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



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