How a Lack of Logic in Paris Offers Hope to Our Sustainability Struggles

If there was one element that trumped all else at the Paris COP negotiations, it was surely ethics. Not technology, science, economics, or business (these were all key players, of course), but a strong feeling of moral conscience and responsibility. What do I mean? Well, when you look objectively at how the process unfolded through a purely rational/logical lens, it just doesn’t make sense.

Let’s step back for a moment and look at how our global emissions stack up (see image below and explore further here). The world’s top 10 emitters emit more than 70% of our greenhouse gas emissions. If we extend this to the top 20 parties, we’re pushing 80-85% of the global total. Compare that to the lowest 100 emitters, who are responsible for less than 3%.

Top 10 emitters

Source: BBC News “Six Graphics That Explain Climate Change”: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-5aceb360-8bc3-4741-99f0-2e4f76ca02bb

In other words, if our primary aim was to reduce global emissions, we would only really need a deal inclusive of 10-20 parties (in this case, the EU represents 28 countries so let’s say 40 or so nations). Of course, developing nations’ emissions will continue to rise in the medium-term, but most of those projected to experience the largest growth are already included as top emitters. The remaining 150 or so countries included in the deal are a mere drop in the overall global stock.

And yet, somehow, the biggest influencers in Paris were predominantly the little fish—the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and Least-Developed Countries (LDCs). The discussions were dominated by calls for justice from the 100-150 smallest emitters. They didn’t get everything they protested for, and many have criticised the final deal on the basis that it doesn’t go far enough to protect these nations. However, they did push for the inclusion of a new 1.5C temperature target, maintain a clear principle of differentiation based on their special circumstances, walk away with a promise of $100 billion of climate finance from developed nations (per year by 2020), and the inclusion of a clause for loss and damage (although it should be noted that this does not include any liability claim).

If we view this through a purely rational and objective perspective, this shouldn’t have happened. The underlying principle of a negotiation is that parties trade-off between contribution and compromise to reach a mutual outcome. Kids learn this bartering process in the playground: “I’ll give you X if you give me Y in return”. Yet somehow the 100-150 smallest emitters walked away from Paris with something positive despite bringing very little to the negotiating table. They turned up in Paris with little-to-no bargaining power, yet managed to gain far more than many had expected. If the top 10-20 emitters wanted to reach an agreement on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they could have done so on their own and on their own terms. If that was their main objective they didn’t need to make the challenge harder for themselves by tightening the temperature target or committing to climate finance to those nations outwith the top emitters.

It might be cruel to suggest that many of the lowest-emitting nations add negligible value to a global climate change agreement. But that’s exactly my point: we have to question how we’ve reached the stage where many of us find this ethically unacceptable and what this means for the directed we’re headed.

Many will wave this away as nothing new or ground-breaking: “of course that’s the case—we’re doing so because it’s the right thing to do.” However that hasn’t always been the case; in fact, a large shift towards ethical responsibility at the global level has been a fairly new development. It hasn’t always been this way. In earlier human history (going back to hunter-gatherer periods) our ethical boundaries probably didn’t extend far beyond closest relatives. This was slowly extended to the tribal level, then perhaps a regional coalition. Progressively the span of who (and what) we include in our ethical spheres has widened. Philosophically it’s argued that ethics are not static—it’s not as simple as being “ethical” or “unethical”—but dynamic. They have evolved over time. We’re now at the stage where they have evolved to the global level.

It’s interesting to consider how quickly this expansion in moral spheres has occurred. Think about half a century ago: even if global warming was as pressing as it is today, it’s hard to imagine the Paris negotiations unfolding as they did. National interest and protection was far too dominant. We’ve been involved in the UNFCCC negotiating process for 20 years now and have, on the whole, failed miserably. Overriding self-interest (where “self” in this case represents a country or party) by many large parties (for example, the US refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol for fear of “sacrificing their economic advantage”) was a key reason for this failure. Even as recent as six years ago in Copenhagen we hadn’t reached the stage where we were willing to put this aside for a global deal. The evolution in global ethics—unlike its slow Darwinian cousin—has been a rapid and recent development.

So what? Is this really a big deal? Well, it actually is—it has important implications for how our progress on climate change (and other global issues) evolves in the coming years. The important point is that our [dominant] global economic system (one which continues to feed our unsustainability) is one which treats us as self-interested materialist individuals. The stability of a capitalist system relies on us buying and consuming more and more stuff. The purpose of this acquisition of more stuff is to, selfishly, maximise our own satisfaction. It might look ridiculous on paper, but it’s a growth system we’re very much locked into and find it hard to decouple from. It is, at least, if we’re self-interested individuals. However, if the Paris negotiations proved anything, it was surely that we don’t always behave in this way. We either feel responsibility for those beyond the “self” or “self” has now been widened to incorporate humans at a global level. I haven’t yet worked out which is the case.

This uprising of global ethics evolved so fast that we didn’t really see it coming. A couple of decades ago we might not have predicted it. This fact provides some hope for the future: because we can’t currently see how it’s going to happen doesn’t mean that it won’t or can’t. Humans, and the world, are changing fast and often in ways that are not entirely rational or logical. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but perhaps we can take heart in the fact that sometimes we succumb to decisions that just don’t make rational sense.

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One thought on “How a Lack of Logic in Paris Offers Hope to Our Sustainability Struggles

  1. Pingback: What Do You Mean “We Don’t Have a Paris Agreement”? | convergence

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