Why The Paris Climate Agreement Can't Save The Planet

Two months on, the accord is a good start, but more is needed

Eiffel Tower during the COP 21 Paris Climate Talks

Eiffel Tower during the COP 21 Paris Climate Talks

During the December 5-12, 2015 international climate summit in Paris, the Eiffel Tower was lit-up to represent the energy created by the physical activity thousands of crowd-sourced volunteers around the world. Their energy output was measured via an app, a project known as "HUMAN ENERGY."Yann Caradec/Flickr/CC-By-2.0

In the immediate aftermath of the international climate conference in Paris last December , there was widespread celebration around the world. The agreement reached by the representatives of 187 nations, one could argue, signaled that politics had finally caught up to science, and that there is now a global consensus that climate change is a "Big Problem."

But the truth is that the agreement amounts to little more than a gentleman’s handshake. The terms are entirely unenforceable, for one thing. And though the goals are laudable, it’s ultimately too little, too late.

There’s also no framework that explains how the various countries are going to meet their targets. (What technologies or cuts will they use? This is mostly left up to the imagination, for now.) And it’s unrealistic, given that the global energy supply, while generally moving in the right direction toward clean tech, is doing so at a dangerously slow pace.

To reach the agreement’s goal of holding the average global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, we’ve placed a lot of our bets on unproven, uncommercialized, or yet unknown future tech. This means the climate agreement is banking on blanketing the Earth in renewables and other fossil fuel-free energy sources, while deploying large-scale, emissions reductions technologies. And fast. It’s not going to happen.

So really, what the Paris agreement provides humans with is a big psychological nudge. As a species, we tend to not get serious about addressing predicted, preventable problems until they’re directly upon us, and therefore no longer preventable.

“We’re all going to need that kind of revolutionary thinking to get serious about a zero-carbon future.”

On climate change, we’ll have to start fighting against our nature to ignore problems until they are too big to avoid. Perhaps the agreement will spark this type of proactive thinking—and lead to greater action. NPR’s Adam Frank summed it up well when he described it as a “first step in developing a new set of behaviors for human civilization.” No big deal, right?

Simultaneously, we're also going to need more energy overall, not less. Experts predict that the population will swell to more than nine billion people by the middle of this century, and the International Energy Agency predicts that energy demand will grow by 37percent by 2040. So while cutting back on usage is a critical part of the equation, the larger question is: how do we build a smart energy portfolio?

What that portfolio looks like is yet to be seen, but we’ll certainly want cheaper and more efficient renewables like solar and wind, while replacing evils such as coal with lesser evils such as natural gas. There will likely be carbon taxes and economic incentives, too. And we need tremendous investment in and public support for new clean tech.

Shanghai

A City in the Clouds

Clouds of pollution, that is. Sorry, Shanghai.leniners/Flickr

In fact, the U.S. might want to consider taking a page from pollution-plagued China. In 2015, China invested a whopping $110.5 billion on clean energy, whereas the U.S. spent about half that. China, at least, is throwing lots of options at the wall to see what sticks. No one would argue that it’s the most efficient strategy, but you have to applaud the tenacity. It’s an investment in the future, a future that sits out beyond the latest election cycle and political gridlock. It certainly doesn’t hurt the case for clean-tech in China that Beijing has been blanketed in dangerous levels of smog multiple times over the past several years.

The U.S. doesn’t have the same energy needs as China, nor its problems with air pollution. . But it’s not China’s approach that should necessarily be emulated, but the government’s attitude of urgency.

It’s making a difference: China’s 2015 coal imports dropped 30 percent from 2014, and the country plans to close 1,000 mines this year, as well as halt approval of new ones. Research into clean coal, better solar, and safer nuclear is getting the big bucks, and innovators from all over are hungry to collaborate.

For example, the Chinese government signed an agreement with Bill Gates’ TerraPower in October to advance nuclear power that would be safer, far more efficient, more cost effective, and have easier waste disposal. That kind of thing doesn’t often happen in the U.S. due to regulation and lack of public support.

“Out of a sense of desperation in China, there’s a great energy revolution going on,” says Michael Shellenberger, a founder of the Breakthrough Institute. “We’re all going to need that kind of revolutionary thinking to get serious about a zero-carbon future.”

Indeed, a recent report from the IEA emphasized the need for "new, groundbreaking" cleantech, going as far to say that it's the "only way the world can meet its climate goals." Big time innovation is currently too slow and underfunded—the report dramatically called for tripling public spending on clean energy R&D. Whether cash can substitute for time is another matter to be seen.

Perhaps the millennial generation, who weren’t around for Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, will be more open to nuclear energy.

Even techno-optimists allow that wholesale innovations such as armies of carbon-eating nanobots, and say, fusion, take time. Lots and lots of time. “Energy technology evolves more slowly than any other tech in our society,” says Shellenberger, “The transition from wood to coal started in the 16th century, and it’s still going on.”

That's why major names in the worlds of climate science and tech (Columbia University's James Hansen and PayPal founder Peter Thiel, for example) are advocating for improving—and using—tools we already have, such as nuclear power. The idea is that we need to embrace nuclear, make it better, and implement it more cheaply and safely.

Perhaps the millennial generation, who weren't around for the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters, will be more open to improving nuclear energy instead of writing it off entirely. Just ask MIT's Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, who are working a molten salt reactor that will burn 75 times the electricity per ton of uranium and be virtually accident-proof.)

Continuing to push back with ideological blockades means we’re making zero progress toward reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, as more humans need more energy. And stalling until we find a perfect solution is a tactic that has long run out of time.