Last December Paris hosted the world’s biggest talks on tackling global warming and curbing emissions. More than 38,000 delegates representing countries, United Nations’ agencies, charities, campaign groups, universities, companies and media organisations came together in a spirit of harmony. After almost two weeks of discussions in the French capital, the 21st UN Climate Change Conference, or COP21, saw 195 countries agree to keep global average temperatures “well below 2°C” by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and ensuring countries can adapt. But some left feeling “vilified as slave traders”, and reaching widespread agreement has been a long time coming: for decades scientists and politicians across the globe have bickered and failed to solve threats posed by climate change. COP21 however was different, according to he UN, which hyped the gathering as a second chance to strike a deal after a similar, ill-fated, effort six years ago in Copenhagen, Denmark, failed to produce a binding agreement.
Toward the Paris summit’s end on 12 December 2015, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said the talks were the “most complicated, most difficult” he had attended. But: “We have entered a new era of global cooperation on one of the most complex issues ever to confront humanity.” The final accord is seen by many as a crucial, perhaps last, chance to create the first universal agreement to move world societies towards resilient, low-carbon economies. The agreement comes into effect in four years and to help fund this ambitious goal; COP21 aims to raise $100 billion a year from 2020 through public and private sources in developed countries. While individual pledges from nations are not enough to prevent dangerous climate change, the 32-page Paris Agreement was seen by many to mark a significant, collective and positive step for international negotiations.
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) executive secretary Christiana Figueres said: “One planet, one chance to get it right and we did it in Paris. We have made history together. “The recognition of actions by businesses, investors, cities and regions is one of the key outcomes of COP 21. The groundswell of action shows the world is on an inevitable path toward a properly sustainable, low-carbon world. This is an agreement of conviction and solidarity with the most vulnerable. Now we have to turn this deal into an engine of safe growth.” An agreement of conviction it may be, but COP21 is not a treaty.
Instead of legal requirements for accurate cuts in emissions, the deal is based on voluntary pledges, known as “intended nationally determined commitments” or INDCs. Countries are legally bound, though, to present progress reports every five years beginning in 2023, and to increase pledges every five years beginning in 2020. Lacking major enforcement mechanisms, the deal relies heavily on global peer pressure for countries to comply. It is good enough for the business sector, with the Trans-Atlantic Business Council (TABC) chief executive Tim Bennett saying: “This is a signal to and incentive for businesses to continue developing new technologies that will contribute to the goal of reducing global emissions. “Industry is already engaged in tackling climate change through innovation and changing business models. The private sector will continue to provide new technologies and industrial solutions to address this unprecedented challenge. We believe sustained efforts in research, development and deployment are crucial to achieving national pledges.” He said member companies of TABC, a cross-sector business association representing global companies headquartered in the US and EU, “look forward” to engaging with governments and the international community to help achieve the objectives of the agreement.
International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing director Christine Lagarde agreed: “The Paris Agreement is a critical step forward in addressing the challenge of global climate change in the 21st century. Governments must now put words into actions by implementing policies that make adequate progress on the mitigation pledges they have made.” Also happy is Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), the association of cities and local governments dedicated to sustainable development and including 12 mega-cities and more than 1,000 large cities and urban regions in 84 countries. Secretary general Gino Van Begin said: “The Paris Agreement affirms engagement with all levels of government. This inclusiveness will strengthen the power of the global coalition that will build a climate-safe and resilient future for communities across the world. “Technical and financial support committed through the agreement will help local and subnational governments to act boldly, swiftly and purposefully on climate. Immediate allocation of necessary resources for local and subnational plans will accelerate implementation of the pre-2020 action.”
However, environmental charity Friends of the Earth insisted the final draft of the climate agreement in Paris must be strengthened. Chief executive Craig Bennett said: “This draft climate deal falls far short of the soaring rhetoric from world leaders at the start of the conference. “At least it puts fossil fuels on the wrong side of history, but it doesn’t contain the solid commitments that science and natural justice require to cut emissions and protect people from increasing floods, droughts and superstorms. “The insistence of the EU and US on a clause that rules out compensating underdeveloped countries for the damage caused by climate change is a major issue. Rich nations have benefited most from burning fossil fuels that wreck our environment – they must take their fair share of the responsibility for helping the developing world to deal with the impacts.” HelpAge International, a group of organisations in Canada, Colombia, Kenya, India and the UK supporting older people worldwide, warned that climate change strategies must reflect the ageing world in which we live because they would experience the greatest impacts of climate change over the coming century.
Others were more forthright in their criticism. A leading European coal lobbying association said the deal to cap global warming meant the sector would “be hated and vilified in the same way that slave traders were once hated and reviled”. European Association for Coal and Lignite (Euracoal) secretary-general Brian Ricketts wrote to his members saying the “climate bandwagon is rolling and gathering speed such that the fossil fuel industry will spend the coming years and decades in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.” He accused governments and the European Commission of being “in cahoots with protest movements” and urged his industry to “no longer acquiesce”. Fossil fuels, including coal, contribute to carbon emissions and global warming, but Ricketts said the UN was portraying them as “public enemy number one”. Meanwhile, the deal represented the first step to a “global government” and was based on a “UN lie” about the future potential of renewables: “If emotional energy could power the planet, then COP21 has provided us with enough to keep the lights on for the next hundred years.” Euracoal has 34 members from 20 countries including national associations, importers associations, research institutes and individual companies in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Poland and Great Britain.
This view was poles apart from that of Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, the international effort to decrease carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million. Every government, he said, at last, seemed to recognize the fossil fuel era must end soon. “But the power of the fossil fuel industry is reflected in the text, which drags out the transition so far that endless climate damage will be done. Since pace is the crucial question now, activists must redouble our efforts to weaken that industry.” The final text still had “some serious gaps”, he insisted: “We’re very concerned about the exclusion of the rights of indigenous peoples and the lack of finance for loss and damage. And while the text recognizes the importance of keeping global warming low, the current commitments from countries still add up to well over three degrees of warming.”
However, environmental charity WWF praised the deal, with energy policy officer Darek Urbaniak insisting: “agreement sent a strong signal to the governments around the world to continue phasing-out of fossil fuels. While EU coal is already in decline the EU coal-power carbon emissions needs to be cut three times faster than currently planned to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.” That said the COP21 agreement was “a monumental success for the planet and its people,” UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon concluded, hailing the deal as “ambitious, credible, flexible and durable”. “History,” he added at the dropping a gavel in the shape of a green leaf to close the most far-reaching deal on climate change to date, “will remember this day”.