My personal account and analysis of COP21’s historic global, legally binding climate change agreement.
On 12th December at 7:16 p.m. Laurent Fabius, French Minister for Foreign Affairs and President of COP21, announced to a room packed with ministers, negotiators, NGOs and prominent guests “I see the room and I see that the reaction is positive. I don’t hear any objection. The Paris Agreement for the Climate is adopted.” His voice quivered with emotion as he banged his gavel on his sounding block, marking the end of a tense and often strained two weeks of climate negotiations. COP21 was over after 21 years of failed negotiations, broken promises, distant targets and shattered hope, world leaders finally agreed on a global, legally binding agreement, a framework upon which we can begin to tackle catastrophic climate change. Paris was always going to be the end of the line.
As Fabius brought down his gavel to seal the deal, the room erupted into rapturous applause; some people hugged, other people cried. There was an outpouring of emotions and joy. Even those representatives of countries not completely happy with the text realised the magnitude of the moment and the importance of this unprecedented agreement. I was deeply moved.
On the 30th of November, I joined 150 world leaders along with 40,000 delegates from 196 countries to participate at the historic United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties COP21. We descended on Paris, the city of light, that was recovering from a recent traumatic terrorist attack that took the lives of 130 people.
The conference was held at Le Bourget in the North-East of Paris. Le Bourget is the world’s busiest airport for private planes. It was probably picked to accommodate the private jets of some of the 150 world leaders who were flying into Paris for the event. The conference was spread out over six vast halls, repurposed airplane hangars. Rickety scaffolding, draped with plastic sheeting connected the halls. These corridors were open to the elements at the sides, and rain and wind whistled through. A lone silver birch tree stood in the centre of this plastic desert, forlornly reaching its branches through a hole in the roof. Its leaves were dying, a fitting symbol for the state of the environment.
COP21 commenced with a grand opening. President Hollande’s remarks at the Opening Ceremony on 30th November called for “momentum and ambition equal to what is at stake.” His ambition seemed to sweep away some of the cobwebs of previous COPs.
President Hollande’s address was eloquent, insightful and specific in its recommendations in what was needed to prevent catastrophic climate change. “Global warming,” he said, “heralds conflicts just as clouds herald a storm. It causes migration which throws more refugees out onto the roads than warfare itself.” He recognised that “never – truly never – have the stakes of an international meeting been so high. For the future of the planet, and the future of life, are at stake.” He told the audience and the watching world that 2015 is a year that has beaten all records, but not for good reasons: record temperatures, record CO₂ concentrations and record numbers of extreme climate events: droughts, floods, cyclones, melting ice, rising sea levels and ocean acidification. President Hollande acknowledged the recommendations of scientists around the world, including the IPCC, that to prevent catastrophic and irreversible climate change we must keep warming below 2°C from pre-industrial levels. He said “we [world leaders] need to define and mark out a credible path that will enable us to contain global warming below 2°C or even 1.5°C, if possible.”
When I heard President Hollande mention the critical goal of 1.5°C I knew this would be a different COP. He was the first world leader from a developed country to utter the ceiling of 1.5°C. And the world took notice. President Obama painted a doomsday scenario if we do not act decisively now. And Pope Francis addressing the issues at stake at COP21 from Nairobi stated, “we are at the limit of a suicide.”
Many vulnerable and low-lying island nations have long been calling for a global average CO2 emissions ceiling of 1.5°C. Their calls had been falling on deaf ears. Emmanuel de Guzman, Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) – a bloc of 43 countries, 20 of which joined at the beginning of COP21 – announced, “Everyone has to really commit themselves to climate action, and we, the CVF, believe that 1.5-degree temperature goal will be the driver of climate action.” Speaking to the Independent, Thoriq Ibrahim, Environment Minister for the Maldives and a CVF member, said, “There is no question that 1.5°C would be hard to achieve, but it is the right target for the world to aim for.”
