COP21 breeds ‘historical’ climate change agreement

A ‘historical’ agreement was reached in Paris at the 21st session of the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCC)Conference of Parties (COP21) on Saturday (12 December), as 195 countries pledged to take action after two weeks of negotiations.

Representatives from across the world descended on the French capital to seek a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which committed a number of developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and was born at COP3 in 1997.

(l-r) Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of UNFCCC; Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; Laurent Fabius, President of COP21 and François Hollande, President of France celebrate after the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The deal agreed in Paris brings together all 195 nations involved with the UNFCCC in an attempt to curb the rate of climate change to below two degrees Celsius.

It involves nations signing up to voluntary emissions pledges, with no legally binding targets, no recourse for affected developing countries to receive compensation for damage suffered and no clear mechanism for reaching the ambitions, conditions that continue to be criticised by environmental and social justice groups.

The stated aims of the agreement made in Paris focus on four key elements.

  • Keep global temperature increase ‘well below’ two degrees Celsius;
  • Have ‘net zero emissions’ during the second half of this century;
  • Review the progress of emissions cuts every five years; and
  • Provide a ‘climate finance’ budget of US$100 billion (£67 billion).

Keep global temperature increase ‘well below’ two degrees Celsius

A two-degree Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) global temperature increase from pre-industrial levels has long been considered to be the critical level of warming by scientists, though recent thought has said that it should be lower. Therefore, the Paris agreement pledges to keep global temperature increase ‘well below’ two degrees Celsius.

2015 is expected to be the first year in which global temperature rises breech the one degree Celsius threshold, with consequences for countries most vulnerable to climate change. In response to the arguments of leaders from low-lying countries, the agreement ‘endeavours to limit’ climate change even further to a goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Have ‘net zero emissions’ during the second half of this century

The long-term emissions goal is to achieve a balance between carbon sources and sinks between 2050 and 2100. This means that all emissions from human activity would be offset by natural carbon capture accomplished by forests, soil and oceans.

Review the progress of emissions cuts every five years

Starting from 2018, each country will be reviewed every five years to ensure they are on target to reach their emissions pledge. These national pledges are voluntary and not strictly binding guidelines.

If all the countries deliver on the voluntary emission cut pledges they made ahead of COP21, a 2.7 degrees Celsius global temperature rise is expected but, as many point out, the Paris agreement ‘is only the beginning’ of the road to tackling climate change. “The work starts tomorrow”, concluded United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after the two weeks of negotiation.

Providing a ‘climate finance’ budget of £67 billion ($100bn)

Wealthy countries have pledged to provide financial support to poor nations to adapt and switch to renewable energy. The yearly fund of US$100 billion (£67 billion) starts after 2020.

The pledged figure, which ‘remains under eight per cent of worldwide declared military spending each year’, is designed to be used as a ‘floor’ for further support agreed by 2025. Additionally, an undisclosed amount of money will be used to help cover damage caused by climate change.

Politicians pleased with agreement

COP21 breeds ‘historical’ climate change agreementSecretary-General Ban said: “When historians look back on this day, they will say that global cooperation to secure a future safe from climate change took a dramatic new turn here in Paris.

“Today we can look into the eyes of our children and grandchildren, and we can finally tell them that we have joined hands to bequeath a more habitable world to them and to future generations.”

Reflecting on the agreement, Energy Secretary Amber Rudd said: “We have witnessed an important step forward, with an unprecedented number of countries agreeing to a deal to limit global temperature rises and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. This is vital for our long-term economic and global security.

“This deal will ensure all countries are held to account for their climate commitments and gives a clear signal to business to invest in the low-carbon transition.”

Agreement ‘challenges the widespread scepticism that politics can deliver a better world’

Responding to the outcome of COP21, Matthew Spencer, Director of environmental think tank Green Alliance said: “For once it is right to call this deal historic. It is a global agreement to create a one-way street to net zero carbon emissions, and it will have a profound influence on the evolution of the earth’s economy.

“It will accelerate the rapid technological change we have already begun to see in our energy system and in the development of the next generation of buildings, cars and household appliances. It challenges the widespread scepticism that politics can ever deliver a better world, because it just did.”

‘Only the beginning’ for UK manufacturing

From a technological standpoint, Claire Jakobsson, Head of Climate Policy at EEF, the manufactuers’ organisation, commented: “While this development in climate action is to be applauded, it is only the beginning of what is necessary to ensure a level playing field for UK manufacturing.

“Although the world’s economies have successfully agreed targets and actions, these alone are not enough to prevent serious competitiveness impacts on the UK’s manufacturing, particularly for energy intensive trade exposed industries such as steel. There must also be a major focus on investing in innovative research and development for our UK industries to compete in an increasingly carbon constrained economy.”

‘Outrageous’ that deal has been spun as a success

Thousands of protesters gathered in Paris for a 'red line' protest, marking the line that cannot be crossed by climate change.
Despite the widespread welcome for the COP21 agreement, there are still concerns over several omissions from the agreement, such as any reference to the protection of human rights, including the rights of indigenous peoples, and many environmental and social justice groups have expressed scepticism and disappointment.

The Friends of the Earth network highlighted that it doesn’t enforce action among more developed countries, while more vulnerable countries have been left to face the ramifications of climate change themselves.

Sonja Meister, Climate Justice and Energy Campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe said: “The list is long why the Paris deal falls short of what is needed to effectively combat climate change and protect vulnerable and poor people across the world. It is a deal in favour of polluters which lets rich countries escape their responsibility.

“The agreement leaves us on track for 3 degrees of warming and planetary emergency. But we must remember that the window is not quite closed. Thousands of climate protesters in the streets of Paris… have shown they understand climate justice, even if politicians do not. Post-Paris, rich industrialised countries must learn what ‘fair share’ means, and take action to urgently phase out fossil fuels.”

Martin Vilela, from the Bolivian Platform on Climate Change, said: “The biggest misconception around 1.5 is that mentioning it means that they will actually meet that goal. This agreement did not actually design a pathway for how to achieve 1.5. We came to Paris needing a way to achieve tangible results, instead we came out with more empty promises and false solutions.” 

And Nick Dearden, director of campaign group Global Justice Now, said: “It's outrageous that the deal that’s on the table is being spun as a success when it undermines the rights of the world’s most vulnerable communities and has almost nothing binding to ensure a safe and liveable climate for future generations.”

Read more on the COP21 agreement at the UNFCCC website.

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