9 take aways from COP21

Having attended COP21 as a member of the Ethiopian delegation, I’ve been meaning to write up a post with some take-aways and reflections on the outcome, and will still do so if/when I have a second – but in the meantime, here’s an excellent piece by Christian Hunt, reproduced here with his permission.

My take on the Paris climate agreement is that it’s inadequate. But I think it’s still a really good thing.

Others have been less equivocal, arguing that the Paris agreement is either the best thing since sliced bread, or a disaster and a betrayal of real action on climate change.

So over the past few days I’ve been jotting down some thoughts to help me figure out how I feel about the agreement, and why – mental work in progress, that I’ll share in case it helps you organise your thoughts, or prompts you to email me and tell me I’m wrong.

So here goes:

1) Some preliminary analysis says the agreement, if implemented, would put us on track to 2.7°C by 2100. (Or even lower, with a ratchet mechanism.) I remember when similar analysis said we were on track to between 4 and 6°C, depending on which report you pick. Parking the obvious caveats, isn’t that a good thing?

2) Straight back to those caveats – “if implemented” is a huge one. In fact, it’s kind of the same caveat that existed before the agreement was done – “if we do something about this”. So obviously, the agreement in and of itself doesn’t fix the climate problem. It will require a huge effort from civil society to make the words of the agreement real, in political cost, in infrastructure, in financial decisions. And it will require more moments in the future when ambition is increased again, and again.

3) So let’s not get too hung up on the 1.5/2 degrees targets, and whether they’re realistic, or whether the deal does enough to secure them. My honest answers are: a) We don’t know if they’re realistic – it depends on how you define realistic, there’s a range of opinion, but we know they’re really tough. b) No global agreement will ever do enough to achieve them unless it is supported under the surface by an iceberg of agitation, campaigning and radical shifts in the global economy that still need to be fought for and built, and c) We should just stop obsessing about targets anyway and start arguing for and enabling the end of fossil fuel use as quickly as possible. Oh, and d) The 1.5 target came about because of advocacy by countries that face being literally wiped off the map by climate change, so let’s be a little careful about dismissing it out of hand, or as a way to buy off poor countries, because that strikes me as quite a disempowering and in some ways arrogant thing for those of us in richer countries to argue.

4) So congratulations civil society, we still have a massive job to do. But I would cautiously venture that having every government in the world committed to try and limit warming to 1.5°C is a great lever to move them with – a lever that gives more traction.

5) In fact, let’s quote what I see as the best part of Bill McKibben’s reaction to this – “What, you want to build a pipeline? I thought you were going to go for 1.5 degrees. You want to frack? Are you fracking kidding me? You said you were going for 2 degrees at the absolute worst.” On decarbonisation, if governments are sincere in what they say, let’s help them achieve their goals. If they’re insincere, let’s bust the hypocrisy.

6) Decarbonising our energy system, then our society, then reworking the relationship human society has to resource use and sustainability remain big, hard, daunting problems. Agreement in Paris doesn’t change the calculus of climate change.

7) In reflecting the way the world is arranged, the Paris agreement is an unfair deal for the world’s poor. Equity needs to be a much bigger part of the mainstream climate debate. One positive thing might be the emergence of strong campaigns for climate reparations, led from the global South and with the support of northern allies. (Or whatever the right approach is to opening up that space.)

8) Paris produced a treaty-level agreement, but was a document born of compromise. So while the ‘wrapper’ is binding, different parts of it have different levels of binding-ness. But crucially, important parts of it are actually binding – for example, the verification of what a country’s emissions are, a process to increase ambition over time, a long-term goal for emissions reductions. These are tangible things. So it’s not just nice words, or symbolic. (As an aside, the era of binding multilateral treaties is probably over, a friend pointed out to me the other day, because these days it’s more complicated than just getting the US and the USSR to agree to something. Not that it was ever necessarily simple.)

8) NGO messaging that says this is a “historic deal that will fix all our problems” can be annoying, I agree, because it sounds a lot like “job done”. But we should remember that we (in civil society) are not the target audience for that messaging. Such messaging is directed at the general public (to try and create a narrative shift that can enthuse people and build support for further climate action), or at investors (to increase investment risk, as with the divestment movement). It’s probably also directed at supporters (to make them happy about the impact ‘their’ NGO is having). Luckily, we can just ignore it, although I agree some of the crasser examples need to be called out.

9) In summary, if anyone has a good argument for why we’re in a worse place with a climate agreement produced in Paris than we were before, I’d be really interested to hear it. I accept that I may have drunk the kool-aid… But I don’t think so. Paris is the beginning of a process – a means to an end, not an end in itself. Civil society has played a huge role in getting us to this point, and will have a similarly important role to play in what comes next.

(Christian Hunt is a freelance writer, researcher and consultant, focusing on climate, energy, peace and conflict. He was founding editor of the website Carbon Brief, previously worked for Greenpeace and the Public Interest Research Centre, and is a co-director of the infidelity offsetting company Cheat Neutral. He lives in Minneapolis, USA.)