When all is said and done, can we be confident that the Paris Agreement will do enough to save low-lying countries, such as the Maldives, the Marshall Islands and the Seychelles, which are at high risk of disappearing under rising sea levels? Article 2.1 of the Agreement states that parties agree to: “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”
This is far more than many of us expected. But despite the Paris Agreement committing to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C”, some of us regard this as a euphemism for non-commitment to the critical number: 1.5. There is a clear disconnect between the promise of the Agreement and world leaders’ actions. The INDCs put the world on course for average warming of 2.7°C by 2100 according to the UNFCCC synthesis report or 3.3°C by 2100 according to a recent report by the Global Citizens’ Initiative and Earth Action. Only 32 countries submitted their contributions by the first deadline agreed at COP20, last year in Lima, Peru. The majority of pledges came just days before COP21 began, with 185 countries submitting their INDCs by 30th November and 186 pledges by the end of the COP.
The scheduling of the Agreement’s “ratcheting up” of INDCs was another sticking point, and one of the core reasons COP21 was extended until 12th December. The Agreement requires countries to revisit and “scale up” their voluntary INDC pledges every five years, starting in 2020. The EU and the USA. advocated strongly for this mechanism. According to Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU’s climate commissioner, “Without the five-year cycles, the agreement is meaningless.” During the negotiations China said that it will not begin to increase its commitments until 2030. Gao Feng, part of the Chinese negotiating delegation, said that Beijing set out their INDC in June and would start reducing its CO2 emissions by 2030: “I cannot say that in the middle, 2025, we would be in a position to change it.” They were persuaded.
The agreement also requires a global appraisal to ensure emissions reductions are going to plan; this will begin in 2023 and occur every five years. A monitoring panel will ensure accuracy and transparent reporting, although details are yet to be confirmed.
On December 5, the Durban Platform concluded their work of establishing the new basis for negotiations, agreed by all and containing proposals and potential compromises that would extend into the conference’s second week. Laurent Fabius then took over. His skill in organizing and presiding over the conference cannot be overstated. His strategy reigned supreme: countries and their negotiating blocs debated the proposals and considered areas where compromise could be possible. On seven occasions, once per day until the conference concluded, Fabius brought all the negotiators together for the Comité de Paris during which times suggestions and options were added to the text and drafts of the agreement were critiqued in an open forum.
When deadlocks occurred Fabius’ method was to break up the Comité into small groups called “indabas”, named after the tradition in Xhosa and Zulu cultures to meet in a small circle, to resolve problems and enable dialogue. Once resolved, the indabas would feed back into the large groups. The indaba method was first used at COP17 in Durban, South Africa.
Negotiators worked in closed meetings and in larger bilateral meetings all of Thursday and Friday nights to revise the draft agreement. The final agreement was expected on Friday, but – as with every COP I have attended – the deadline was pushed back a day. Fabius repeatedly expressed his determination to achieve a “universal, legally binding, ambitious, fair and lasting” agreement. He told the Financial Times, “The accord needs to be legally binding. It’s not just literature.”
Tensions ran high. During the late night closed-door negotiation on Thursday between December 10 and 11, disagreements regarding loss and damage threatened to derail the talks. The US and China did not want to agree to anything that could make them liable for compensation. US Secretary of State John Kerry warned that developed countries would walk out of the agreement altogether if they were asked to commit to differentiation or financial obligations. “You can take the US out of this,” he said.
“Take the developed world out of this. Remember, the Earth has a problem. What will you do with the problem on your own?” he told ministers from other countries.
At this late hour, I hope we don’t load this with differentiation… I would love to have a legally binding agreement. But the situation in the US is such that legally binding with respect to finance is a killer for the agreement.
Kerry then left the meeting, leaving other US delegates in the room. Delegates from some countries pointed out that the session was intended as an exchange of views, not for threats about leaving the talks. NGOs expressed their dissatisfaction with the US’ approach. According to Harjeet Singh, Climate Policy Manager at ActionAid International, “Midway through the negotiations, the US is showing its true colors by proposing a specific exclusion of any future compensation for loss and damage. Such a move belies the US’ empty rhetoric of solidarity with vulnerable nations.”
