The Paris conference on climate change is over at long last and the men and women, who managed the conflicting demands, viewpoints and requirements of over 190 countries, are claiming victory. In short, they say, the Paris accord is both substantive and practical and addresses the concerns of the developing and the developed world. The question, then, is how far is this credible? The first and biggest takeaway is the universal agreement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions to the extent possible. In other words, we are seeing the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era. True, the agreement has to be ratified by every government, and that endorsement is imperative for the complete deal, but for the first time ever, the world has underlined that there is no future in hydrocarbons.
This is the kind of admission that marks an epoch. Hydrocarbons are not indispensable for economic growth; there are other credible sources of energy. The penalties their use imposes on the planet are no longer sustainable, nor necessary. In that sense, Paris is an epiphany for the human race. It sends a powerful signal to industrialists, especially in the energy sector, and policy makers around the world. The goal is net zero carbon emissions by the second half of the century, a figure that appears unattainable at first sight. It requires that the world release no more carbon into the atmosphere than will be absorbed by natural sinks such as the forests and oceans. How that is to be achieved remains to be seen given accelerated deforestation and increasingly acidic oceans, but if it is an iron declaration of intent ways can be found.
There are many troublesome ambiguities. Developed countries are required to provide $100 billion a year from 2020 for “climate finance” but it is not legally binding. Nor is it clear how power-scarce countries like India will square net zero with their ambitious plans for coal-fired power plants. This is not nit picking, there are real questions here, but it is also the first time that we are seeing universal acceptance of hydrocarbons as the darkest legacy of industrialisation. That is reason enough for three cheers. More so for India, which has stood its ground in the hard negotiations.