The end of 2015 brought with it The Paris Agreement, a momentous occasion and a defining moment of the climate change movement. It is the first time a global agreement has been signed by 196 countries to commit to combat human-induced climate change. This is unprecedented – but will it lead to real action?
Media attention was fierce on the actions of the national representatives who had gathered in the temporary United Nations conference centre on the outskirts of Paris. The surrounding was unglamorous, with plywood office structures erected in industrial warehouses, yet the content of the discussions were spoken of with celestial sentiment by media outlets across the globe, who summoned up all manner of clichés to herald the adoption of the document. Hyperbole was aplenty, as the “stage had been set” for the “globally historic agreement” to tackle the “greatest disaster facing mankind” – and the very fact an agreement was reached, regardless of what it would entail, was hailed as a “global success” and “major leap for mankind”. Truth be told, the sanctimonious language was merely a screen for sheer relief by all those involved in the process, especially with regards to the twenty years of negotiations leading up to Paris, including failures of past sister negotiations – not least the much-cited Copenhagen failure of 2009, which ended in political stalemate and disarray.
But one month on, the Paris Agreement has the bitter taste of predictability. The initial rhetoric in the opening ceremony from over 150 world leaders, the backroom struggles, the hours of delay stretching into days of uncertainty and the eventual reverberations of self-congratulation from a political elite who signed an agreement which remains in favour of a corporate and unequal international economic system. The Paris Agreement mostly commits its signatories to extensive political action in cutting climate emissions, but the section that is legally binding holds little obligation or consequences if commitments are not adhered to. Note the continuing theme of inflated importance with little substantive action to back it up.
Lots of rhetoric, little legal reinforcement
The political manipulation of the agreement by the most powerful state actors is most evident in the vague commitment of the much-hyped Article 2.1; a commitment to “[h]olding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”. This article aims to halt the rise in global temperatures to a level that will prevent disastrous climatic hazards and unknown environmental change and damage. Before Paris, such a commitment in the operational (read: legally binding) section of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Agreement to keeping global warming to well below 2°C was highly desired by Small Island States, other vulnerable states and communities and climate justice activists. But with global average temperatures surpassing a 1°C increase above pre-industrial levels this year, the inclusion of such an ambitious commitment to halt the rise was seen by many as idealistic. Current emission rates project average global temperature trajectories of well over 4°C increases.
In seizing the desperation of vulnerable communities to the huge environmental consequences of global temperature rises of over 2°C, the EU used this commitment to ally itself with many less developed states to form a ‘high ambition coalition’ in the final few days of the negotiations. Politically, it was ingenious. Soon after being formed, over one hundred countries wanted to be seen as part of the group of moral crusaders, pursuing a target of 1.5°C global average increases. A valiant cause, but undermined by the spearheading of the group by the EU and the inclusion of the USA – the second and third largest global contributors to greenhouse gases, along with the group’s very convenient political force for these main actors against India and China. Diplomatically, the ‘high ambition coalition’ helped the negotiations to progress. Symbolically, it was a success for the hundreds of millions of people around the globe to whom climate change is a current and very real threat. But pragmatically, its real term effect on lowering the emissions of the worst perpetrators is negligible.
Other such symbolism was rife during the Paris talks. Taking place just three weeks after the atrocious terrorist attacks in the same city, over 150 heads of state opened the proceedings in a show of solidarity and collective action. Finally, it seemed, climate change had become a top priority on the global political agenda. In reality, the get together presented another opportunity for rhetoric and diplomatic self-congratulation for ‘progression’ that is two decades overdue. There were true successes to be hailed, and these will be reached in due course, but the hailing of the event as an unprecedented success reflects more on the stagnation and bureaucracy of the past 20 of these sessions, held annually, than any sort of forward-thinking by the largest political actors in the arena.
To what extent were the negotiations an ‘Agreement’?
Moreover, the very title of the Paris Agreement can be called in to question. The OED definition of the term ‘agreement’ defines it as “harmony or accordance in opinion or feeling”, while the protests of representatives from Nicaragua, for example, certainly show a far more conflicted international atmosphere. The lead negotiator of the outspoken Central American country defended his country’s decision not to submit an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) – a new UN approach to get individual states to commit to their own emissions targets – by stating that Nicaragua “[does] not want to be accomplices to the death, damages and destruction that a 3°C or 4°C world will represent.” He went on to highlight that, despite the rhetoric, current pledged commitments to emission reductions still stand to increase the global average temperature, relative to pre-industrial levels, to more than double the 1.5°C acknowledged in the Paris Agreement. This small state, which contributes just 0.03 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, shouted the loudest during the talks, complaining of the irreconcilability of what is needed and what is being proposed to protect the climate. Countless other states most certainly felt the same but were kept quite by peer pressure, backroom deals and international momentum, and while non-state actors were loud in their protests, Nicaragua ultimately could not take on the biggest powers of the UN as a single state. In desperation for the rebels to toe the line, it is reported that the Pope called the President of Nicaragua in the last hours of the negotiations to ensure it was signed.
The UNFCCC works in the same manner as many other UN decision-making processes, with necessary consensus by all state actors to pass legislation, but democracy by consensus can work in mysterious ways. The banging of the gavel by Laurent Fabius, President of the Conference, without a moment’s hesitation nor a look around the room for final objections, epitomises the pressure all actors were under in the Plenary to reach the revered Agreement.
