Justice Climatique
Justice ClimatiqueTakver

A successful climate summit, but no progress for climate justice?

Was the climate summit a great success or a total failure? To a large degree, this is a question of perspective. Below, we assess the summit’s results.

The answer to question of whether the climate summit was a success or failure largely depends on the perspective from which one assesses its results. The fact that German civil society and the majority of the media largely describe the deal as ‘historic’ and ‘successful’ is due to their strongly process-immanent perspective, a perspective that analyses the results of the summit through the prism of the framework laid out by the UN climate convention. From this point of view, the summit achieved much more than has otherwise been accomplished during the last 20 years and far more than most observers had expected. For the first time, 195 states, some with highly contradictory interests, have jointly adopted an international climate agreement. Many people were surprised that the agreement includes the 1.5-degrees-target. Seen in this light, the Paris Agreement is indeed a great success, and it remained unclear until the very last moment whether an agreement would be possible. Credit for this diplomatic masterstroke goes to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and his large diplomatic corps. At the discursive level, the adoption of the agreement sends a message to the world, namely that climate change is such a grave problem that tackling it is truly in everybody’s interest.

But is this enough to justify the euphoric reactions to the Paris agreement? Strikingly, in the last few days many commentators have been using the words ‘historic’ and ‘success’ as synonyms, and interpreting the fact that Paris has sent a message to the world as effectively signalling the end of the fossil era.

This is dangerous. Diplomacy will not save the climate; this can only be done by leaving the greater part of fossil fuel reserves in the ground, preventing further deforestation, ending climate-damaging industrialised agriculture and limiting the world’s insatiable hunger for energy. Moreover, all of this needs to happen quickly. Historic successes in climate negotiations will not save the climate: this can only be done by implementing effective policies that put climate justice and human rights above securing profits and wealth.

The agreement includes the 1.5-degree limit but lacks effective policies

However, the Paris Agreement precisely lacks effective policies. So from a process-external perspective, it is a disaster. The cherished 1.5-degree Celsius limit is not worth the paper it is written on because the agreement does not include mechanisms and measures to ensure that this target is met. Based on the commitments made so far in the intended nationally determined reductions (INDCs), the world will have blown the emissions budget that could limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2020. However, these commitments will not be reviewed before 2018, and the agreement will only enter into force in 2020. This is an absurd timeframe and will be too late to implement the drastic measures that the 1.5-degree limit would require. The much-praised ratchet mechanism, according to which states ratchet up their goals in five-year cycles starting in 2023, therefore, will not be enough to stay within the 1.5-degree limit. This goal is only achievable in purely mathematical terms by factoring in considerable ‘negative emissions’. Massive amounts of carbon dioxide would have to be drawn out of the atmosphere, by storing CO2 underground (CCS), by combining CCS with bioenergy (BECCS) or by fertilising the oceans to increase their capacity to absorb CO2. Not only do these technologies remain untested at the large scale, but it is also still unclear whether we have sufficient capacities to sequester the required amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. According to Oliver Geden from the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, BECCS would require an area more than one and a half times the size of India. This would not only aggravate conflicts over land. This technology would require extensive areas of industrial-scale monoculture tree plantations (involving enormous amounts of fertilisers and pesticides) and as such would be an ecological disaster. Moreover, the CO2 stored underground could resurface at some point.

From the perspective of the Global South, the spectacle of the Paris summit must seem at the very least dishonest

The agreement thus willingly accepts missing the 1.5-degree target. Very soon, therefore, far more people will be dying from the results of devastating hurricanes, and extreme downpours, flooding, landslides, and heat. Without effective measures, entire areas will become uninhabitable, cities will lose the glaciers they depend on for drinking water and countries will disappear from the map. Consciously accepting this, to the benefit of a global elite that aims to maintain its profits and wealth, is more than inhumane. It is dishonest to tag such an agreement as ‘ambitious’, as many negotiators in Paris did. Simply stating a goal, without at least attempting to show that one is earnestly interested in achieving it, cannot be called ambitious. It just shows how detached from reality climate policy discourse is.

