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Politics COP21 Paris

Published on December 14th, 2015 | by Eleanor Newis
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Climate Conference: No Plan B

US President Obama said at the end of the 2015 Climate Conference in Paris, known as COP21, “together, we’ve shown what’s possible when the world stands as one”. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said “climate justice has won and we are all working towards a greener future.” The group’s chairman, who was also representing some of the world’s poorest countries, declared “it is the best outcome we could have hoped for, not just for the least developed countries, but for all the citizens of the world.” Blimey. From the statements of the leaders who attended, it began to sound yesterday like COP21 was some sort of gathering of superheroes, who had finally decided to use their collective powers to save the world. But, the question is, will COP21 actually make the necessary difference? In the past, the Kyoto agreement and the talks at Copenhagen have fallen far short of the necessary commitments, and many countries – particularly the UK – have relegated climate change policy to something which is rolled out during general elections, as a sort of lip service to an electorate who might care. A while ago, I talked about how an important demographic in this electorate, namely my (and probably your) generation, had made an impact on this consensus of green ambivalence. So, how much of an impact?

Firstly, the COP21 agreement was going to be historic from the first moment of its existence: simply because the governments of these 196 countries have always failed in the past to reach an agreement at all. This time, the amount of pressure on them was such that they could not simply slink back to their respective electorates and shrug off the conference as not going their way. So, there was always going to be a conclusion, and a new piece of history was always going to be written. Of course, the big headline of the agreement is the clause about keeping the global temperature “well below” 2C and also to try to get it under 1.5C. Reportedly Copenhagen failed because many countries did not want to commit to lowering emissions. Countries like China, South Africa and India worried this limit would hamper their economic growth – and of course, they are in a radically different stage of economic development to the US or Britain. This time, these countries have compromised: and getting 196 countries to compromise can be no easy task.

The actual text of the COP21 conclusion means that greenhouse gas emissions will have to peak globally, and reduce according to the best science available. The plan is for this to mean staying below 2C and then trying to reduce to 1.5C, but it also means the action on climate change will be guided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which says that carbon emissions should actually be at zero by the end of the century. Now, this is all well and good, but what did they do about the difference between developed and developing countries? The answer is of course, they came up with an incredibly convoluted piece of unintelligible jargon, by the name of CBDRRCILNDC (yes, really) which means Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities, In the Light of Different National Circumstances. I’m pretty sure that when an acronym begins to look like a handful of alphabet spaghetti it means a rethink is necessary, but international committees do seem to love their jargon. Anyway, this basically means (in regular English) that countries will take on more cuts in emissions as they become able to. There will be a single system of measuring how countries are doing, but COP21 emphasises flexibility for countries who are still growing and don’t want to compromise by carbon reduction.

Whilst this might make some sceptical about COP21’s success, it must be remembered that the inequality of climate change measures has long been a barrier to their success: carbon reductions affect Western developed economies less and any developing economy more. Add this to the fact that many developing economies are in geographically dangerous areas when it comes to global warming and rising sea levels, and things get very tricky. COP21 has a clause, which has not been a part of any past agreement, about loss and damage. This is a nod to the fact that many poor and endangered countries are suffering because of the economic drive of bigger (often Western) countries; it also recognises that countries like the US and Britain are predisposed to suffer less from climate change, because of their geographical position, despite contributing massively to the temperate and sea level rises. This is further reflected in the finances section of the agreement, which states poorer nations don’t have to contribute money to climate change measures, whilst richer countries do.

A key part of COP21 is also the system of review: back when Kyoto and Copenhagen happened, there never seemed to be any follow up. This time, a review has been planned – in 2019, there will be an evaluation of each country, and in 2023 there will be a “global stocktake” (review or evaluation to you and me). Two years after this, new carbon cutting commitments will have to be made. But, wait a minute – “have to”. Will they have to? Actually, no, they won’t have to. COP21 is, like preceding climate agreements, not entirely legally binding. This has long been a pet peeve of those who want drastic environmental action, and though this one is partly legal, it is not entirely. Nick Dearden, director of the campaign group Global Justice Now, said the deal “undermines the rights of the world’s most vulnerable communities and has almost nothing binding to ensure a safe and liveable climate for future generations.” He may have a point: if temperatures do rise by 2C (the conference’s original target) 280 million people might lose the land they live on to increased sea levels. If the 1.5C target is hit, this will only reduce to 137 million people.

The UK’s Energy Secretary Amber Rudd was asked this week about the government’s plan to cut renewable energy subsidies and said there is “no point in having renewables which are permanently expensive” and “subsidies isn’t a long-term plan”. Well, no, but her vague alternative of the UK government delivering energy change “in a different way” and “providing better value for money” doesn’t sound very long-term either. David Cameron seems jubilant, saying “the whole world has signed to play its part in halting climate change.” But, after all the handshakes and posing for silly photos the leaders are travelling home to work their plans out. 189 plans have been submitted – as far as I know the UK has not yet it own. Friends of the Earth chief executive Craig Bennett stated, “this summit clearly shows that fossil fuels have had their day and that George Osborne’s outdated, backward energy policies must be reversed if he wants to be on the right side of history.” And this is really the key point about COP21. There has never been a proper climate agreement, despite decades of attempts; history was always going to be made at COP21, because the pressure has gotten so great on politicians from their people. The question now, as leaders return and begin drafting plans, is which side of history will they be on? And they should remember the words which lit up the Eiffel Tower a few days ago: “no plan B.”

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