Wilful interpretation the key to making the COP21 Paris Agreement a tipping point in climate policy

By Susan Johnson and Thibault Uytterhaegen

As the formal signing of the COP21 agreement arrived at in Paris in December closes on 22nd April at the UN Headquarters in New York, how is this agreement to be viewed?   Will it go down in history as a tipping point in climate change policy or, as claimed by others, be remembered that yet again ‘by comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster’[1].

Claimed as a resounding success for multilateralism with world leaders making unprecedented efforts to achieve an agreement, it offers some apparent breakthroughs.  The inclusion of a 1.5oC aspirational target, and the inclusion of “loss and damage” being perhaps the most notable of these.  However, these came with the country level commitments under Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) which add up to only a 2.7oC, although with mechanisms for ratcheting these up through a five-year review; and with no more finance yet pledged to enable adaptation, and no mechanism to link historic contributions to GHG emissions to any idea of liability and the distribution of future contributions.  Indeed the French hosts diplomatically claimed a typo to adjust “shall” to “should” in order to reject such a potential claim that the US could not have accommodated at the last minute, so saving the agreement from being derailed.

As Catherine Pettengell argued at a recent roundtable of experts on the Paris Agreement held at the University of Bath[2], COP21 offers “words and the framework … the hooks for decisive action”, she argued that it was necessary to go from words to deeds and that we must now “wilfully interpret” the agreement to get the action required.

That the language decisively shifts expectations was endorsed by Janet Strachan of the Overseas Development Institute who argued that the goal of 1.5oC was more of a frame of mind for actors to get behind. That it is ambitious, but it is what is needed in order to catalyse action from governments and organisations all over the world.  Indeed, Peter Newell, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, claimed that the agreement presented the end game for the fossil fuel industry with Green MEP Molly Scott Cato indicating that coal industry executives now see their industry “being hated by the public as much the slave trade”. However, these speakers also recognised that these developments presented new problems in valuing fossil fuel assets that risk the stability of financial markets and pose new challenges to manage these effectively.

Indeed, it was also argued that the goal of 1.5oC by 2050 should also be viewed with a certain degree of wariness – a suggestion that it was too ambitious.  Peter Newell explained that the target could imply the use of potentially deleterious carbon negative strategies, such as geoengineering and carbon capture and storage. Reinforcing this view, Molly Scott pointed out that requirements for land with which to create carbon negative mechanisms may lead to new land grabs and put at risk the livelihoods of some of the poorest people in developing countries.

On the other hand, the recognition of loss and damage was recognised as a significant step forward  – indeed a third phase of understanding of what is required, which first started with mitigation, and then moved on to recognise the role of adaptation. However, while Janet Strachan argued that the sector was not yet ready for new money, others criticised the fact that the funding mechanisms have not been explicitly defined. Molly Scott Cato suggests the international community has a moral obligation to supply the money, proposing green quantitative easing because interest bearing debt funding would necessarily be based on unsustainable growth strategies. In agreeing with this, Jon Date, advocacy officer for climate change policy at ActionAid, proposed a “fairshares” proportionate contribution mechanism which distributes the amounts to be paid towards climate change adaptation for developing countries on the basis of each country’s carbon and pollution emissions.

Overall, while recognising these limitations, panellists recognised the importance of moving forward with optimism. Molly Scott Cato particularly exhorted the need for progress which could only be achieved through garnering public pressure, through tireless efforts to convince elected leaders and interested lobbies that humanity depends on the outcomes of each and every contribution: that a positive vision of the future is necessary to enable us to do this together.  As Janet Strachan put it “we are in the policy fight of our lives”.  We must therefore wilfully interpret the agreement in the interests of our collective future.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2015/dec/12/paris-climate-deal-governments-fossil-fuels

[2] http://www.bath.ac.uk/cds/documents/CDS_Public_Event.pdf


Borderlands, Brokers and War to Peace Transitions in Nepal and Sri Lanka

Line_of_gas_cylinder_2By Oliver Walton (Bath) and Jonathan Goodhand (SOAS, Melbourne)

Last September, violent protests in the Tarai region of Nepal triggered the closure of its southern border with India, leading to a spike in fuel prices and widespread damage to the economy. The blockade from Madhesi groups was a response to concerns that the new federal boundaries agreed in Nepal’s long-awaited constitution reinforced existing political marginalisation. The campaign was widely believed to be complicitly backed by India so as to apply pressure on Nepal’s ruling coalition because of unease at the new constitution. The renewed violence in the Tarai marks a worrying new chapter in a country that is still recovering from a long insurgency from Maoist guerrillas, which was finally ended by a peace agreement in 2006.