Admittedly, ‘inhumane’ and ‘dishonest’ are strong words to refer to a process as complex as a summit that has been going on for several years and that has involved many hard-working and well-meaning people, without whom the process would never have got this far. Nevertheless, from the perspective of those who have lost family members in climate-related disasters, irretrievably lost their livelihoods and become climate refugees without having contributed to climate change, these words are appropriate, just as mainly voices from the Global South claim. The coalition of smallholder farmers Via Campesina refers to Paris as a ‘media circus’, a masquerade on which the curtain has now fallen, allowing everybody to see that it is mainly the large corporations that will profit from the agreement. Indigenous people’s organisations label the agreement a pure ‘trade accord’. For Lidy Nacpil from the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice, the agreement is ‘unfair’ and ‘absolutely unacceptable’. She sees the discussions surrounding the 1.5-degree limit as mere hype because the world continues to head towards a 3-degree increase in global temperatures. As Nacpil criticises, the mainstream media limit themselves to spreading the narrative of the governments of rich countries and corporations, which have no interest in fundamental transformation. ‘Must we be grateful, because their commitments to reduce emissions put us on course for a 3-degree instead of a 6-degree increase in temperature?’, she asks.

Admittedly, ‘inhumane’ and ‘dishonest’ are strong words to refer to a process as complex as a summit that has been going on for several years and that has involved many hard-working and well-meaning people, without whom the process would never have got this far. Nevertheless, from the perspective of those who have lost family members in climate-related disasters, irretrievablA potentially elucidating quote from the Financial Times sums it up like this: ‘the [British] government’s private assessment is that it will not need to make any changes at all to policy as a result of the commitments loudly trumpeted last week at the summit.’ New Zealand, a member of the so-called High Ambition Coalition and a driving force behind the Paris Agreement has gone even further. Not even one week after the summit, the country awarded nine new oil and gas exploration permits.

We risk missing even the two degrees target

Even the renowned climate scientist James Hansen calls the Paris deal a ‘fraud’. Hansen points out that the agreement provides just promises, but no action, and he was not even referring to the 1.5-degree, but the 2-degree limit. It is ‘bullshit’, he suggests, to have a 2-degree target and then try to do a little better every five years. If countries fulfil their commitments, current INDCs will result in global average temperatures rising by between 2.7 and 3.5 degrees. In other terms, according to the UNFCCC, by 2037 the world will have used up the emissions budget that would have enabled it to keep global warming below 2 degrees. This means governments are relying on negative emissions to achieve the 2-degree limit, and too little energy is being put into achieving the necessary emissions reductions that would enable the world to remain within the limit.

No clear message on rapidly phasing out fossil fuels

Another reason the agreement is so weak is that the text does not even mention the central problem of climate change: our reliance on enormous amounts of fossil fuels. Eighty per cent of known reserves would have to be left in the ground if global average temperatures are to remain below the 2-degree global warming limit. The actual agreement, however, does not even mention the term fossil fuels. Decarbonisation, which was still an acclaimed term during the G7 summit, fell away during the negotiations. Likewise, renewables, despite being the technology that could potentially replace fossil fuels, are only mentioned in the preamble (‘Acknowledging the need to promote universal access to sustainable energy in developing countries, in particular in Africa, through the enhanced deployment of renewable energy […]’).

‘Decarbonisation’ has been replaced by the dangerously vague formulation that all parties need to work towards ‘a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century’. Contrary to some overly optimistic interpretations, this does not send a clear message that the rapid phasing out fossil fuels is to begin now. Instead, the agreement follows the highly risky approach that it will somehow be possible to extract large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere in the future. Where then is the urgently needed clear signal that the world is leaving behind the fossil era?

Paris has not changed the way in which the system works

If global warming is to be limited to the extremely ambitious limit of 1.5 degrees, or even if the 2-degree limit is not to be breached, radical political measures are needed, in particular (but not only) in the countries of the Global North as they hold the historical responsibility for climate change.

