some grounds for hope. Its provisions didn’t burst into action fully formed on 19 September 1987. Rather, its success was the product of a lengthy process of revision, helped by the rise of a committed international protest movement: from boycotts in Britain to blockades in Taiwan. The Paris agreement is already benefitting from this legacy. Not only has a regular process of review been made a legally binding requirement of the treaty, but campaigners, such as 350°’s Bill McKibben, have praised the global climate movement for pursuing change with the ferocity of “a pack of wolves”. 

As politicians and campaigners both know, some words are more fearsome than others. In 1989, it was those of a 17-year-old girl that cemented the resolve of ozone negotiators; “You hold the fate of our futures within your square brackets”, she said. 

In taking action on the future, Cameron should perhaps take more heed of words past.