The US has long been one of the major obstacles to a legally binding agreement at the UN Climate conferences. The US never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which until COP21 was the only agreement in place to curb CO2 emissions. In the end loss and damage did make it in to the Paris Agreement but it is expressed in weak legal terms. Article 8.1 states: “Parties recognize the importance of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including extreme weather events and slow onset events, and the role of sustainable development in reducing the risk of loss and damage.”
Kerry’s compromise was to double US grants to developing countries, to around $800 million a year. This gave him the bargaining power to place a sentence in the Paris Decision, the non-legally binding text, which states: “Agrees that Article 8 of the Agreement [the section on loss and damage] does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”
Finance for loss and damage is not clear. Although the decision includes the “collective quantified goal from a floor of USD 100 billion per year, taking into account the needs and priorities of developing countries.” details about this fund and future increases to it remain unresolved.
On Thursday, December 10, the second draft of the Paris Agreement was released. At 27 pages it was two pages shorter than draft of the day before. The revised text contained just 50 bracketed items, down significantly from the 361 in the first draft. “Now its time to seek landing zones” said Fabius, “We want an agreement. We are extremely close to finishing line.”
High Ambition Coalition
A surprise at COP21 was the High Ambition Coalition, a group of more than 100 statesincluding the US, the EU, Australia, Canada and dozens of African and small island states who came together to ensure successful outcomes for the conference. Tony de Brum, Minister for Foreign Affairs for the Marshall Islands, said the group included countries that were “big and small and rich and poor.”
The Coalition presented a challenge to the countries who were reluctant to accept the critical 1.5°C target and were seeking to remove or downplay many of the ambitious elements included in the draft agreements. Leading the opposition was Saudi Arabia who has influence over fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council bloc Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. The attempts by some countries to strip the Agreement of its aspirations for their self-interest reminded me of what HRH Prince Charles warned of in his opening address to the conference: “In damaging our climate we become the architects of our own destruction.”
Laurence Tubiana, French Ambassador for climate change negotiations, told the New York Times, “Climate change is about ecosystems; climate change negotiations are about ego-systems.” These sentiments reminded me of Maurice Strong, mastermind of the 1972 Stockholm environmental conference and the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, who died just days before the opening of COP21. In his opening speech in Stockholm he said, “We have determined that we must control and harness the forces, which we have ourselves created. We know that if these forces can be effectively controlled, they will provide everything that life on this planet desires and requires; but if they are permitted to dominate us, they will have an insatiable and unforgiving appetite.”
Brazil became the first emerging economy to join the High Ambition Coalition on Friday, December 11. Their decision to join was critical. According to Brazil’s Foreign Minister Izabella Teixeira, “If you want to tackle climate change, you need ambition and political will … Brazil proudly supports the high ambition coalition and pledges our political support to this effort.”
The High Ambition Coalition members remained divided on key issues such as how developed countries would finance the developing world to pay for the cost of climate change. Nevertheless, the Coalition was the driving force in resolving some intractable problems that had plagued many of the last 21 years of COP negotiations.
At 10 a.m. on December 12, the final text was presented to Fabius, President Hollande and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. It contained no bracketed options and agreement appeared to have been reached. The text was distributed to negotiators from the 196 countries to be studied and was then translated into the UN’s six official languages. President Hollande invited all the diplomats and negotiators to lunch. The rest of us endured a grueling six-hour wait. The reason for this – a supposed “translation error” that had led to the legally binding word “shall” appearing at the start of Article 4.4 instead of the entirely voluntary term “should.”
Ministers and negotiators began to assemble in the Plenary room La Seine for the final meeting of the COP, from 5 p.m., with an announcement due at 5:30 p.m.. The French team appeared briefly on stage – then disappeared. The crowd then waited for nearly two hours. The Guardian reported that “John Kerry, the US secretary of state, talked animatedly with his officials, while China’s foreign minister Xie Zhenhua wore a troubled look.”
Just after 7 p.m., the 32 page Paris Agreement was put to the floor for approval. Yet again, Fabius employed a brilliant strategy, opting to approve the Agreement by consensus.
