As I sit on the train home from Paris and the COP21 UN climate summit, I have mixed feelings about the outcome. There are victories to be celebrated, not least that a historical agreement was reached, signaling the end to the fossil fuel era. However, for me it is not the triumphant success that many are claiming it to be. There are gaping, shockingly unacceptable flaws, including the issue of aiming for a 1.5 degrees C temperature rise limit whilst the country pledges and rest of the text will only limit us to 3 degrees C warming. It is particularly inadequate for the most vulnerable countries and barely deals with human rights.
I spent the first week inside the climate summit, which was both exhilarating and stifling. The unprecedented arrival of hundreds of world leaders on the first Monday seemed to reflect the global push for climate action. The weekend before, 785,000 people worldwide had mobilized to demand a fair, ambitious deal. Some of us UKYCCers had taken part in the human chain in Paris, with a large turnout despite the tense mood following the recent attacks. Many young people carried energy and determination sparked from the Conference of Youth, just days ahead of the COP. In the sterile, expansive halls of Le Bourget, the atmosphere felt unexpectedly positive and hopeful. However, in the second week, as hard decisions and compromises had to be made, tensions were felt more acutely and for many the negotiating text became the source of more disappointment as it was re-written.
One of my focuses has been the long-term goal. This is about a clear vision of what we need to accomplish to avoid catastrophic climate change, and how we can get there. It generally refers to reductions of greenhouse gas emissions by a certain date, and the limit of 1.5 or 2 degrees C in global temperature rise. These are highly contentious issues, and after meeting with UK negotiators it became more obvious how political the language and goals are.
The beginning of the week was optimistic as the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF, a group of 20 countries vulnerable to climate change) announced their Manila-Paris Declaration. They courageously pushed for 1.5 degrees C, which has been supported by over 100 countries, and led demands of 100% renewable energy and zero carbon emissions by mid-century. This echoed the YOUNGO group’s position and was praised by civil society, earning a Ray of the Day award. However, as the agreement text was repeatedly re-drafted during the second week, the long-term goal became weaker.
The final agreement is too vague. It calls for countries to ‘reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible… and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases [i.e. get to net zero emissions] in the second half of this century.’ I find this an utter joke, and a disgrace when scientists have already explained specific deadlines for decarbonization and peaking. ‘Second half of the century’ could mean anytime from 2050 to 2099. 2 degrees C temperature rise is the limit, with a mention for countries to ‘pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C’. It is better than I expected and definitely could be worse. Still, this is simply not good enough. Not enough to meet the demands of science. Not enough for vulnerable countries and communities whose survival relies on (at least) a 1.5C limit.
The UN climate negotiations: Not the only battle
Increasingly I’ve found myself disheartened and angry about the UN climate negotiations. Angry that people involved in the UNFCCC (UN climate) process have to become numb to the fact that it is a letdown; that we have to adjust our expectations and lower our hopes because we know it would be too unbearable otherwise. I lost sight of the bigger picture.
I don’t think we can or should abandon the UN climate process. Whilst the UNFCCC is flawed and frustrating, it keeps bringing the world’s countries together to ensure an open dialogue, support system and that responsibility is taken seriously (kind of). Nevertheless, the country commitments (INDCs), rate of action and agreement text are no way near what they need to be. Grassroots action and engagement are essential. I mean, we’re talking about changing the very system we live in: where we get our energy from and how it’s used; adaptation to the effects of climate change; and shifting power, money and status away from fossil fuels to kinder, healthier forms of energy.
The climate negotiations were always stacked against us. They are so often stuck in procedure instead of real decisions and action. Politics, businesses, and companies whose livelihoods depend on fossil fuels are embedded in the process. Human lives and rights, people that should be protected, become irrelevant. Civil society, including young people whose futures will be most affected, is shut out with polite boundaries that disable active participation. There are language barriers and barriers of representation for developing countries that can’t afford to send as many negotiators (and whose civil society presence is also reduced). The playing field is definitely not level, and it reflects the upside-down world that we’re living in.
Christiana Figueres (Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC) asked those at the Climate Vulnerable Forum event, “How do you turn your vulnerability into strength?” Vulnerable probably isn’t the right word for the climate movement (‘underdogs’ might be better). However, like those countries that have banded together, the climate movement gets its strength by uniting. As someone who first began campaigning on climate change in 2009, it seems the movement has grown up. It is more resilient, realistic and increasingly inclusive and diverse. During last Saturday’s ‘Red lines’ demonstration in Paris, attended by thousands (including UKYCC), civil society came out in force to show that the climate movement will strive for climate justice regardless of any UN climate agreement. Instead of framing COP21 in Paris as the defining deal, a make or break moment, it is recognized as an important opportunity and boost for the work that needs to be done, but not the solution. In hindsight, putting all hope on the Copenhagen COP15 summit set us up for a defeat. Yet, as I became more absorbed in UN climate policy, I started to fall into the same trap.
This year we needed an ambitious deal, but it was never going to be enough. Despite struggling with the reality of the UNFCCC process and the enormity of how we can avoid catastrophic climate change, I find strength and hope from the acknowledgement that we cannot and will not rely solely on the top-down approach of policy and politics to solve this. We have to keep chipping away at UN climate summits, but we need everyone, everywhere, to wake up and make positive change happen. On Friday I heard Yeb Saño, ex-negotiator for the Philippines, speak at an event by If Not Us Then Who: “After Paris, regardless of what happens tomorrow, we will continue on with this journey, and we will stop putting our lives in the hands of people who really don’t care.”
The Paris Agreement is an achievement for so many people who have worked tirelessly for years; but along with the UN climate process, it falls desperately short of what the world needs. The UN climate bubble needs to be broken if we want to deliver concrete change that will protect what really matters. The gap between the negotiations, the climate movement and everyone else has to shrink if we are to take care of those people and places that are on the frontlines of climate change.