#COP21: Deal or No Deal?!

Today will go down in history.

12th December 2015. The day the world finally agreed on a universal plan to tackle the climate crisis – a credible, just and binding agreement – a turning point, after which we began a fast and transformative transition to a post-carbon economy.

Or will it be:

12th December 2015. The day the world had a global climate deal within its grasp, but let political tensions and short-sighted national interest prevail – destroying hope and sentencing our world to catastrophic runaway climate change.


I hope with all my heart it will be the former.

From the D12 climate rally in Paris today. Creative Commons licensing.

From the D12 climate rally in Paris today. Creative Commons licensing.

The final draft of the agreement that diplomats and ministers have been debating day and night for the last two weeks has been released!

But it’s not time to celebrate yet. The representatives of almost 200 nations must sign the agreement in the late afternoon, and they still have the chance to make objections, demand alterations, or even refuse to sign altogether. From what the officials have been saying throughout the summit, it sounds very unlikely that we’ll go away without a deal. So the good news is it’s almost certain there will be a deal. The bad news is that after two weeks of fierce debate, red lines and painful compromise, the deal is still in danger of being watered down – possibly to the point of ineffective – right at the last minute.

A weak deal will not be enough. We must have a deal which is scientifically credible, socially just, and binding.

Here is the final draft text.

It’s very dense and dry. There will soon be lots of expert analysis coming out, but I will try to pour through it and outline some of the highlights.

  • The target is limiting global warming to “well below” 2C, ideally 1.5C. 2C was going to be the plan all along, but many small island states and some in sub-Saharan Africa have been campaigning for a 1.5C target, as 2C will spell disaster for them. To be fair it’s an example of global Euro-American centricism and, quite frankly, racism – that the level widely agreed to be the ‘safe limit’ is in actual fact a death sentence to many in poor countries. Anyway, it can be considered a win that the stricter target is acknowledged.
  • There is a statement that carbon emissions must be no higher than absorption by the environment by 2100, but no clear deadline for when fossil fuels must be phased out. As previous drafts had clear targets of phasing out fossil fuels in the second half of the century, the omission could be due to some form of dangerous last-minute lobbying, either from states or the fossil fuel industry itself. However, the target that emissions must equal what carbon sinks can absorb, does mean a target of zero net emissions. It could mean carbon pollution continues far in to the future, though, as long as there are enough forests and other sinks to absorb it. The problem is, by the end of the century is waaay too far away. To limit warming to 2C we must keep around 80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground – and of course even more for the tighter 1.5C target. We must fight to end the era of fossil fuels by 2050, whatever the final agreement says.
  • There is going to be a review mechanism, where every five years the world’s nations will ”take stock” of their collective progress, and ramp up climate commitments, with the first in 2023. This is crucial because so far the “nationally intended contributions” or national climate plans, are only sufficient to limit global warming to 2.7C – a very dangerous level. This was a a major sticking point, with large developing nations – notably India and China – opposed to ramping up their contributions so soon. It’s good news this is included in the text. Also, nations are
    ”encouraged” to revisit their climate plans in 2018, before they take effect in 2020.
  • The thorny issue of loss and damage is included. The most climate-vulnerable states have been adamant that they will suffer some irreversible impacts that cannot be mitigated nor adapted to. For example, losing part of their country to sea level rise, mass deaths and forced migrations, the inability to continue growing a staple crop. The have passionately, and rightly, demanded they must have some form of compensation from the rich nations for these losses – in addition to the finance mobilised for mitigation and adaptation (which is for things like renewable energy and flood defences). The rich nations, especially the USA, have opposed these calls. The American government have been terrified of any language denoting legal liability, because if the deal leaves American companies or the American government open to being sued on climate grounds, the climate-denying corporate-loving Republicans, which control Congress, will block the deal and we’ll all be screwed. The final draft includes the principle of loss and damage and says something must be done about it, but clarifies this action cannot be through legal liability. This isn’t fair. The governments and corporations that cause climate change should be sued for their crimes against humanity. But being purely pragmatic, it’s better this way.
  • As previously agreed, the rich countries will provide at least $100 billion a year of climate finance to the developing world, in a ”transparent” manner. It seems the COP22 meeting next year will be used to discuss the issue of climate finance further. It’s very important that the word ”transparent” was used, but it should have gone further. This was a sticking point in the talks, as the OECD claimed that nearly $60 billion had already been mobilised, but many developing nations claimed this was not true. They said the calculations were not clear, and that the figure includes loans and the double-counting of finance already provided for other reasons. This is a very valid objection. I know for sure that my own county, the UK, is doing this. My government have pledged to redirect our whole aid budget to climate finance. As many of the countries that would be receiving standard development aid are the same ones that will be getting climate finance, our pledge amounts to almost nothing. It’s highly likely other countries are doing the same and it’s entirely unacceptable. The rich countries have the historical responsibility for causing this mess – the least we can do is help poorer countries transition and adapt. Anyway, this point is right to be included but it should be stronger.
  • Voluntary climate action in the years running up to 2020 – when this deal will take effect – is “encouraged”. It is not good enough to wait five years before doing anything, so I sincerely hope countries start early. The text “decides” (sounds better than the other funky verbs flying around the document) that the period 2016-2020 will see a “technical examination process” around clean technology transfer. That sounds promising, if vague.
  • The text “urges” nations to work with non-state actors to ramp up action prior to 2020, and beyond. The good news is 450 cities (and several major corporations – though I’m sceptical about them) have already pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050. I’ll report more on that soon because it’s very exciting. Spoiler: Copenhagen wins most ambitious prize, pledging to completely decarbonise in just 10 years!
  • Finally… Will the agreement be legally binding? You may of been hoping for me to tell you this, but I’m afraid it’s not at all clear. The Guardian live blog (linked below) quotes the French negotiators saying it is binding. But worryingly, I can’t find anything on its legally binding nature in the text. I hope I’ve just missed it due to my lack of experience with these kind of obtuse diplomatic legalese documents. I’m waiting for expert analysis in the coming days to clear this up. It was a key goal all along, so I would be surprised if at least part of it isn’t binding. There was some talk of only the reporting and review of progress being binding, rather than the actual emission cuts. I’m pretty worried about this because pledges and promises are all very nice but it’s action that matters. At least we have the review mechanism to check what’s happening, but we really need a binding deal – with consequences for those that don’t keep their promises.