The process of the Conference of Parties and the UNFCCC has been torturous and slow. At COP21, Laurent Fabius proved himself a masterful tactician in world diplomacy. He appeared mindful of the problems of previous COPs with their top down approach and from the outset worked to ensure that developing countries did not feel marginalised and without a voice. Fabius was determined to have a legally binding treaty and for many months prior to the conference he traveled the world, meeting with ministers and heads of state to gain their confidence in preparation.
Fabius’s strategy worked and he has rightly received recognition from leaders and commentators around the world. His method was attention to detail. Laurence Tubiana, the French Ambassador for the international climate negotiations, told theNew York Times that lighting and food would be very important at the conference, that they must “make people feel comfortable.” The NYT reports that “sure enough, each work space at the gathering is illuminated by a gracefully curved table lamp, casting a gentle glow… negotiators from the United States, China, Russia and India are dining together over duck confit, boeuf bourgiugnon and French wines.”
Perhaps the high-level negotiations had these things. Certainly world leaders at COP21 seemed to be experiencing a different reality to the rest of us.
The food for the NGOs and others attending the conference was not up to the usual standards of French cuisine. It was basic, with very few options for the health conscious and vegetarians. Most of the restaurants closed at 4pm and the cafes often ran out of food. Forty-five water fountains were scattered sparsely around the COP for refilling bottles: they either dribbled slowly or gushed water all over you. Long walks along the mostly open air corridors that connected the halls in the immense conference site, in the bitter Paris winter, chilled the bones. And, if you didn’t have an umbrella, you simply got wet. Where was the duck confit and the soft lighting?
In an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche after the Agreement had been adopted Fabius said “I didn’t expect a long tranquil river. To gain an agreement of 196 states from different positions and situations, on major questions that entail developing for decades is an extraordinary and complex task. But overall everything happens in a serene and constructive manner. There were some moments that were tenser than others. But the will of the people in my team allowed us to advance and, finally, to succeed.”
Fabius’ commitment was decisive and his method of “listening, transparency, ambition for the agreement and a spirit of compromise” paid dividends in securing a “special momentum” in Paris.
The Successes and Failures of the Paris Agreement
The road to Paris was long and fraught with difficulty.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been convening the Conference of Parties for twenty-one years. I have been participating at UN climate conferences for many years and I was deeply disturbed that even in the final hours some world leaders were still not able to grasp the urgency of keeping the rise in global average temperature below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. I recalled how high our hopes were at Copenhagen in 2009. Attended by 120 Heads of State, COP15 was the largest gathering of its kind at the time, apart from the annual UN General Assembly in New York. That COP was also the focus of unprecedented public and media attention. But the Copenhagen Accord that resulted was a shameful compromise.
With the “collective trauma” of Copenhagen still fresh in our minds expectations were low, but COP21 delivered the ambition and the critical Agreement we desperately needed, though not across all issues.
The Paris Agreement is the first in the history of climate change negotiations to embrace forests which, along with emission reductions, can mitigate the rise in average global temperatures. The Paris Agreement encourages all countries to achieve reductions “of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and [recognizes] the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries…” Article 5.1 of the Agreement calls on states to “take action to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases … including forests.” This sets a precedent for the protection of natural forests.
According to Rosalind Reeve, a senior fellow in climate change and the environment at Ateneo School of Government in Manila, Philippines, “This is very significant because the Kyoto Protocol specifically excluded forests … It’s historic. It includes a package of REDD+ [Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation] elements which have been debated for more than 10 years. This agreement is a very strong signal for REDD+ in my view.”
The support for forest conservation was negotiated by Panama who led the Coalition for Rainforest Nations. Their approach was to include forest protection in as many parts of the draft agreement as possible to increase their bargaining power. The Paris Agreement mandate to “conserve and enhance” “sinks and reservoirs”, the forests and oceans of the world, are a further sign of the ambition of the text: the world appears to have woken up to the importance of forest preservation and restoration policies, which is critical if the 1.5 degree C ceiling is to be achieved.
