Saturday, 12th December 2015 is a date to remember. A Paris conference hall of emotionally drained and sleep deprived negotiators, politicians, translators and lobbyists from 195 nations erupted as, a full nerve wrangling day behind schedule, the striking of a tiny gavel signalled that an unprecedented international deal to combat climate change had been reached (well worth a watch here).
COP21 (short for the 21st Conference of the Parties if you want it’s full, equally uninformative title) was the first major climate conference since the failed Copenhagen talks in 2009 (COP15). The stakes were high. Very high. The scientific consensus regarding the threat to human settlements, food security and biodiversity posed by manmade climate change and global warming has only increased in recent years. In 2015 temperatures are believed to have hit 1˚C above pre-industrial levels. The window of opportunity to cut greenhouse gas emissions and avert truly disastrous temperature rises is closing.
Heading into the talks it was clear that they were being taken more seriously than previously. A series of mini conferences and high level conversations occurred throughout the year to ensure a stronger platform for a deal than last time. Most countries, including all the major emitters, also pre-submitted climate pledges (properly though dully known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs) detailing their planned carbon emissions trajectory out to 2030 and beyond.
With nearly 200 nations needing to agree it was never going to be an easy task. Small island nations, who will be the first to bear the brunt of rising sea levels, wanted an ambitious target to restrict warming to below 1.5˚C. By contrast large developing nations, India especially, were firm that they had every right to pursue their growth and industrialisation as the West has done for decades. Gulf States and other fossil fuel exporting countries were naturally cautious of the consequences to their national revenue if a tough deal was agreed. Poor nations wanted climate finance to mitigate and adapt to climate change and perhaps even the right to seek damages from historically and currently high emitters. The USA and EU were keen (belatedly) for an ambitious deal and joined with the island nations in pushing for a 1.5C target. This came with the proviso however, that any recourse for seeking legal damages was out of the question. The USA also couldn’t accept legally binding national emissions targets as they would never pass through their Senate!
With all this in mind it is genuinely impressive that a deal was struck at all. The Paris Treaty is 31 pages long and is pretty heavy going. These are the highlights as I see them; beginning with the plus points:
- A surprising and unexpected commitment to an ambitious warming target. The Marshall Islands got their way (not something you’ll often see) and 1.5˚C made the text. 195 world leaders have signed up to restricting global temperature increases to, “well below”, 2˚C and to further aim for no more than 1.5˚C warming by 2050. This is also a longer term commitment than previously attempted and a really excellent outcome.
- $100 billion a year in climate finance for poorer nations from 2020. This figure is a floor so in practice more could be made available.
- Countries must submit revised, more ambitious INDCs every 5 years and both monitor and report their emissions according to an internationally agreed common accounting mechanism. Only the very poorest (and thus low emitting) nations are exempted.
- 195 nations agreed! That does need to be emphasised and re-emphasised because it’s incredible.
And now for the low points:
- Strong language on a specific timeline for emissions reductions was shelved. The text only commits in vague terms to, “reaching greenhouse gas emissions neutrality in the second half of the century”.
- Entirely as expected nations will not be subject to legally binding emissions reductions. Nations are obligated to submit INDCs but they cannot be compelled to stick to them. It does not take a genius to spot the flaw here!
- Related to the above there is a clause absolutely ruling out legal action against emitters. Some climate justice campaigners are super pissed about this.
- Fossil fuel exploitation and exploration are not mentioned explicitly. It has been pointed out that pledging to cut demand while doing nothing about supply is inadequate. As long as someone’s digging it up someone’s going to use it.
- Emissions from shipping and aviation didn’t make the text.
- Human rights and gender equality references got cut. Sad though not surprising.
- The climate finance commitments are not in the legally binding bit of the treaty. With suing also not an option it is still questionable how much money for mitigation and sustainable development poorer nations will actually see. Without the cash the impact of climate change on these communities will be worse. There will also be a greater risk of these nations resorting to cheap coal for energy.
In summary, with the overall warming target and emissions monitoring legally binding but the mechanisms and national pledges essentially voluntary it’s a case of could be better, could be worse (a comfortable 2:2 if you will). A lot is going to come down to what happens after Paris. The INDCs, both their implementation and improvement, are going to be essential. Current pledges still leave us with a predicted 2.7˚C warming; not nearly good enough (some excellent figures and detail on INDCs are available from Carbon Action Tracker). It will be up to national governments to live up to the undoubted warm words and political goodwill on show at the conference in the coming years. As citizens it will also be our responsibility to hold our politicians and public institutions to account. We must demand robust action. In the UK solar subsidies were drastically slashed just days after the COP21 gavel fell as we go, “all out”, for fracking. The era of fossil fuels must end but it’s not over yet. There’s still a huge battle to fight. Here in Southampton I’m part of a campaign to get the University’s endowment fund (your tuition fees) invested ethically. Earlier this month SUSU supported the campaign and committed to lobby the University not to invest in coal, tar sands oil or Arctic development. Join us at Invest Positive UoS to be involved.
One last thing! I was on fieldwork during the final days of the conference working on a research plantation of bioenergy poplar. The trees in the image at the top are from a commercial crop near to ours. These trees can reach 6 metres in a single year and draw down tonnes of CO2 per hectare. When cultivated for energy production they have far lower net emissions than fossil fuels because they’re operating within the short term carbon cycle. Alternatives do exist. Renewables can work. We’re not doomed yet.