Last weekend, people rejoiced over the signing of the Paris climate agreement, the first time since Kyoto that something has been accomplished in the fight against climate change. There was much pomp and celebration by the negotiators and political leaders, and the mainstream media generally put a positive spin on the agreement, and there was definitely some cause for all this.
Paris marks the first time that nations around the world recognized the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, if possible, is far more desirable than capping it at 2 degrees, which had been the mantra of climate negotiations prior. This was a matter of simple justice for small island nations and vulnerable coastal regions, as warming of 2 degrees is seen by them as a death sentence.
Other positives about the agreement include funding to help developing nations potentially leapfrog fossil fuels straight to a clean energy economy or, at least, expedite their transition between the two. The involvement of major nations like the US and China, major developing countries like India and Brazil, and major oil producers like Saudi Arabia, was also quite a refreshing state of affairs from the usual discord and haggling that has marred previous COPs.
Indeed, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. The treaty does have some promise, but promise is the key word here, for our leaders really haven’t made us anything other than promises, and not commitments. There are no enforcement mechanisms written into the treaty, everything contained within it is voluntary, except perhaps agreed further conferences and tracking each nations’ progress towards its climate mitigation goals. Goals, mind you, that are self-imposed and also, voluntary.
I’ve heard it said that COP 2015 is an excellent treaty, had it been agreed in 1995. Our political leaders have always lagged behind the times when combating the climate crisis, so perhaps any success, no matter how meagre, seems like something ground-breaking and worthy of applause and commendation.
I know it seems like I’m completely trashing what was achieved in Paris, and I kind of am to be honest. I’m not trying to be overly pessimistic, but we still need to be realistic here. Climate change demands a monumental collaborative effort across all nations, across all levels of society. Paris, in this regard, is like needing to jump clear over a raging river when you’re being chased by a lion and instead, jumping to a stepping stone about a foot from the river bank.
In essence, it’s a good starting point, had it been enacted twenty years ago and at that time had been mandatory. Well, it’s not the 90s any more when climate change might have been easier to take in hand, and nothing legally compels our leaders to adhere to the agreement, so what does that leave us with? Probably not exactly at square one still but definitely not at square two.
So, let’s assess where the treaty takes us relative to where we actually need to be. First off, the climate pledges that the majority of nations made in the run-up to COP21. As I mentioned already, they are voluntary pledges to lower emissions through various means with no national or international legal obligations to undertake them. However, that isn’t the worst part. Taken together, the collective climate pledges will not hold warming anywhere near 1.5 degrees, they won’t even keep us under 2 degrees. Current estimates given our emission cut commitments as they stand place us on track for around 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels.
As Tim Gore, head of food and climate policy at Oxfam put it, “While this round of pledges is a step in the right direction, they only take us from a 4 C catastrophe to a 3 C disaster .”
Next up, funding to aid developing nations to transition to clean energy and adapt to climate change already locked in. The money will come from developed nations and larger developing nations with the capacity to contribute such as China which has pledged $3 billion dollars. In total, the established floor for the so-called Green Climate Fund is $100 billion annually. I don’t pretend to know much about the value of such a contribution in economic terms, but it seems to me a pittance to help every developing nation in the world to kick fossil fuels in favour of clean energy whilst simultaneously dealing with climate-related stresses and natural disasters.
So far, the text of the agreement is unclear as to the role or the trajectory of the fund from 2020 onwards when the Paris agreement comes into effect. So, even though, the sum promised is a floor, not a ceiling, there is nothing to say how much nations will, in future, contribute or if the fund will be kept alive long-term.
Next, it is interesting to consider what the agreement doesn’t mention rather than what it does. For one, the words coal and oil do not appear anywhere in the document. There is no commitment or even a suggestion that the majority of known fossil fuel reserves should be kept in the ground, as the science demands, let alone putting an end to further exploration for new reserves.
There is no mention of agriculture, responsible for at least a third of all emissions, nor is there any mention of the emissions caused by international flights and shipping.