Donald Lehr, a consultant to the REDD+ Safeguard Working Group, of which the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation (BJHRF) is a member, praised the sweeping breadth of the COP21 accord and its inclusion of forests and ecosystems: “The Agreement Preamble presents critical moral, ethical and ecological framing for the pact. It highlights human rights, including the rights of indigenous peoples, and draws attention to ‘the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems’. This framing is essential to ensure that we see the right outcomes for forests and people.” The work of landscape restoration and REDD+ negotiators is a great accomplishment and they leave Paris with renewed optimism but the true test will be the implementations of these policies in the coming years. In addition to REDD+ initiatives, the Bonn Challenge is working to restore ecological integrity and improve human wellbeing.
As IUCN Bonn Challenge Ambassador I welcome the inclusion of forests and ecosystem integrity in the Paris Agreement. The Bonn Challenge is the largest landscape restoration initiative the world has ever seen. Its original objective was to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested land across the world by 2020. The New York Declaration of Forests endorsed the Bonn Challenge target and extended it to at least an additional 200 million hectares by 2030. Achieving this new goal of 350 million hectares could store up to 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent annually.
Before the Paris Conference, 60.084 million hectares of deforested and degraded land had been pledged worldwide. At COP21 a further 25.95 million hectares worth of commitments were pledged including from India, 13 million hectares (India is the first BRIC country who have committed to the Bonn Challenge); Asia Pulp & Paper, 1 million hectares (the first private sector pledge to the Bonn Challenge) and the first subnational commitments from: Quintana Roo State, Mexico, 300,000 hectares; Campeche State, Mexico, 400,000 hectares; Yucatan State, Mexico, 250,000 hectares; Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) Province, Pakistan, 384,000 hectares.
I hope for more commitments in the near future.
Human Rights, Indigenous People and Gender Equality
Respecting, protecting, promoting and fulfilling human rights, indigenous rights and gender equality are critical aspirations contained within the Paris Agreement. Human rights are referred to in both the Decision and Agreement, but protections have been relegated to the Preamble, leaving the most vulnerable at risk and failing to acknowledge the role of indigenous people as custodians of the forest. In the first draft Agreement, released December 9, Article 2.2 contained the option, “This Agreement will be implemented … on the basis of respect for human rights.” In the final Agreement reference to human rights has been completely removed from the operative parts of the text.
The critical role of indigenous people in combating climate change is recognised in the Paris Agreement, but should have been given greater prominence. According to Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, “studies over the last year have shown that indigenous peoples outperform every other owner, public or private entities on forest conservation.”
Indigenous people are referred to in the Preamble of both the Decision and the Agreement and Article 7.5 of the Agreement acknowledges “that adaptation action should follow a country-driven, gender-responsive, participatory and fully transparent approach, taking into consideration vulnerable groups, communities and ecosystems, and should be based on and guided by the best available science and, as appropriate, traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems.”
According to Andrea Carmen, executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council, the Paris Agreement is the first international agreement ever to include the rights of indigenous people without qualification. Frank Ettawageshik of the National Congress of American Indians questioned whether the term “where appropriate” did in fact add a caveat to the Article on traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples. He said, “It is essential that the rights of Indigenous Peoples be recognised, protected and respected within a broad human rights framework.”
As with human rights and indigenous people, gender equality is referred to in the Preambles of both the Decision and the Agreement. Article 7.5 of the Agreement also refers to a “gender-responsive approach” but again the term “where appropriate” at the end of the clause weakens the entire paragraph.
The Agreement contains the critical moral, ethical and ecological framing but compliance by the world’s nations must adhere to these aspirations, otherwise the 1.5 degree C ceiling will not be achieved.
With few exceptions, indigenous leaders were conspicuously absent from the Blue Zone at COP21, an area reserved for persons accredited by the UNFCCC secretariat. I had organised a side event at the IUCN Pavilion on 3rd December and wanted to include Leusa Munduruku and Rozeninho Sawrecak, of the Munduruku indigenous people whose livelihoods are under threat in the Brazilian Amazon due to the Tapajós megadam. This proved impossible since most indigenous leaders were not granted accreditation, even many of those who were in Paris to receive the Equator Prize for their initiatives advancing innovative solutions for people, nature and resilient communities.