To ensure that global average temperatures rise by less than 1.5 degrees, the kind of transformation that German Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to in her opening speech to the Paris Summit would be needed. Actual German economic policy, however, is still very far from taking such steps. A government that drives forward the TTIP agreement (despite the negative impacts on the climate that the agreement will have, and its protections for corporations that, unlike much of the Paris agreement, are legally binding), and that negotiates vague climate agreements without binding mechanisms to reduce emissions, should not be surprised by a certain degree of scepticism. TTIP will have an adverse impact on the climate because it will intensify global trade and, therefore, lead to increased transport sector emissions while at the same time undermining social and environmental standards. These standards, however, form the basis of any socio-ecological transformation. A good example of this is the lawsuit filed by Vattenfall in the framework of the ‘Energy Charter Treaty’ against Germany’s nuclear phase-out.

These structures also demonstrate that the agreement does not meet the climate justice movement’s demands for drastic emissions reduction, in particular in the countries of the Global North. The agreement prevents fundamental transformation of the economies and societies of the Global North. It protects business as usual. Moreover, it shifts the responsibility for radical steps that reduce emissions to the second half of the century, to untested and environmentally damaging technologies, and to places on the other side of the planet due to offsetting mechanisms.

The agreement remains vague on the financing of climate protection and adaptation measures

The agreement also fails to answer the climate justice movement’s second fundamental demand, namely legally anchoring massive financial support from the Global North to the Global South. Remember, this is not about the meagre handouts that some states presented to the media during the summit. Rather, it should be about clearing the historic debt, which is morally far more binding than the debt mountains that piled up during the financial and economic crisis. Concretely, it is about financing a transformation in the Global South, away from fossil fuels that fully covers the costs related to adapting to the grave consequences of climate change.

Even the 1992 Rio Framework Convention on Climate Change stipulated that the parties to the Convention ‘shall provide new and additional financial resources’ for climate change related measures. During the 2009 conference in Copenhagen, industrialised nations promised to provide at least 100 billion US dollars annually from 2020. The Paris Agreement does not offer much beyond this pledge. It ‘strongly urges’ industrialised nations to provide 100 billion US dollars yearly between 2020 and 2025. However, a clear roadmap detailing where this money is going to come from and who has committed themselves to making which payments is still lacking. In fact, these states have begun applying all kinds of creative accounting techniques to show that they already provide 62 billion US dollars annually and argue that the new promises in Paris amount to 94 billion US dollars a year. Critical observers such as Oscar Reyes from the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington assess that funding for climate-related measures currently amounts to no more than 2 billion US dollars annually, or, if a more generous definition is applied, to 20 billion US dollars. According to estimates by Climate Fairshares, however, 400 billion US dollars are required annually. Put differently, there is an enormous gap between what is needed and what is being provided.

But from a climate justice perspective, far more is at stake than simply financing climate protection and adaptation. Historically, the Global North caused climate change and should, therefore, cover for inevitable loss and damage. What, however, characterises the agreement? Hiding behind the coattails of the US, the rich Global North has shunned from making any clear commitments in the text concerning reparation payments for loss and damage, let alone creating corresponding legal rights. The US delegation made it clear that any attempt to include such claims in the text would make an agreement impossible. One article, to be sure, deals with the issue of loss and damage. However, it includes no legal right to compensation, nor any concrete financial commitments, nor does it stipulate a date by when governments need to provide such specific commitments. Nothing but promises, pledges and appeals, therefore, that the Global North in general and the US, in particular, will do everything necessary to support the poorer states of the Global South. The Paris agreement offers the Global South charity instead of justice.

After Paris: the climate justice movement remains active

It would be too easy, though, to simply insist on the structural failure of the summit without analysing the degree and levels at which the summit has achieved progress in climate protection. Of particular interest here is the climate (justice) movement. In the run-up to the summit, the movement insisted on having ‘the last word’ on the summit, in particular, to prevent a similar demobilisation and frustration that occurred after the Copenhagen Summit. From the outset, the movement maintained that even under a best-case scenario – the achievement of a relatively ambitious and just deal – the decision on whether the summit’s resolutions would actually be implemented would be decided on the streets.

