The goal of the Paris Climate Summit is "to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C." There are reasons for hope, and some reasons for pessimism. But set those aside for the moment. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that such a binding agreement is in fact reached at Paris this week. Then what?
Though governments might make binding agreements, it's not governments that are emitting greenhouse gases. Most climate pollution comes ultimately from industry, either directly or though the things industry produces that we consumers buy and use, like cars or air conditioners. So when a government agrees to reduce emissions, it's really promising to induce, or persuade, or force industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And, one way or another, eventually that means regulation.
I think we know this to be true, even those of us who don't want to admit it. And we also know the problem. As a trucking industry rep told me once (I paraphrase), "We will meet the letter of the law, but we will not do anything out of the kindness of our hearts. This is what our competitors are doing, and it would not make good business sense to do otherwise." If it were otherwise, no heavy diesel trucks in the world would be sold without inexpensive and nearly 100 percent effective particulate filters to take carcinogenic pollutants out of their exhaust. As it is, almost three-quarters of them are. The only ones that do have filters are those few sold where filters are required.
In the end, governments will make commitments on behalf of all of us. And then it will be governments' responsibility to deliver on those commitments in the real world. Should we condemn industry for doing only what's required, focusing on profits? Point the finger at others? To what end? We need to be oriented toward results. The idealism of binding climate agreements must be paired with a strong dose of climate realism to ensure that they produce real reductions.
The still-unfolding Volkswagen scandal is a sharp reminder that devising policy is not the same thing as reducing real-world emissions. But its value as a lesson in climate policy making is limited: VW was doing something illegal, after all, and that's a pretty black-and-white case. A more pervasive challenge is always going to be that "letter of the law" thinking, and we should be realistic and smart about that.
A case in point, highly relevant considering that the COP is meeting in one of the great capitals of Europe. In the European Union, the gap between officially measured vehicle CO2 emissions and real-world climate-warming carbon dioxide spewing out the tailpipes of cars--the gap between agreement and achievement, between regulatory climate pollution limits and real reductions -- is now 40 percent, up from eight percent in just the past twelve years. That's not because anybody's doing anything illegal; they don't have to. It's because automakers are meeting the letter of the law -- and exploiting every loophole and ambiguity in it.
The CO2 gap is an instructive example partly because we know pretty well how to resolve it. Improve the testing protocol by switching to the Worldwide Harmonized Light Vehicles Test Procedure. Disallow the practice of certifying CO2 emissions with "golden cars" (cars specially equipped with things like low-friction tires, taped-up doors, seats and side mirrors removed, all to achieve significantly better test performance than production vehicles would). Establish a European type-approval authority to break the connection between vehicle manufacturers and the technical service companies that perform tests, then give it the authority to force recalls and levy fines for noncompliance. There's more--even deeper in the weeds. The devil, as usual, lurks in the details.
But what it boils down to is straightforward: an everyday commitment to measuring compliance and effective enforcement. It isn't as glamorous as high-level negotiations. It won't make headlines (the VW thing notwithstanding). And without it the denialists might lose every battle and yet we can still all lose the war.
This post is part of a "Dangers of Denial" series produced by The Huffington Post, in conjunction with the U.N.'s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris (Nov. 30-Dec. 11), aka the climate-change conference. The series will put a spotlight on politicians and their supporters who actively deny the existence of or greatly downplay the gravity of climate change. To view the entire series, visit here.