Article by Francesca de Gasparis
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meets annually for two weeks from late November to mid December with national representatives, “party” delegations made up of negotiators and ministers, and civil society, “observers”, to negotiate an international treaty on climate change. This year was the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) and was hosted by the French government in Paris. COP meetings commenced in 1992 at the first Rio Earth Summit.
Overall COP21 has been lauded as being remarkable and ground-breaking in terms of reaching (finally) a universal agreement on tackling climate change. The expectations for COP21 were very high and the French host government did not disappoint in delivery - or did they?
Climate science states that governments need to agree a pathway to reduce their national carbon emissions, and address the existing and coming impacts of climate change in order to prevent climate change of greater than two degrees Celsius. A greater than two degrees increase in temperature would cause severe climatic changes and environmental and humanitarian crises globally. It has been noted by the UNFCCC on a number of occasions that 1.5 degrees would be a less catastrophic increase in temperature.
Prior to COP21 countries were asked to submit intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs). When analysed the INDCs fell far short of the requirements to limit warming to two degrees, and amount to increases in warming over three degrees. So, while the overall outcome from COP21 shows strong political commitment to keep climate impacts to “far below” two degrees celsius, closer to 1.5 degrees how countries will achieve this and effectively support those who are already experiencing the impacts of climate change is lacking. This is especially true for industrialised countries, like the US which is the world's greatest cumulative carbon emitter, responsible for almost one third of the historic industrial emissions to date.
To put this year’s agreement into a wider perspective, it might be helpful to take a long view of the climate change talks, over the years. It has been acknowledged many times that this process does not reap the desired commitment and ambition for a global legally binding contract that details how to stop climate change. The COP21 outcome, and its approach to reaching an agreement, shows strong political will, leaving out the details. Perhaps this is indeed a better way forward, to start with a shared goal, gain momentum, and figure out the details as we go along.
However, if current targets are not realised and surpassed, the COP21 agreement will condemn vulnerable nations, such as the small island states, and vulnerable groups, including indigenous people, women and rural Africans- who have played almost no role in creating climate change- to rising sea levels, erratic weather- droughts and floods causing destruction and death to millions of lives. Human rights, indigenous rights, and gender were included in the principles preamble to the agreement, but not sufficiently in the substantive text, raising serious concerns about how they would be effectively addressed.
Furthermore, carbon offsets using forests are included as a potential way to limiting carbon emissions in the new agreement, which GBM has shown in its reports is not an effective way to deal with fossil fuel emissions for many reasons (see GBM’s climate change reports 2011 & 2014). Protection of standing forests is critical to prevent run-away climate change. Global forest loss accounts for up to 1/6th of all global carbon emissions, however a fossil-fuel carbon emission is very different from a forest carbon emission, and these need to be kept separate and dealt with separately. Forest carbon cannot "offset" fossil fuel emissions. So this remains a big concern, carbon markets are a blunt instrument that could drive further loss of indigenous forests. Current “payment for results” systems have shown bias towards the easier measurement of carbon found in monocultures of fast growing alien species- i.e. tree plantations. This negative incentive, among other critical issues including land rights, governance and lack of funding reaching those doing the work, needs to be resolved if there is any hope for "carbon markets" to benefit for ecosystems and their human inhabitants.
There has been a lot written about the COP21 outcome. John Vidal wrote a balanced summary of five reasons to be cheerful or fearful of the agreement, giving five positives and five negatives of the outcome. A leading climate scientist wrote that despite all the grand headlines, and many agree, “COP21 is a fraud” as it doesn’t say how it’s going to achieve its promises-- which makes it much harder then to hold those in power making these promises to account. A humorous, light-hearted digestion of COP21 is given by First Dog on the Moon, poking fun at the process and spin.
COP21 was, to sum it up, “the end of the beginning” of governments getting to grips with tackling climate change, they have shown their political will and commitment. How it will be done effectively is still to be decided and acted upon. As Wangari used to say: we know what to do, and for the Green Belt Movement, it’s about getting on and doing it.