State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Don’t Be Bewitched by Paris Climate Change Deal

One of the world’s leading experts on international agreements to tackle climate change has cautioned against the chances of success for the Paris deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which comes into force in early November.

Speaking after receiving an honorary degree at the University of Bath as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, Professor Scott Barrett from the Earth Institute at Columbia University said that the Paris agreement signed in 2015, like previous ones at Kyoto and Copenhagen, had been successfully negotiated because of its voluntary targets for signatory nations and a lack of means of enforcing compliance.

Scott Barrett delivering a lecture at the University of Bath.
Scott Barrett delivering a lecture at the University of Bath.

“Let’s not be bewitched by this because this is not a great agreement. It’s not. I’m not putting it down or saying we shouldn’t do it—we should do it and make the most of it, of course, but we need to do much better than this,” he told students and academics at a lecture, organized by the university’s Institute for Policy Research and Department of Economics. Barrett is Lenfest-Earth Professor of Natural Resource Economics at Columbia.

“You make an individual pledge for what you are willing to do. There’s no negotiation about the numbers, so that’s why Paris succeeded,” said Barrett. “You really couldn’t have done much more than that given that the world decided to approach the problem this way. What I want to get at is that we could have approached the problem differently.”

Barrett insisted that the long-term approach to climate change since the 1990s had been flawed. “I think it is fair to say that the full effect of 25 years of unprecedented negotiations is basically very close to zero,” he said. “We can and should develop other agreements that ask countries to coordinate their actions rather than to reduce their emissions voluntarily. Countries are good at coordination, and not so good at volunteering to act in their collective interests.”

Other successful international action had been achieved thanks to co-ordinated moves by individual nations, for instance victory in World War Two, the Montreal Protocol in 1987 to reduce CFCs and protect the ozone layer, and the elimination of smallpox, which Barrett called “the greatest achievement of co-operation in human history.”

He told his audience in Bath that it was “outrageous” that so little had been done to investigate and coordinate at an international level the technology of “carbon sequestration’ and geoengineering techniques to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and to bury it underground or in rocks.

This post was adapted from a news release produced by the University of Bath; a version ran on the website of the school’s Institute for Policy Research.





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