The true cost of the Paris talks: accountability and human rights
Aside from the hundreds of millions of dollars, the carbon emissions from air and land travel of 50,000 individuals who descended on Paris for the Conference and the hours spent wrangling the agreement, the true cost of Paris is clear in the nebulousness at its heart. Many of the key sticking factors concerning measurable targets and human rights were decimated in the final agreement, with no specific targets for the reduction in fossil fuel use, no legally binding amount of money to be provided to help underdeveloped countries, and few formal timelines beyond wording such as “as soon as possible” and “in the second half of this century” (Article 4.1). Richer developed nations have also managed to avoid legal responsibility or accountability for their historic over-use of the global carbon budget. All of these elements are critical in a document with as wide an audience and impact as the Paris Agreement’s, and by widening the criteria of the obligations, tangible impacts on reducing environmental impacts are eroded.
The dampening of optimism that was so apparent heading in to the talks is further explicit in the loss and damage section (Article 8). Throughout the talks, representatives from developed countries obstructed the inclusion of liability and compensation, undermining what is otherwise a very positive addition. Hence, despite a commitment to keeping global temperatures “well below” a 2°C increase, should (/when) the emissions from developed countries push global average temperatures above this, the most vulnerable developing countries who have contributed the least greenhouse gases cannot legally hold the perpetrators accountable nor demand any financial compensation for damage beyond voluntary contributions. Such a dynamic perpetrates a dependence on developed nations giving aid to developing nations without acknowledging responsibility for historic damage done and with no necessary legal financial targets to meet.
Another key loss from earlier drafts of the Paris Agreement was a commitment to human rights irrespective of interpretation, alluding to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Objectivity was lost in the final version, with the pre-amble to the agreement altered to talk of “respective obligations” with regards to human rights. This epitomises a watering down of the most ambitious justice-sensitive language and commitments throughout the Paris Agreement, with the Women and Gender Constituency, Indigenous Peoples, intergenerational equality, food and ecosystem security and many other climate justice-associated movements objecting to these changes. On day five of the conference, Norway and the US objected to the inclusion of human rights language in Article 2, asserting that the Paris Agreement has a different purpose to that of global human rights – drawing large criticism from a host of climate justice proponents. A failure to recognise the interconnection between the rights of every individual on this planet with the changing environment of the planet itself is an absurd logical omission on the part of actors, clearly displaying ulterior political motives.
The future of climate change decision-making
However, the importance of agreements under the UNFCCC cannot be underestimated. There is a happy medium between the initial heralding of the negotiations’ conclusion and the pessimism of climate justice activists and outspoken state representatives such as the Nicaraguan representative. Progress certainly was made over the first two weeks of December in the realm of tackling man-made climate change, not merely in a symbolic sense but very much in a practical one, too. For example, the movement to bottom-up commitments to emissions through state-produced, while potentially evasive of challenging targets, has encouraged the submission of individual commitments by the vast majority of countries in attendance. In a similar nod to national sovereignty, the Paris Agreement has also put into force the framework for progress reviews every five years.
The lack of legally binding consequences for lack of action self-evidently increases the risk of countries doing little or nothing. But the hope is that a commitment to state-led reflections will allow pressure to build and for individual states to continually commit to deeper greenhouse gas emission cuts. Moreover, on a more positive reflection of the loss and damage section and on the finance section (Article 9), both do mark a new era in the cash flows between developed and developing countries in facing the burden of climate change. Cash for adaptation mitigation financing is committed from developed states – no target amount is set out in the agreement, but US$100 billion has already been pledged to help the world’s most vulnerable. The commitments are no where near the level they should or need to be to halt large scale environmental change by the end of the century and to protect the world’s most vulnerable, but these changes provide a good starting point.
The agreement in Paris this December was the combination of over twenty years of trials and errors, of diplomatic prowess and of a favourable landscape in the two biggest global greenhouse gas emitters; the US delegates were headed by a Democrat President in his final term and Chinese commitments come as Beijing is closing old, inefficient coal power stations en masse. In parallel to this wave of political action has come the surge of the climate justice movement, a movement that, notably, contains a global cross-section of actors. The dialogue surrounding the combatting of climate change must move beyond the untrue Western-centric narrative of the pragmatism of the corporate, capitalist developed states (in which carbon emissions are viewed as an inevitability), as against lefty radical types who throw themselves in front of huge ships to save the whales. It is important to overturn the ‘pragmatism versus activism’ narrative and also to recognise that climate change will affect everyone. It will certainly affect the world’s poorest with the fastest and highest impact, for example women (who make up the majority of the world’s poor), indigenous peoples and inhabitants of Small Island States. But it also has large consequences for inhabitants of developed countries who have so far have paradoxically contributed the most to and been most cushioned by environmental changes.
The Paris Agreement was an undeniable leap forward in climate change negotiations for post-2020 action, but it also illustrates that political attitudes in many of the largest global actors remain out-of-touch and out-of-date with impacts of industrial and consumption patterns across a variety of states. The success of the Paris Agreement hinges on the introduction of the five-year reviews and pressure must continue to be applied on the least committed governments to increase self-set targets and follow them with public policy. As the euphoria of the Paris Agreement has settled since its adoption on December 12th, all actors must work with what has been proposed but equally look toward Marrakech next year, as well as to the five-year cycles of reviews, which all signatories have committed to “represent a progression over time”.
History will look kindly on the negotiations in Paris this month only if substantial progression continues to be made; the Paris Agreement is the merely the starting point from which global leaders must listen to the needs to global citizens and act accordingly in the coming years.