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Could the Paris accord unintentionally cause climate harm?

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Latest Moneywatch headlines 01:08

The Paris agreement has been hailed by Greenpeace as “a big step forward” in addressing climate change, with 195 counties agreeing to commit to lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

But the 2015 accord might not work as advertised, according to a new research paper from Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff and Andrey Polbin and Andrey Zubarev of the The Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. Kotlikoff’s name may ring a bell to some political junkies, since he’s a write-in candidate on the 2016 presidential ballot.

While Kotlikoff’s presidential platform focuses on addressing economic issues and reforming the country’s financial system, he’s also turned his sights to climate change. As he points out in his research, the Paris deal may widely usher in the “green paradox,” an economic theory that says setting future limits on carbon emissions creates an unintended result. Instead of cutting back, energy producers in the short-term will ramp up production because their incentive is to extract as much as they can before the spigot is turned off.

Kotlikoff is tying his research to his presidential platform, which calls for a $50 per-ton tax on carbon emissions, effectively giving economic teeth to controlling carbon emissions.

Having high, but declining carbon tax rates give “dirty-energy producers the right incentives to burn dirty energy slowly,” he wrote on his presidential campaign page. “My view is that the government should tax, not regulate dirty energy usage wherever possible and let the private sector come up on its own with the best response to mitigating emissions in response to the tax.”

Kotlikoff isn’t the only one pointing out problematic issues with the Paris deal. Two top climate scientists, Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters, recently wrote in Science that the accord’s chance of success relies on negative emissions, or innovations that will pull carbon dioxide from the air. But Anderson and Peters noted that these technologies are at “various levels of development” and shouldn’t be considered an insurance policy.

“There is a real risk they will be unable to deliver on the scale of their promise,” they wrote.

And the existence of an agreement alone won’t change how people and companies consume energy, points out Princeton University researchers Robert Keohane and Michael Oppenheimer. In a paper published earlier this year, they noted that stakeholders need economic incentives as well as political and social motivations to make changes.

The countries signing the Paris accord have agreed to cut climate pollution over the next decade and a half, but as The Atlantic described it last year, the deal works “more as an economic signal than as a binding statute.”

In the meantime, energy usage continues to ramp up, with Kotlikoff noting that global oil, coal and natural gas production have increased between nine percent to 11 percent each since 2010.

“Yet slower, not quicker release of CO2 is critical to limiting the planet’s temperature rise,” he wrote in the research paper. “Hence, the Paris accord, in not mandating immediate emission-limitation policy, may actually be accelerating climate change.”

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