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COP21: The Final Agreement is promising, but much work is still needed


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History was made this weekend in Paris with the coming together of 200 countries to pledge alliance to tackle climate change together. The real work will begin after the negotiations; emissions cuts must be much more ambitious if we are to achieve non-catastrophic planetary warming.

Some may disagree with my conclusions of the COP21 in Paris, but I am an optimist - well, at least an optimist that practices caution. This weekend saw two major steps in a positive global direction. First, the French Government, almost at the 12th hour and under huge amounts of public pressure, decided to lift state of emergency – which previously banned all forms of public protest and manifestations – to allow the 20,000+ crowd in Paris to legally take to the streets to protest in favour of a strong and just climate deal.

In response to the attacks witnessed in Paris exactly one month ago, the French authorities had put in place a state of emergency that cracked down hard on any form of public protest. At a time where democracy, freedom of speech and liberty were needed most, this form of draconian governance sent alarm bells ringing, bringing into question: what will a future laden with emergencies look? Luckily, they came to their senses, and allowed thousands to freely express their frustration and hope for a more just world.

The second sign was the finalising of a hugely ambitious “Paris Agreement”, to which over 200 countries signed a pledge this Sunday 13th December. Despite not being legally binding – a condition set by the US even before the final COP21 negotiations commenced – the agreement is historic. As French President Francois Hollande put it “This is a major leap for mankind.”

However, the agreement is not perfect. Although there was an agreement to work toward keeping the temperature increase below 2 degrees, and even 1.5 if it can be helped, the current emission cut proposals submitted by countries to the UNFCCC in the lead up to COP21 in the form of INDC’s (national domestic contributions) would lead to a warming of around 2.7 degrees, which would lead to catastrophic climate change.

This temperature increase has been calculated using slightly conservative IPCC data and simulators. If we were to take the approach of ex-NASA chief Dr. James Hansen, which considers longer-period positive feedback loops, the temperature increase would be significantly higher.

Although there is much more work to be done to ensure we keep temperature increase within “safe” limits, what is evident is that there is global recognition that climate change is a serious matter, and a challenge that requires global cooperation.

This in particular is the strength and weakness of the deal, in a bid to appeal to all 200 countries within the convention, many concessions were made, and the compliance mechanisms of the agreement are probably not as robust as some would wish. That said, the failure of Kyoto serves as an example of what happens when countries are pushed for harsher adherence to agreements – it can be argued however that this type of strict action is needed to truly achieve the pledges made. As you can see, this argument can go round in circles, which is essentially what happened over the past two weeks during the COP negotiations.

What is clear is that now fossil fuels are on the ‘wrong side of history’. It can also be expected that fossil fuels will be phased out with more vigour, and investment in the renewable sector is set to increase exponentially.

One problem however, despite the gradual ‘decarbonising’ of our economy this move will bring, is that renewable energy technology requires a huge amount of energy input, in addition to REEs (rare earth elements) and metals. These also have a limit; they aren’t called rare earth elements without reason. The renewable energy sector is not one that can grow infinitely, neither can the ‘new low carbon’ technology sector. We simply do not have enough ‘planet’ to continue on our currently trajectory without making real sacrifices. There needs to be systemic change to ensure that we are able to build a sustainable future; one that isn’t dependent on infinite growth on a planet with finite resources, in addition to more fairly distributing these resources.

The agreement acknowledges the need to recognise human rights, indigenous rights, and civil rights; in addition to acknowledging that climate change will impact and increase migration numbers. Despite this recognition, it was not possible to concretise how exactly these rights will be managed.

Climate migrants were neither included under the Refugee Convention – their legal rights are still very much in a grey area, and when the UN estimates that in the coming decades more than 200 million humans will be driven from their homes as they are no longer able to survive on the land due to rising sea temperatures, soil acidification, drought, flooding, land degradation, war (due stressor factors previously stated) – this becomes a very large unanswered problem.

So my cautious optimism rears its head. The agreement is a start; the ambition and ‘global awakening’ presented during the COP in Paris is promising for more ‘climate-justice wins’ in the future, and it gives me hope that justice is gaining momentum – however it is nowhere near enough. Pressure needs to put on governments around the globe to sign the Paris Agreement – some sources are citing 16th April 2016 as the signing deadline of the agreement – and as this date draws closer public pressure must build on their local and national governments to sign, and act in accordance with the pledges. This is of the utmost importance for the future of the most vulnerable in our world; for our future, and for the future of generations to come.

What we don’t realise is that the system doesn’t change overnight; system change isn’t as easy as turning on a switch. It takes re-training, not just protesting. Our muscle memory will continuously take us back time and time again to the egocentric-neoliberal approaches which shout “growth, profit, wealth, growth” which landed us in the state we are in currently. These almost visceral reactions are hard to break, they’re stubborn and require a lot of reconditioning. Contrary to the belief of some, however, neoliberalism is not a cardinal rule for societal and economic organization – there are other options. And these options must be explored and more widely practiced in order to begin creating a different system.

The real question on everyone’s lips is: where to now? The pomp and circumstance has been finalised, the negotiations concluded, and no doubt many ministers and negotiators are patting themselves on the back for having pulled off a rather comprehensive agreement. In my opinion, the next step is fighting off any form of corporate take over which could jeopardise the very fragile climate-protection pledges made. There is no greater example of this than TTIP – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership - which is a free trade deal focusing on the deregulation of almost every sector within trade - from labour to environmental standards in order to facilitate trade between over 100 countries in on the deal. The scariest part of this deal is the formation of ISDS courts – privately run courts - under which private companies are permitted to sue governments on the grounds of loss of profit. Currently, Vattenfall – a Swedish energy company – is suing Germany on the grounds of loss of profit as Germany has banned nuclear energy, and is reducing coal mining. Under the TTIP these types of cases would become more and more frequent, and also tip the balance of power into the hands of corporations, meaning that governments and local communities would have very little power to stop corporation activities on the grounds of violations of environmental or labour standards, for example.

The climate pledges would be completely undermined if we were to allow profit before environment. Currently “trade trumps environment”; it is even enshrined in the Framework for Climate Change Convention which was signed at the Rio1992 summit - around the same time the WTO was created. If we are going to have any chance of keeping to the promises made this weekend in Paris, and creating a world that will not be unbearable for the majority – in particular in the poorest parts of the world – we must fight to reverse this ‘cardinal rule’ which dominates our system.



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