The Paris climate meeting, COP 21, has come to an agreement. What is COP 21? Well even this is mired in confusion. COP stands for Conference of the Parties, the “parties” being those who were party to the 1992 Earth Summit (more formally, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) held in Rio de Janeiro. This was a wide ranging meeting, at its time the largest and most expensive diplomatic meeting in history. Its outcomes were published in a 40 chapter volume called Agenda 21. But, with nowhere near the $300 million needed to implement it, it neither had teeth nor legs.  Furthermore the USA refused to sign.

The next meeting took place in Kyoto in 1997. Its now infamous output was the Kyoto Protocol, which introduced the devastating concept of carbon trading, which basically allowed the rich and devious to continue to pollute by buying pollution credits (see Chapter 3 of Sustainable Economics for more details). Kyoto was a mess. The idea of allowing Adam Smith’s invisible hand to sort out the environmental chaos caused by that hand in the first place was irredeemably flawed. The USA and, less significantly, Andorra, refused to sign, and Canada later withdrew.

Kyoto was called COP 3. Yet it was only the second meeting of the Parties to Rio 1992. It turns out that Rio was COP 2, with COP 1 referencing a much earlier event, the UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in June, 1972, when whaling was banned. However COP 2 should really be called COP 0, since it is the meeting to which the Parties meeting in subsequent events were initially party to, and you cannot have a Conference of Parties to something if the something has not yet happened!

Since COP 3, there have been another 18 COPS, the first seven slowly moving towards agreements on Kyoto, then a few more working on what Kyoto actually means, followed by a number of meetings trying to determine what should replace the Kyoto Protocol.  Low points included COP 15, Held in Copenhagen in 2009, where Brazil, China, USA, India and South Africa agreed the Copenhagen Accord behind closed doors, without consulting the other 187 nations, the sweet smell of democracy. A special anniversary meeting to celebrate 20 years since the 1997 Earth Summit (COP 1, but referred to as COP 2 as explained earlier, and in reality, COP 0!) was held called RIO+20. The prime minister of the UK, the German Chancellor and the President of the USA didn’t even bother to turn up. At COP 17, India accused other nations of bullying them. COP 18 at Doha was another low point. The EU could not reach any sort of agreement on carbon emissions targets thanks to Poland, while the USA again refused to decrease its emissions targets.

And then we reached Paris, or COP 21, or 20 or 19 depending on your timeline. Paris 21 set out to replace what are called the Millennium Development Goals, eight targets set in September, 2000 in New York, to be achieved by 2015. These goals were:

1.To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

2.To achieve universal primary education

3.To promote gender equality

4.To reduce child mortality

5.To improve maternal health

6.To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases

7.To ensure environmental sustainability

8.To develop a global partnership for development

Yet the focus of media coverage in Paris has been on almost completely focused on carbon.  Agreements include prevention of temperatures increasing above 2oC from pre-industrial levels, achievement of carbon neutrality by 2100 (ie, the carbon released by humans will be absorbed by plants, soils and oceans, a calculation completely flawed as it fails to take into account changes released to ecological succession as forests age, the fact that soils and oceans are already saturated with carbon, to the point that they are releasing carbon back into the environment and that much soil lacks the fundamental structure to store carbon, due to poor management or is now to saline to produce plant growth at all), to review each country’s progress every 5 years and to set aside financial aid for poor countries worst affected. 

 As usual, the UN has continued its obsession with carbon, as if fixing the carbon problem will save the planet.  Yet even if we fixed the carbon problem tomorrow, we wouldn’t save the planet.  Soil erosion, salinization of agricultural land, habitat destruction, diversity reduction and a lack of environmental justice all spell disaster.  Yet we are obsessed with carbon, a fuel source that is running out anyhow.  More pressing is how we will survive when our soils stop working, we run out of phosphorus (essential for food production and estimated to be depleted within 100 years). Platinum, uranium, rare earth metals, lithium, timber, hafnium and gallium, all essential for alternative energy production such as nuclear, solar and wind, are all heading for exhaustion within two generations. Then how will we produce the energy needed to support our populations at the current levels, far above natural carrying capacity, with the natural carrying capacity shrinking rapidly due to environmental destruction? 

Yet governments and the UN press on with a carbon agenda at the expense of these other areas. It dominates politics, school classrooms and breakfast tables. It’s like a family on a boat, gathered around a hole and working out how to fix it, but ignoring four other larger holes completely. This is not just irresponsible, but disastrous for our future.  The COPs are ignoring a much bigger policing issue, and as a result, we may have pristine carbon budgets, but with no ecosystem services left to sustain us, we’re still heading towards environmental catastrophe.