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The Paris climate change talks are doomed to fail before they’ve begun

Why the UN climate summit can't succeed

The hopes of the world are once again being placed on one meeting, and are once again guaranteed to be dashed before the first words are even uttered.

That’s a hard sentence for a long-time climate change activist to write. But it’s absolutely true. For 21 straight years, the United Nations has made a fatal mistake in its attempt to curb the emission of greenhouse gases around the globe.

I’m talking about a mistake of truly epic proportions, and of mesmerising idiocy, yet it remains something that barely anyone ever talks about. Not even the environmental movement itself appears to be aware of the lunacy behind the very premise of the annual UN climate talks.

This December in Paris will be the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) held by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). If you’re the type of person who follows these ridiculous acronyms – and if you’re not, you’re more likely to be a happy, fun person – you’ll already be familiar with the arguments.

To summarise: the poor countries want the rich countries to cut their carbon emissions faster than they do. But the rich countries, unsurprisingly, want emissions to be cut at the same rate the world over. This is a long-running debate that has been going on since 1995, and every single year since. It is an argument that has only once come close to being settled – in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997.

In Paris, governments will be discussing how to punish themselves for the environmental vandalism caused by fossil fuel companies.

The Kyoto Protocol was hailed at the time for striking what seemed a fair balance, requiring developed countries to cut their emissions while still ensuring developing countries would become a part of the equation in future. But it wasn’t long before the world’s biggest polluting country was pulling out of the protocol altogether, rendering it a failure before it had even begun.

Since China overtook the United States for the dubious honour of ‘The Most Polluting Country on Earth’ nearly a decade ago, the annual COP negotiations have been at a standstill. The gap between the rich world’s greed and the poor world’s sense of injustice is not going to be bridged anytime soon.

But even if, somehow, a way was found in Paris to unite all 193 UN member states behind a new binding climate change agreement, a replacement to the Kyoto Protocol, it would still fail. It is guaranteed to fail.

Until the very premise of the COP talks themselves are entirely turned on their head, the whole charade is pointless. I’d argue, in fact, that the UN’s approach to tackling climate change is the biggest fuck up in the history of human civilisation.

Punishing teachers

To help understand why, imagine for a moment that you’re a headteacher. There’s been a spate of vandalism around the whole school. To solve this problem you tell all the pupils that if they’re caught vandalising school property in future, a severe punishment will be meted out. To their teachers.

The teachers get fined, while the pupils who were caught in the act don’t even get detention. In some cases, the money collected from their teachers in fines is dished out and shared amongst the pupils – who then spend it on spray paint and baseball bats.

In Paris in December, governments from all over the world will be meeting to discuss how best to punish themselves for the environmental vandalism the fossil fuel companies have been causing. At the same time, Exxon, Gazprom, Shell and the like are running amok, writing ‘Mr Vernell loves cock’ all over the Great Barrier Reef.

When scientists discovered tobacco was killing people, governments went after the tobacco companies to stop it. The tobacco companies fought back, and tried to debunk the science. But the state stood firm. Laws restricting smoking and its promotion were introduced. The number of smokers has been slashed to a fraction of what it was when tobacco’s hazardous impact was first realised. And we are all healthier as a result.

When scientists discovered a deadly hole in the ozone layer, caused by specific chemicals found in everyday household products, those products were banned. The companies that made them were forced by law to rethink their bad practices. The ozone layer has been repairing itself ever since. And the health risks have reduced as a result.

So when scientists discovered that carbon emissions were heating the world at a rate that would be deadly not just for humans but for most life on this planet, you’d think perhaps that the companies responsible for producing those emissions would be told to stop what they were doing, or at least encouraged to move away from carbon and on to something a little bit less deadly. But no, this has not happened.

The profits of the fossil fuel industry – the profits of death – have continued to soar. These companies – companies selling death – remain some of the biggest and most profitable in the world. All the while, governments meet once a year to discuss potential new ways to maybe hopefully find a way to persuade people to recycle more and drive a tiny bit less and, fingers crossed, slash emissions by two percent in two decades.

The lunacy of placing the burden of emissions reductions on the state instead of on the industry responsible for those emissions is made worse when you realise how infinitesimal the chances are of 193 different governments all successfully meeting their own carbon targets.

Just think about this for a moment. How often do governments miss targets? On the economy? On hospital waiting times? On jobs? On house building? Even on issues that the leader of the day really cares about, targets must be constantly revised for any claims of progress in meeting them to be made.

So what are the chances, if a new global agreement on curbing carbon emissions is agreed in Paris, of all 193 UN member states, working in isolation, fighting their own domestic battles, sticking to what they’ve been asked to do? Without being given any help in doing it?

Fossil fuel companies don’t respect borders. They tend to go wherever they need to go to chase the oil, the gas, the coal, the shale or the tar that will make them money. National carbon targets are meaningless because the companies that extract carbon are global. It’s like trying to fight a world war by ignoring the enemy and asking your unarmed allies if they could please try a bit harder to not get conquered so easily.

What is needed in Paris is for the representatives from 193 countries to agree on a global mechanism that restricts fossil fuel extraction by penalising the companies that extract it. State subsidies to these companies must be outlawed. Environmental destruction of any kind must be outlawed. Then, and only then, will the profitability of fossil fuels decline, and a financial incentive provided for the huge investment in renewable energy that is so desperately and urgently needed.

Climate change won’t be tackled without such a mechanism. But since this is not even a topic for discussion in Paris, the best deal that could come from COP21 is no deal at all. At least then no paper would be wasted on another meaningless protocol.


James Cracknell is a journalist and climate change activist based in East London: @JollyJourno

Topics: Climate Change