Depending on the perspective taken, the Paris Agreement is either a phenomenal success or the worst possible sentence for our descendents. From the perspective of those who have worked in the negotiations – endlessly seeking out the little tendrils of agreement and cooperation – that we have an agreement after four years of anguishing in the very many critical differences is an extraordinary achievement.
From the perspective of the children who are to be born in the next decades, Paris is an utter failure, in that it did not set a roadmap for achieving emissions reductions or transfer of finance, technology and capacity building to the countries who need support.
we work to rules and workplans more effectively than to broad guidelines
The COP itself was an unusual place. The physical space was extensive, what with the halls having been dramatically transformed from airplane hangars. Observers were not allowed in the negotiations rooms following a developed country request. This means that the many developing country teams that rely on expertise from the non governmental sector were unable to tap into that expertise easily.
Many side events were joined, ostensibly because of the large demand for side events slots and inadequate space. This also led to panelists often presenting non-cohesive views and information. The side events at the various pavilions, however, were more focused. But not many non governmental organisations were able to set up pavilions.
Media access to the negotiations was limited, as always, and although the French presidency maintained excellent contact with the negotiations team, media engagement from most parties was less forthcoming than it could have been.
Strange rumours of a high ambition coalition, which had massive media attention for several days, may or may not have been true. But the coalition did not present text, did not issue any joint statements, did not negotiate as a block, and seemed to exist only as a public relations exercise.
In particular, a US speech on Wednesday, 9 December, seemed intended to instigate a form of pressure that showed the developed world as highly ambitious when, in fact, it is neither committing to the mitigation ambition nor transfer of finance and support to ensure a just transition.
That speech was read despite the fact that without finance and support for the developing world, a 1.5 degree warming limit will stifle their economies and developmental objectives.
The many wins
As a broad framework, however, the Paris Agreement has many wins for developing countries. The mention of 1.5 degrees celsius as a global limit is an advance on the previous focus on 2 degrees. A request to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for a special report on the matter, although potentially a delaying tactic, does allow for a more sound argument to support the shift.
Human rights and Mother Earth is mentioned in the preamble, although it was considered a loss to have removed it from the text.
That Loss and Damage was maintained in a separate article from Adaptation was also an important win for Africa. However, a clause in the decision text excludes countries from holding others liable for loss and damage, or, in other words, claiming compensation. It will be interesting to watch how this plays out in the future, especially in light of the high interest and growing support for climate change tribunals.
Finance in the text is weak and there was some backsliding. But the text established flow from developed to developing nations, and did away with the obligations on all.
Getting an agreement for nearly 200 countries trying to develop what is effectively a global energy governance system went well. But what is needed is more than principles and frameworks, and although there is some evidence that developed countries may meet their responsibilities even without being locked into firm commitments, the scope of finance and support remains just a smidgeon of what is needed. And the pledges must be delivered before they can be counted.
There is always hope – because we are humans – that technologies will advance, that systems will shift dramatically, that our patterns as a species will evolve to become more respectful of our life support system and those we share it with. But because we work to rules and workplans more effectively than to broad guidelines, Paris becomes only the start of the next period of intense work to meet objectives.
The African Climate and Development Initiatiave and the Adaptation Network are hosting a COP21 feedback session in January. Kirsty Nortje will keep us informed of details in the new year.