The executive director of 350.org, May Boeve, told the Guardian:

“This marks the end of the era of fossil fuels. There is no way to meet the targets laid out in this agreement without keeping coal, oil and gas in the ground. The text should send a clear signal to fossil fuel investors: divest now.”

The final debate and hopefully, the signing of the agreement, will take place at 5:30pm today. You can follow it on the Guardian live blog.

This is not the end of the road. The next few years will be tough, and the climate movement must keep up the pressure. The Paris summit does seem to have mobilised a lot of action from cities, the business community and civil society. The twin trends of divestment from fossils and the explosive increase of renewable energy are giving me hope.

So let’s continue to fight for climate justice, and make sure 12th December 2015 goes down in the history books as the day the world got serious about climate change.


UPDATE: The Paris Agreement has been passed! For the first time ever we have a global and (apparently) legally binding climate deal. I am so happy. Let’s celebrate – then act.

UPDATE (again): The Paris Climate Accord is part legally binding, part voluntary. Which is what most were expecting. So the legally binding bit is that every five years all countries have to review progress and submit more ambitious action plans. Actually doing what’s in the plan is not binding. Unfortunately the Republicans in the US and some large developing countries such as India would not have signed it if the emission cuts were legally binding. I guess the hope is getting slammed by the world during the five yearly reviews and shown up by the progress and praise of others will be enough to hold governments to their word. We’ll see.

3 thoughts on “#COP21: Deal or No Deal?!

  1. Good analysis Tegan
    The Big Issue is that the very nature of democratic assemblies means that in 5 years the next review will be largely by different people employed in some cases by opposing parties. Long-term change requires long-term accountability and responsibility for delivery. There is no published process to name and shame those who sit on the sidelines. Those who agreed these targets are passing the baton of implementation to unknown others. Regrettably the history of Policy-Making is littered with failure to implement.

    1. Thanks Clive! Yes, the national political cycles are a real problem for long term environmental policy. Especially as they often swing from right to left and back again. I’m particularly worried that the US could soon get a republican government, that would likely backtrack on all the climate pledges Obama has made. And totally I agree about the critical lack of any kind of punishment mechanism for climate slackers. I can understand why fines weren’t agreed on, but there really should be a formal ‘name and shame’ process. Hopefully this will happen in a more informal way at least. Despite the many loopholes and vagueness of the Paris Agreement, I do think it will catalyse and speed up change in the business sector. The growing demand and falling price of renewable energy is a hopeful trend.

  2. Professor of Carbon Management at Edinburgh University says the deal will be legally binding. He says: “Legally-binding, a robust ratchet mechanism, and strong reporting requirements – impressive.” I’m still not 100% convinced but this suggests it will be legally binding after all. I hope so.

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