Will developing countries agree that the Paris climate deal was the “best chance we have” to save the planet?

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Campaigners take to the street of Paris to warn that failure to act to curb temperature rises will cross a red line. Source: BBC News online

Saturday 12th December 2015 marked the climax of the world’s first climate deal to limit global warming to no more than two degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. Furthermore, 196 countries attending the COP21 talks in Paris made the ambitious agreement to “endeavour to limit” the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees, and beginning at some point between 2050 and 2100, to limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to no more than the planet can absorb naturally, therefore effectively “neutralising” CO2 emissions. Hailed by the US President as “best chance we have” to save the planet, how feasible is this [partly] legally binding agreement and how will the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to meet this goal be apportioned between the developed and developing countries?

First of all, the COP21 agreement hasn’t yet been signed and sealed. In order for the deal to go through, no less than 55 countries representing at least 55 per cent of global emissions now need to ratify the agreement. Beyond that, according to scientists, to meet these goals, the world would have to stop emitting greenhouse gases (that is, burning coal, oil and gas for energy) entirely within the next 50 years. This sizeable shift would require a complete reform on how people obtain energy which many critics argue most countries cannot afford and are not ready for. Climate researchers have also warned that even if all the initial targets set in preparation for COP21 were met, global warming would still exceed the two degrees threshold (see image below).

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UK Prime Minister, David Cameron posted on his Facebook profile that, “I said it would have to come with regular reviews; help for the poorest in the world; and a transfer of technology from the richest to the poorest nations. It does all those things.” So how have these “things” been met as part of the agreement?

It was agreed that each country’s proposed reductions in emissions would have to be reviewed every five years in order to establish their individual progress. Rich countries would also be required to help poorer countries by providing “climate finance” to help them adapt to climate change and adopt renewable energy. This figure was agreed at a conservative $100bn a year by 2020, which when put into context, is only equivalent to 8% of the worldwide declared spend on military each year. Direct compensation for developing countries taking the brunt of climate change was categorically ruled out.

With so few details on “climate finance” available at this stage, contrary to my previous blog, my view is that we should be a little sceptical about expanding the concept of such finance. Could this simply be enlarging an existing finance scheme governed by developing countries to rack up unmanageable debt in the developing world? How accessible will these “funds” be and with what strings attached, and who knows how much of the budget will be taken up by corruption failing delivery on the ground? As the system currently stands, there is no internationally consistent definition of what “climate finance” is or how it is tracked both in terms of monitoring outcomes and financial flows.

Specific targets for individual countries have been omitted from the agreement for the reason that certain countries which could be considered to be developing for example China, India and South Africa refused to sign up at the Copenhagen talks in 2009 for fear that the targets would stall economic growth and development, as discussed in my previous blog. Instead, the pledges are voluntary and although the obligation on individual countries to set an emissions-reduction target under five-yearly reviews is legally binding, the COP21 deal so far does not insist that the targets themselves will be legal binding but are instead in control of each individual country, which leads me to believe that the whole concept could be ineffective. How will the impact of climate finance be measured? Who will enforce the pledges that each country declares at the five year intervals? Quite apart from these and other issues, the pledges made prior to COP21 aren’t, according to Climate Change Tracker (see image above), enough to keep global warming below the 2-degree centigrade threshold (above pre-industrialisation levels), so the agreement to “save the planet” is already a fallacy.

Despite what feels to me like a new global trend for renewable energy and a patriotic approach towards the planet in which we all live, I believe the COP21 was an historical step towards protecting the earth for future generations to come. In practical terms however, I am convinced that substantially more needs to be done at the community and household level to sustain such ambitious and unpredictable goals. We need to fundamentally change the way in which we live and utilise energy for any of the COP21’s grand plans to become a reality. With the next progress report due to take place in 2018, it seems unlikely that the urgency of global warming has truly been appreciated on the world stage and could perhaps already be too late. As the co-founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben put it, “This didn’t save the planet. But it may have saved the chance of saving the planet.”

I believe that it is more likely that we will see the effects of climate change intensifying, particularly for those that have done little to cause it, than a global shift in the way we utilise energy. Rather than sitting and waiting to see what happens next, you and I, as individuals should take up our responsibility of global citizenship and investigate the ways in which we can play our part in taking on board 350.org’s message to look beyond the COP21 agreement and do as much as we can to strive for “a just and liveable planet” each and every single day. By being given more information, which must come from the world leaders, we can also all adjust our behaviours accordingly.

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