Did the climate movement then have the last word despite the state of emergency that ruled in Paris after 13 November? As an answer take this longer quote from Pascoe Sabido of Corporate Europe Observatory, one of the most prominent individuals in this years’ movement: ‘I don’t think we had the last word, as we didn’t get our narrative into the mainstream media, we didn’t provide the confrontation to arrest the announcement of the deal, but what I overwhelmingly felt from everyone who took part in all of the events on the 12th was that Paris and D12 was no end in itself, it was part of gearing up for a massive 2016. There will be no final word, just our inevitable rising cacophony, sweeping through territories, deafening opponents, dismantling injustice. The seeds are already planted. The forest is growing. Actions in 2016 will surpass all words uttered in Paris..’

So where does the movement stand after Paris? To quote Pascoe, the cacophony of civil society voices after the Paris Summit does not initially give us much hope. Paris offered everything, from the tears of elation rolling down the cheeks of some NGO representatives, who were bursting with joy, to Lidy Nacpil’s intense frustration. Does the climate movement, therefore, remain trapped in the unproductive divisions of the past decade that pitted summit optimists and summit sceptics against each other?

Slowly, the movement is bridging this divide. For example, as unrealistic as the 1.5-degree limit may currently seem, parts of the climate movement nonetheless interpret anchoring this number in the Paris agreement as a discursive victory. The 1.5-degree limit could work as a signal that the movement will amplify as far as possible. This is precisely what Kumi Naidoo from Greenpeace International attempted, when, just a few hours after the adoption of the Paris Agreement, he spoke of a ‘strong signal’ that marked the end of the fossil era. As such, what people understand the text as meaning could be more important than what the agreement actually says. The statement is more of a speech act than an actual analysis, i.e. it is an attempt to create a reality than to describe one. The addressees of this are mainly financial market actors, in a bid to convince them that the fossil era is ending.

Furthermore, the movement will use the 1.5-degree target as a political weapon to intensify the decisive battle on the future of fossil fuels. ‘Leaders adopt 1.5 C goal – and we’re damn well going to hold them to it’ the founder of the international climate network 350.org Bill McKibben wrote on Twitter. ‘Every pipeline, every mine: ‘You said 1.5!’ ‘ Because the continued extraction of fossil fuels is incompatible with the 1.5-degree limit, the Paris agreement offers a lever for the demands of the climate movement. The power of this lever will depend on the amount of pressure that grassroots movements can apply.

Undoubtedly, having the 1.5-degree limit in the agreement could lead some to believe that if this is the stated goal, then somehow the means to achieve this goal must also be in the agreement. Nonetheless, the 1.5-degree limit could just as well become a new arrow in the quiver of the climate movement.

This shows the increasing maturity of and strategic differentiation within the climate movement. A couple of years ago, there were two large opposing networks at the international level (the moderate Climate Action Network and the radical Climate Justice Now! network). Their positions were largely determined by the positions they took on the summit process. In recent years, though, new international actors have appeared and the movement has also developed new international policy fields. Examples are Ende Gelände, 350.org, Greenpeace (although not a new organisation, Greenpeace is now becoming ever more present in the different alliances) and the French steering group Coalition Climat 21 that organised the movement’s actions in Paris – these ‘new’ actors of international climate policy are not bound to the old conflict lines. Moreover, after Copenhagen and the all too visible failure of international climate diplomacy, climate movement activists needed to answer the question of which strategies were necessary and possible to tackle climate change. This led to very successful divestment campaigns; international networks to discuss energy democracy developed and activist groups began to network globally in the fight against fossil fuels.

All of these struggles will continue, and, according to grassroots activists, are to be intensified over the coming years. The movement has become larger, more mature and differentiated. Instead of weakening the movement, it seems the Paris Climate Summit may have made it stronger.

[Picture: Takver/ Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 ]