Indigenous people have been proven to be the best custodians of biodiversity and ecosystems and 80% of all biodiversity on earth lies in their stewardship. They are among those whose lives and livelihoods will be affected by rising temperatures. Indigenous people are on the front lines of climate change and yet their voices were not heard in the negotiations. At past COPs, as I went about the conference, I would usually see old friends from the many indigenous tribes I support, and campaign for through the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation. At COP21, I saw very few. Their absence was notable. I took to social media to call for their voices to be heard. Despite all my efforts, the UNFCCC refused the Munduruku accreditation to the Blue Zone, until the day after my scheduled side event.
CO2 emissions reductions that meet the ambition of the Paris Agreement can only be achieved if a transition occurs from fossil fuels to renewables and if the 196 countries that gathered in Paris implement what the Agreement sets out on sequestration and decarbonisation. Article 4.1 states that “In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal … Parties aim 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 in the second half of this century…”
One of my highlights from COP21 was Al Gore’s speech ‘Impacts and Solutions to the Climate Crisis’. Before a packed crowd of more than 2,000 people he sounded the death knell for fossil fuels with a sobering and powerful speech in which he championed the viability of renewable energy. I could not agree more with Al Gore, we must embark upon a renewable energy revolution now.
In his speech Al Gore mentioned the Weather Disasters report from the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), released a week before COP21 got underway, which details how 90% of the natural disasters during the last 20 years have been caused by extreme weather events. The report records 6,457 floods, storms, heat waves, droughts and other weather-related disasters, claiming the lives of606,000 people, an average of some 30,000 per year, with an additional 4.1 billion people injured, left homeless or in need of emergency assistance. Gore said “This is the acceleration of the climate crisis … It’s like a nature hike through the book of Revelations.”
The figures in the report for this year end in August, but – needless to say – weather related disasters continue to ravage in the latter part of 2015. We are witnessing weather events of Biblical proportions and frequency. Storm Desmond wreaked havoc on parts of the UK on the 4th, 5th and 6th December. Thousands were forced to leave their homes and power was out for several days. More rain, winds and burst rivers are expected through the coming days and weeks. On 5th December several parts of Singapore were flooded. India also experienced extreme flooding in recent days with Chennai receiving its heaviest rainfall in more than 100 years which led to at least 280 deaths. Tamil Nadu had not recovered from the floods during November that killed at least 71 people, requiring a weeklong public holiday and the deployment of the armyto help with the disaster. On 22nd November flooding in Perak, Malaysia led to landslides, claiming 280 lives. Three days prior to this in China’s Zhejiang Province, a landslide killed 38 people. On 19th November in Washington State, USA severestorms killed three people and left about 185,000 homes and businesses without power. Governor Jay declared a statewide emergency.
The numbers of people made homeless and stateless by weather disasters, ‘climate refugees’, will grow exponentially. Estimates of 150 million ‘climate refugees’ by the mid-century are conservative. The Environmental Justice Foundation estimates that as many as 500 to 600 million people – nearly 10 per cent of the world’s population – are at risk of displacement. We should not forget that when Hurricane Katrina hit the United States, one of the world’s most developed countries, 800,000 left their homes– arguably the largest diaspora in the history of the United States. Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, killing more than 10,000 people and displacing over 4 million people.
How many more warning signs do we need before we embark upon on the renewable energy revolution? We need to keep below the 1.5°C average global temperature ceiling. We need the Paris Agreement to be enforced.
Figures from the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2015 ‘World Energy Outlook Report’ suggest Al Gore and those of us who have been calling for a renewable energy revolution are right. They claim, “Renewables contributed almost half of the world’s new power generation capacity in 2014.” Green energy is now the second-largest generator of electricity in the world, after coal. The IEA predict that by 2040 50% of electricity generation in the European Union will come from renewable energy, around 30% in China and Japan, and above 25% in the United States and India.
As Al Gore said in his address to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development on 3rd December, the difference between COP21 and previous COPs is that now the viability of renewable energy cannot be questioned.