At the other end of the Indian subcontinent, in Sri Lanka, peripheral regions have also been at the heart of wrangling over the country’s future following the ending of its long-running civil war in 2009, though a military victory by the Government of Sri Lanka over the separatist rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Conflict-affected regions in the North and East have seen continued military occupation, while in the south, the once economically-marginal district of Hambantota (hometown of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa) became a key site of infrastructural development and heavy Chinese investment.


These brief examples show firstly how centre-periphery relations frequently become (or continue to be) a point of contestation in war to peace transitions, and secondly how these dynamics vary greatly in different kinds of state margins. Yet the role of peripheral regions in post war contexts has been little studied.

How does the political and economic salience of peripheral regions shift at war’s end? What are the key points of contention between centre and periphery?  What is the role of political and economic brokers who mediate between the centre and margins and across the border?  Does this brokering role differ where there is a maritime border rather than a land border? How do these dynamics vary when comparing historically marginalised peripheries (like the Karnali region in northern Nepal) with zones of great political or economic salience such as Hambantota and the Tarai? How are post-war transitions experienced by those living in the margins of the state?  How do the interventions of international actors affect centre-periphery relations?

Our new 2-year ESRC-funded research project – ‘Borderlands, Brokers and Peacebuilding in Sri Lanka and Nepal: War to Peace Transitions viewed from the margins’– looks at post-war transitions from the vantage point of such peripheral regions. The project began in December 2015 and will run until November 2017.

In both countries, state margins have been important incubators of political grievance and central to the dynamics of civil war. But relatively little is known about the role these regions play in shaping post-war transitions at the national level and influencing post-war peacebuilding and reconstruction processes. The project challenges traditional approaches to analysing post-war transitions, which have tended to view statebuilding processes as involving the diffusion of political and economic power outwards from centre to periphery.

We see the dynamics of brokerage as central to war to peace transitions. Brokers, including military leaders, local politicians, fixers and businessmen, mediate valued resources and ideas between centre and periphery and across the borderline. They act as intermediaries and gatekeepers, and they are both a point of friction and a lubricant in relations between the centre and periphery.

These individuals draw strength from their ability to inhabit different social and political worlds. During war to peace transitions their roles often shift considerably – military actors might become political party leaders or morph into businessmen. Brokers operating in conflict-affected regions have to remain alert to sudden political ruptures, and develop strategies for dealing with changing patterns of violence, or rapid adjustments in power and resource relations.

A good example of this kind of shift can be seen in the changing role of paramilitary leaders like Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan (Pillayan) and Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (Karuna) from the Eastern faction of the LTTE in Sri Lanka. This faction broke away from the northern-led command in 2004, and supported the government’s successful campaign to reclaim LTTE territory in the East. Once the military campaign was over, the group entered party politics and sought to convert some of their coercive strength into political power, though with limited success. After holding key government positions, its former leader Karuna and current leader Pillayan are now marginalised from the political mainstream. Pillayan is currently in jail for killing a Tamil parliamentarian.

We will look at the role of such borderland brokers through detailed life histories. We believe that careful study of the lives of these brokers will reveal how processes of change are shaped, understood and negotiated by individuals and communities in the periphery.

The project is led by Professor Jonathan Goodhand (SOAS and Melbourne). The core research team includes researchers from the Centre for Poverty Analysis in Sri Lanka (led by Vagisha Gunasekera), Martin Chautari in Nepal (led by Pratyoush Onta and Bhaskar Gautam), the University of Bath (Oliver Walton) and the School of Oriental and African Studies in the UK (Patrick Meehan and Sharri Plonski). International Alert (Markus Mayer) leads the project’s engagement with policymakers and practitioners. See this two-page flyer and the project website for further details.


Jonathan Goodhand is a Professor of Conflict and Development Studies at the SOAS Department of Development Studies.   His research focuses on the political economy of conflict, war to peace transitions and increasingly on the role of borderlands, with a particular focus on South and Central Asia.

Oliver Walton is a Lecturer in International Development at the University of Bath in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences. His research focuses on civil society, NGOs and the political economy of peace and conflict, with a focus on South Asia.