While six years ago the big Copenhagen conference ended in tears of anger and disappointment, the 21st Conferences of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris ended in tears of relief and Mexican waves of approval last Saturday – even though the outcome is a rotten deal for the world’s poorest people.
Let’s take the positives first. For the first time 195 nations have been brought into a common cause in taking collective action to minimise the risks of dangerous climate change. And in reinforcing the agreement to limit average global temperature rise this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius, the Paris conference has given a clear signal that the age of fossil fuels is coming to an end. Whether it will end soon enough to maintain a reasonably safe climate remains an open question. What happens in the next few years remains critically important.
But it was not a fair COP. Because those most vulnerable to extreme weather events tend to be those who have done least to cause the problem, human-caused climate change is a major issue of social justice. And at Paris the Least Developed and most vulnerable countries were sold short. The hollow centre of the outcomes are the dependence on voluntary action and the continuing failure of the wealthiest countries to commit to the finance needed for mitigation, adaptation and ‘Loss and Damage’. Given the scale of the problems – and compared with the hundreds of billions that went to shore up the banking industry on both sides of the Atlantic – very little funding has been guaranteed. And the track record of rich countries on making such transfers is not reassuring.
For many of the Least Developed Countries and Small Island States the issue of ‘Loss and Damage’ – those impacts from climate change to which vulnerable countries can no longer adapt – was an important strand of the negotiations. For the first time the Paris Agreement includes ‘Loss and Damage’ as a stand-alone item, but, at the insistence of the USA and the EU the Agreement explicitly states that this ‘does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation’. But make no mistake, many of those most badly hit by extreme weather events will be seeking compensation. And not least because of the grossly deceitful nature of the fossil fuel companies, we should expect a growing stream of litigation on climate change impacts in the years ahead.
The dependence on voluntary action – on it being left to each government to decide what to do – does not put the world on the path to avoid dangerous climate change. At present the world is gambling on the potential of unproven technologies – like Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) – to reduce emissions in the second half of the century.
At the conclusion of the Paris negotiations, David Cameron announced that ‘We’ve secured our planet for many, many generations to come’, an utterance as bland and inappropriate as it was irresponsible. If we are to stabilise the climate for future generations wealthy countries need to make much steeper – and more immediate – cuts in our emissions than those currently planned. We need to invest more heavily in renewables – and discontinue subsidies to fossil fuels. The British government is leading us in completely the wrong direction – with bogus assurances and misplaced investments.
After a fortnight in Paris I came home with the belief that the main tasks of those seriously concerned with the injustices of climate change must be not just to press for faster emissions reductions in wealthy countries, but also to campaign for a legally binding global limit on fossil fuel extraction. The race against time continues.
Above all, climate change presents an opportunity to give the highest priority to human wellbeing, with stronger smarter communities, healthier lifestyles, and millions of new jobs. Facing up to climate change and ending abject poverty are two sides of the same coin. Unprecedented innovation – not just in energy and transport systems but also in food production, and in the way we organise and live in cities – a cultural and moral revolution, transparency and greater integrity of governments at every level are also needed. The climate change threat will only be fully met – and the opportunity for greater human wellbeing only fully realised – when the collective courage of humanity forces governments to face up to their responsibilities. Climate change remains everyone’s issue; we need to tread more lightly, more softly, while listening and responding to the most vulnerable.by