No Deal In Paris
Environmental reporter and climate change activist Shailendra Yashwant opines on the outcome of the recently concluded, and hotly debated 2015 Paris Climate Conference. The much-celebrated results, he says, need to be taken with more than a pinch of salt.
Photo: Shailendra Yashwant.
On the cold morning of December 12, 2015, Aurora, a giant animatronic polar bear, stood forlorn and forgotten outside the temporary convention centre set up in the Le Bourget Airport, the venue of the Paris Climate Summit. Inside, it was the last day of the 21st session of the Conference of Parties (COP21) of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
As expected, the conference had run into extra time of one entire day. After 21 years of haggling, another 21 hours didn't seem to bother anyone, and red-eyed delegates who had stayed up all night helping their governments negotiate tricky text options were seen huddled around the coffee booths. All of them aware of the burden of the failed Copenhagen Climate Summit that must not be repeated. Climate change had already unleashed runaway disasters in the four years since that last attempt to bring the world together to take action. All hopes of an outcome, good or bad, were now upon Laurent Fabius, the President of COP 21, who was shepherding the world’s governments to finalise a treaty that will have grave impact on the future of the planet as we know it.
For the first time in 21 years of knowing that they had to deal with the phenomenon of global warming, nearly 200 nations were on the verge of “recognising that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries, and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, with a view to accelerating the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions and also recognising that deep reductions in global emissions will be required in order to achieve the ultimate objective of the Convention and emphasising the need for urgency in addressing climate change .”
Finally when Laurent Fabius struck the specially designed green gavel, the most memorable achievement of the Paris agreement was that “it aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.”
The formal 1.50C target is based on progressive improvements over 25 years in the science of understanding the risks of climate change, and on the economics and technology of cutting greenhouse emissions. A UNFCCC report had already reached this conclusion back in June.Of course the Paris Agreement is much more than the 1.50C limit, but the limit is a fundamental guide to how the agreement should be implemented, and a signal of the urgency with which nations must address climate change.
To limit warming below 1.50C by 2100, the best available scientists estimate that the world needs to reach zero greenhouse emissions between 2060 and 2080, or between 2080 and 2100 for a 20C limit. These time frames are now written into the long-term goal in Article 4 of the agreement, which commits countries to collectively reach zero global greenhouse emissions in the second half of the century.
A simple translation of that lofty goal into action would entail world governments urgently and collectively cutting their national emissions (usually tied to GDP and development indicators) drastically by shifting the energy sector from the clutches of fossil fuels to a massive uptake of renewable energy, ending deforestation and launching a mammoth afforestation drive. ‘To embrace renewable energy and give more love to forests’ to quote a tattered banner seen near the Eiffel Tower earlier in the week.
To achieve this goal, the Paris agreement is totally dependent on Intended Nationally Designated Contributions (lNDCs), which are basically voluntary emission cuts that countries announced ahead of the Paris summit. Voluntarism is at the core of the Paris agreement that essentially prescribes nations to, ‘do what you want as per your capacity and position to do so in the time frame that suits you’. And this is where lies the biggest failure of the Paris agreement.
Photo: Shailendra Yashwant.
Unfortunately even at best estimates, the INDCs submitted for the Paris agreement by 155 countries (accounting for over 90 per cent of current greenhouse gas emissions) expose an ambition gap of 17 gigatons or 55 per cent of the total mitigation of 30.8 gigatons that is required by 2030 for a 66 per cent chance of remaining below the 20C warming limit.
And if that’s not bad enough, developed nations have so far pledged to deliver only 38 per cent of their fair share of the mitigation burden even as developing nations have pledged to unconditionally mitigate 126 per cent of their share.
Based on the current INDCs, the world is heading for 30C warming and is nowhere near the ambition of keeping it closer to 1.50C. Developing countries and island nations that are already reeling under the devastating impacts of a 10C rise were the first ones to cry foul amidst the celebration that day. Even the Renewable Energy (RE) industry delegates at the meeting were cautious in their welcoming of the treaty, stating that the RE industry was already on a roll.
“Urgency, equity and justice, the key demands of the environmental and social movements, were set aside for the sake of diplomacy and multilateralism. To know that the world’s current emissions trajectory, even with the voluntary pledges, will take us way beyond the warming goals we have set is not the only reason where the Paris agreement fails itself,” commented Sanjay Vashist of Climate Action Network South Asia.
“While the Paris Agreement in and of itself will not ensure global temperature rise remains well below 20C, let alone 1.50C, the commitments made there will give a massive boost to the deployment of renewable energy. Wind power is already the cheapest way to add new generation capacity to the grid in many parts of the world: Brazil, South Africa, and large parts of China and the United States to name a few. Solar PV costs have decreased 75 per cent since the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009. Biomass, geothermal, and of course, hydropower are all competitive in a growing number of markets in comparison to coal, oil and gas-fired power stations,” says Steve Sawyer, Secretary General of Global Wind Energy Council.
The launch of Solar Alliance by India with African nations and a slew of similar announcements on the sidelines of the summit, ranging from divestments from coal to commitments for 100 per cent RE uptake by myriad businesses and banks, communities and churches, are all seen as early indicators of the inevitable rise of renewables. Even India, despite its vocal demands for carbon space, in the form of the right to burn coal until its development agenda is achieved, announced an addition of 175 GW power generation from renewable energy by 2022 in its national targets or INDCs.
Yes Saño, former Commissioner of Climate Change and a climate activist from Philippines, who walked from Rome to Paris for the summit, sums up the climate crisis as a deeply moral problem, stemming from three things. Interestingly, he says, they all begin with the letter ‘A’ whether spoken in English, Italian or French. "The first is avarice, which is extreme greed," he says. "The second thing is arrogance, which is an exaggerated sense of one’s importance. The third is apathy, or the belief that someone else will save the world.” All of which were apparent in the moves made by developed countries when negotiating the text of the Paris agreement, showing total disregard for what science has already proven.
There is no more denying that unless world governments really get serious and go beyond the letter and spirit of the Paris agreement, hopes are wearing thin for the ability of the poor, the marginalised, women and children, the people of small and island nations to survive the inevitable effects of climate change.
“There are those who have questioned, or even denied, the feasibility of limiting warming to 20C, let alone 1.50C. But these are more expressions of personal political judgements rather than a description of what the science tells us is possible,” says Bill Hare, visiting scientist, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who has represented small island nations in the climate negotiations and is an early proponent of the 1.50C temperature limit.
Photo: Shailendra Yashwant.
The polar bear may be parked outside but there were elephants in the rooms, across the venue, who also sat forlorn and forgotten, representing the all important species, humankind, signing a piece of paper that did nothing to save the planet or its biodiversity on that cold winter evening of December 12, 2015.