The obstacles facing this weekend’s historic global climate change accord were thrown into relief on Sunday night when businesses and government officials played down the impact of the deal and US Republicans underlined their opposition.
The Paris agreement, which requires all countries to regularly publish plans to deal with global warming, has been hailed by international leaders as a turning point after more than 20 years of effort to make this century the last to be powered by fossil fuels.
Angela Merkel, German chancellor, said the deal was “the first time that the entire world community has obligated itself to act — to act in the battle against global climate change”, while Pope Francis also praised the “concerted effort and generous dedication” of those involved. It was adopted by nearly 200 nations.
But coal and oil industry executives shrugged off any suggestion the new agreement sealed in Paris on Saturday night would have any immediate impact on their businesses.
The agreement’s goals include driving down carbon-dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels as soon as possible in order to limit global warming to “well below” 2C from pre-industrial times and perhaps as little as 1.5C, a target requiring much deeper emissions cuts than most countries are currently planning.
Amber Rudd, the UK energy and climate change secretary, described the 1.5C goal as merely “aspirational” while defending the UK government’s decision last month to scrap £1bn in funding for carbon capture systems that could hold emissions down. “I don’t think it was a mistake,” she said. “They are still expensive.”
Benjamin Sporton, head of the World Coal Association, said he did not see the new agreement spurring a “massive change at the moment” for companies that produce coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels, because so many developing countries still plan to keep burning it.
He said the pact was likely to force governments to focus a lot more on the carbon capture and storage systems the UK had just de-funded because they would be vital for meeting its goals.
The American Petroleum Institute said it was still reviewing the Paris accord, but Amjad Bseisu, chief executive of EnQest, an oil explorer in the UK North Sea, said the oil industry had more immediate concerns beyond the Paris Agreement.
“This is a very slow process. We already look at our carbon costs, but right now the industry has other challenges [with the falling oil price].
In the US, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, questioned the Paris deal, saying that the US portion relied on measures championed by President Barck Obama that were being challenged in the courts.
“Before his international partners pop the champagne, they should remember that this is an unattainable deal based on a domestic energy plan that is likely illegal, that half the states have sued to halt, and that Congress has already voted to reject,” Mr McConnell said.
A spokesman for Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, told the Financial Times: “This agreement does not bind Congress in any way, and we will continue to focus on an energy policy that promotes America’s abundant natural resources,”
But the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, told the FT the Paris Agreement was “a game-changer” that should prompt fossil fuel companies to shift to low carbon business opportunities.
He described his reaction to the agreement as “Wow!” since its measures to help poor countries adapt to climate change would re-shape the way funds were directed to developing nations.
Still, many scientists questioned the prospect of governments being able to reach either the 2C or 1.5C goal in the Paris Agreement, saying it was premised on future technologies removing huge quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere many decades from today.
“If such highly speculative ‘negative emission technologies’ prove to be unsuccessful then the 1.5C target is simply not achievable,” said Prof Kevin Anderson of Manchester University. “Moreover, there is only a slim chance of maintaining the global temperature rise to below 2C.”
Additional reporting by Kiran Stacey