He predicts, “Between 2015 and 2020, solar PV and onshore wind will add more to global energy supply than US shale oil production did between 2010 and 2015.”
Al Gore has mentioned one other renewable resource – political will. If we are not satisfied with the efforts of our world leaders, we can elect new ones.
The former US Vice-President cited a Goldman Sachs report on The Low Carbon Economy released 30th November. It claims that in 2000 wind energy was predicted to add 30 gigawatts to the world’s energy production by 2010 – this was exceeded 12 times over. He said that in “2002 best available projections said the world would add one gigawatt of solar per year by 2010, this was exceeded by 17 times, last year by 48 times, and this year by more than 62 times. That’s an exponential curve.”
Renewables are already changing the energy markets and the way energy companies do business. Because solar photovoltaic and onshore wind have zero marginal cost the energy is free to produce once the costs of the equipment and installation have been recovered. Gore cited the example of Mexican energy firm TAU, who because of savings they are making through use of renewable energy, provide their customers with as much free electricity as they wish between 9pm and 6am. The former VP asked rhetorically, “When you have a choice between paid and free, the choice is usually free.”
Green energy and climate solutions featured prominently at COP21. One of my best experiences there was using the 100% electric shuttle service provided by the Renault-Nissan Alliance for 200 COP participants. It was a treat to use this service since I don’t have a car and I have an injury.
Renewable energy has the potential to power the world. In July 2015, on a windy day, Denmark’s wind farms produced between 116 and 140 percent of the national electricity requirements. Gore suggested that globally wind energy could power the world, 40 times over.
Government and business must heed the call that COP21 has sent to the world. Government’s must end the estimated $490bn in global annual subsidies for fossil fuels, restructure the world’s energy usage and promote investment in renewable energy.
Speaking at COP21 David Cameron called for a binding legal mechanism to prevent catastrophic climate change and said “Instead of making excuses tomorrow to our children and grandchildren, we should be taking action against climate change today.” But his national policies paint a very different picture and represent a betrayal of the Paris Agreement. Cameron has slashed the subsidy for solar, vowed to remove subsides for onshore wind by 2016 whilst simultaneously increasing support for oilfrom the North Sea and fracking. On 16th December British MPs voted to allow fracking under national parks.
In a speech in London, on 22nd September Al Gore urged David Cameron and the British Government to regain its leadership on climate change. He asked, “Will our children ask, why didn’t you act? Or ask, how did you find the moral courage to rise up and change?” The UK is acting with total disregard for the Paris Agreement. David Cameron is on the wrong side of history.
Not all of the achievements of COP21 lie with the heads of state, ministers and negotiators. During the COP NGOs, grassroots and youth organisations declared a State of Emergency for the Climate and we called for an all-out mobilisation across every sector of society.
On 6th December I attended an indigenous flotilla of kayaks which made their way along the Seine in a celebration of life. Indigenous leaders called for the inclusion of their rights in the Paris Agreement and demanded the protection of water and the environment. Singing and the sound of instruments could be heard along the banks of the river. Other indigenous leaders led prayers amongst incense and bushels of burning sage. This was followed by a press conference, organised by Amazon Watch, Sierra Club and the Indigenous Environmental Network, aboard a barge on the Seine with indigenous leaders from the Americas who spoke about solutions that could prevent catastrophic climate change. After the press conference they went outside to dance with one another and play their traditional instruments amid the astonished Paris onlookers.
On Tuesday 8th December I participated in a climate ‘action’ inside the COP, organised by Climate Action Network. Around 400 people gathered in a tight circle, outside, in a very light rain. ‘Ministers’ walked to a crossroads, drawn on the asphalt in white. One road was marked DOOM=3 degrees C. The other was marked HOPE=1.5 degrees C.
The ‘ministers’ took the road to hope. On the way, they shook hands with five other actors, representing paragraph 2, pre 2020 INDC review, pre 2020 implementation review, five years finance and mitigation cycles and long term goals. I followed them down the road to 1.5C. The crowd roared each slogan as the ministers shook hands. Photographers crowded in. The whole experience took fifteen minutes.