There is no hint of reparations to developing nations for the damage that has been caused and will be caused by climate change. In fact, the US played a key role in weakening the agreement in this regard, having categorically refused to include any mention of compensation in the final draft of the agreement. Their negotiators even wanted wording in the document to insure Western nations against any liability for future climate damages to developing nations, but that got kicked out of the final draft. They, of course, promised in return that they would sign up to the 1.5 degree goal, so long as it wasn’t binding and they didn’t have to pull their weight with lowering emissions, which they could ask for because they had the power to bring the talks to a screeching halt.
And the final stop on this train-wreck, what the treaty includes that hasn’t been part of an international agreement before. Forest offsets are the sustainable management of forest ecosystems in order to capture our carbon emissions. However, it’s not really known how effective this is because it’s hard to tally how much carbon any given forest absorbs exactly. More to the point, these offsets give countries an out for not actually reducing their emissions, so the pollution still occurs, and the offsets may not necessarily be countering all of it.
Moreover, anyone who has read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything knows that these projects are often plagued by mismanagement and the displacement of indigenous peoples who more often than not know more about the sustainable management of their lands than the foreign companies who take them over and exclude them from places they have lived in for perhaps millennia.
The fact is that carbon offsets, carbon trading, and other market mechanisms for tackling climate change often fall flat and do little to solve the problem compared to actual intervention in the economy and tangible climate action. It was these so-called solutions to climate that led to the failure of Kyoto, as it took a decade to get them up and going and then they were marred by mismanagement and fraud.
So, if you look on the very bright side, yes, the agreement gave us a 1.5 degree target, yes, all the nations of the Earth are involved, yes, we’re getting money to developing nations to combat climate, but where are the tools to achieve all this? They’re not in the Paris document. In order to achieve even the target of 1.5 degrees Celsius would require a WWII-scale mobilization, starting right now. We would need to entirely de-carbonize our economies worldwide by 2030 and invest massively in carbon capture technology to draw down carbon dioxide that we have already emitted out of the atmosphere.
Why is such an undertaking necessary? Because the threat is that huge, far worse than that of Nazi Germany or any other human enemy from history. We need to stop thinking of climate change as simply an environmental problem. The fact is that we are at war, a war with time and with ourselves. We can’t let the jubilation that surrounded the “successful” Paris climate talks to trick us into complacency. The root of the threat we face is Big Energy, Big Agriculture, and Big Transport. They all need a massive overhaul if we are to have any hope of stemming the rise in temperatures and averting future disasters.
However, corporations with vested interests were heavily involved with the talks, and their lobbyists no doubt sunk their teeth into many a negotiator. My belief now is that the solutions to the climate crisis are no longer to be found in the political process. Governments can no longer act in an effective or timely manner because they are tied down by too much red tape and are strung up on too many corporate strings.
It is now the turn of the people to make the transition, to make the leap to a fossil-free future. We can do this by making personal to changes to our energy usage, what we eat, how we get around, and by acting together as communities to build better from the ground up, from local, to regional, to national. I’m not saying that state governments are totally obsolete. They still have the power to effect change and, unfortunately, to get in peoples’ way or worse, add to the problem. After all, not long after the COP, the UK decided to expand fracking, and New Zealand handed out new oil leases.
Only a loud, convincing voice, a massive people’s movement can topple them off their high seats of apathy and lethargy. The Paris agreement is one more example of our leaders treating an existential threat as a remote and manageable problem. Climate change is happening now. It is on our TVs, it’s in our communities and for some unfortunate people in my own country and the UK this Christmas, it is in their homes. We can no longer abide by governments throwing a bone at the problem when it demands we give it everything we’ve got.
Ultimately, people power will overwhelm this complacency, I believe, I hope, but our chances of achieving the lofty goals of COP21 would be much greater if politicians engaged with the problem with the seriousness it deserves. I’ll end with a message to world leaders, a quote by one of my favourite fictional characters, Katniss Everdeen, fire is catching and if we burn, you burn with us.
All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions, and no offence is intended to anyone.