Civil society actions were strictly monitored at COP21. The so-called ‘actions’ took place in designated areas, and were run on a tight schedule. The participation of civil society was severely curtailed; most of the NGO and public events were cancelled, including the People’s Climate March which was due to take place on Sunday 29th November. On that day, I found myself in Place de la République with over 1000 people. Some were there to mourn the fallen of the abhorrent 13th November terrorist attacks. The statue of Marianne was covered with flowers and candles. Many others were there to express their hopes for a climate agreement at COP21. The square was sealed by ranks of police with batons and riot shields. Shortly after I left, the police threw teargas at the protesters. They claim the protesters provoked them. I saw no provocation. I have written of my grave concern about the erosion of civil liberties in France under the Emergency Laws here. I urge you to read it.
The 10th December was Human Rights Day at COP21, and civil society mobilised to call for an agreement which ensures human rights, including the rights of indigenous peoples and gender equality, and protects the integrity of ecosystems. I joined hundreds of people assembled in Hall 2 outside the high-level negotiations. There were NGOs, indigenous people, and many young people. We chanted, “We are unstoppable, another world is possible,” and marched out of the building, into the freezing air to gather by the miniature red Eiffel Tower which sat at the boundaries of COP21. Chants of “1.5 to stay alive” could also be heard. These were rare moments of passion in the course of the negotiations.
Taking place at 12pm, on the 12th of the twelfth month – the final day of the COP – 350.org’s ‘D12’ action saw thousands of people take to the streets of Paris to march from the Arc de Triomphe to the Eiffel Tower with huge red inflatables and lengths of red cloth symbolising the redlines on climate change commitments and climate justice that must not be crossed. 350.org said that the gathering was about respect. “It’s about respecting the laws… of physics. We know that the agreement discussed at Le Bourget comes up way short, putting the world on a path to a three-degree Celsius increase in temperature or more. That’s a grave failure, given the fact that we’re already seeing dangerous consequences of climate change.”
For too long, like Nero, world leaders have been fiddling while the planet burns. The consequences of the 1 degree rise in average global temperature since pre-industrial times are already being felt and more of us will be impacted in the coming years. The effects of climate change will hurt the most vulnerable first. As Emmanuel de Guzman said in a press release from COP21, “For vulnerable countries, there is a single thing that will measure the ambition of the Paris agreement, and it is a number: 1.5″
The conference could be regarded as a success. The Paris Agreement produced an ambitious long-term goal to limit average global temperature increases to “well below 2 [degrees] above pre-industrial levels” and to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees.”
As Laurent Fabius said after the conclusion of the conference, “the term ‘historic’ is often overused, but in this case it is justified: the Paris Conference is writing history …The adopted agreement is a turning point, but there is still a lot of work to be done – and first of all is its implementation … The framework is there, action must follow.”
The first step is for countries to ratify the Paris Agreement. It will not enter into force until 55 countries have ratified it, and at least 55% of total global greenhouse gas emissions are represented.
Even after the unexpected adoption of the Agreement, the surprises were still coming. President Hollande made the astonishing announcement, “I undertake, in the name of France, to review in 2020 at the latest our commitments of CO2 reductions and our financial contribution for the adaptation of the more vulnerable countries. I undertake with other countries, if they want to join us, to form a coalition to achieve a carbon price so that investments can be reorganised. I undertake, that from tomorrow, I will invite countries that want to move faster to revise all their commitments [their INDCs]. Ladies and gentlemen the struggle for the climate is part of a struggle that has been going on for centuries, for decades, for equality, for human rights and thanks to you today, you have proclaimed the rights of humanity.”
Gandhi once said, “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” I cannot think of a more appropriate quote to sum up COP21. The next step after Paris must be to ensure that the promises made by world leaders are fully implemented and complied with. Like Fabius, my lasting memory of COP21 will be one of hope, the moment when representatives of every country in the world stood up to applaud the Paris Agreement, “Such a moment of global harmony is a powerful and exceptional breath of optimism for the future.“