A historic deal – but is it enough?

ANALYSIS: The climate deal in Paris has rightfully been called an historic achievement. But the agreement has neither been signed, nor does it contain any concrete plan as to how to keep the earth from increasing its temperature.

Remember Severn Suzuki? ’The girl that silenced the world’, who at 12 years of age held a speech at the Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. ”What you makes me cry at night,” she said, addressing the world leaders, who applauded her when her five minute long speech was over. Since then, a number of climate summits have been held.

The latest one, COP21 (the 21st ’Conference of the parties’ climate summit) was held in Paris in December. The conference ended with the so-called Paris agreement negotiated in consensus by the parties present. Representatives from 196 countries were present. The agreement has not yet been signed, but will be in April this year. If 55 countries, representing over 55% of the global emissions ratify the agreement, it will enter into force.

Miguel Arias Cañete, European commissioner for energy and climate action, tweeted that the deal was ”historic”, and the pictures of the press conference was spread through the world, with the parties holding hands and looking deeply moved.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of environmental organisation 350 wrote in the New York Times: ”the pact reached in Paris feels, in a lot of ways, like an ambitious agreement designed for about 1995”. He goes on saying that the deal feels more like a front, ”enough to keep both environmentalists and the fossil fuel industry from complaining too much”. Mr McKibben is not alone in wanting more. James Hansen, professor of environmental studies considered the ’father of global warming’ told the Guardian that the Paris talks were a ”fraud” and accused the participants of ”no action, just promises”. In the same interview, he mentioned the fact that fossil fuels are cheap, and therefore the most attractive option. If we can expect any action is unclear, and since the deal is not going to be in effect until 2020, time is running out.

Prior to the deal, the environmentalist community was worried. Before the climate change summit in Copenhagen in 2009, hopes were high. This meeting did however amount to little, if anything. The representatives at COP21 were wary of the ramifications the last try had, and this time it was – according to the UN, the organiser – of utmost importance to reach an agreement that would really make a difference.

The European Union participated as one voice at the summit, with commissioner Cañete representing the 28 member states. Peter Eriksson is vice-chair of the group of the Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament. Before the conference, he said he hoped for the Paris summit not to be an end point, but ”rather a way of reaching a conclusion that ’this is one step of the road’, but we have to move further.” He added:

”I don’t think they will make the necessary decisions to meet the climate crisis. There are, however very good possibilities to get through this. There has been a revolution when it comes to renewable energy that a lot of people are unaware of.”

The outspoken goal that was to not increase the world temperature by more than two degrees Celsius. There was however disagreement on whether this was enough to hold back the climate crisis. Organisations such as 350 and Greenpeace, along with the EU stated that the goal should rather be 1,5 degrees. The means to reach this end differ depending on who you talk to. 

Melanie Mattauch. Photo: 350.org

”The deal by itself won’t save the planet,” said Melanie Mattauch, Europe communications coordinator for 350. ”If governments are serious about lowering temperature, this means closing coal power stations. I mean shutting down massively. We don’t see that happening.”

She has a point. There is no real plan from any developed country to shut down their power stations. The UK has lowered their support for renewable energy, Germany has no plan to phase out their coal energy. Sweden are in the process of deciding whether to sell parts of their steel industry to Germany, or to phase it out. If Sweden decides to sell, this means even more coal production.

How to reach the goal in the agreement remains to be seen. Taxing emissions is one way to go, but the agreement says nothing about this. It does not mention fossil fuel. Neither gas, oil nor coal. The pressure from corporations and oil states can been partially blamed for this. Melanie Mattauch explained how her organisation had low expectations in the lead up to the meeting. She thinks that pressuring governments and lobby organisations is the best way to go forward. The organisation, along with other NGO:s are planning a large protest against the coal industry in May this year. James Hansen suggested in the Guardian interview to establish a fee on carbon fuel.

”In the lead up to Paris our expectations were quite low, because of the the fossil fuel lobby. They have a huge influence on political processes. In that sense we are not surprised that the outcome is what it is.” She added:

”The governments won’t do this by themselves if they have a different choice. Apartheid or slave trade weren’t stopped because of politicians. They did it because of a mass movement of people who eventually didn’t leave them any other choice than abolishing it. What we do now is stopping the acceptance of fossil fuels.”

The analogy is a bit on the strong side, but the facts remain: the ideologies of European national parliaments differ widely. Nationalist parties are on the rise in many countries, not least in Eastern Europe. Poland and Slovakia, as well as the Czech republic has had an increasing support of nationalist parties in recent elections. As ’climate-skeptics’ are often on this side, the debate on global warming – which many of us thought was finished – needs another round.

”Sceptics are still here, they have votes in the Parliament,” said Peter Eriksson. ”Especially from countries where preserving nationalist interests is important, such as defending national production, which means coal production and mining in a number of countries.”

The lobby from both corporations and states has even influenced the way we talk about the climate. Remember how we used to say ’global warming’? According to a report from Yale University the shift to ’climate change’ came in in 2002. Frank Luntz, ”a Republican pollster and strategist”, gave president George W. Bush the advice to use the term since it sounds ”less frightening than ‘global warming’. […] While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.”

When it comes to future energy consumption, opinions differ widely. Even within the environmental community. Peter Eriksson does not think we need to lower our energy use.

”I think we can increase the energy consumption. I think there will be plenty of electricity in the future. This is a transitional period.”

Melanie Mattauch does not agree.

”We definitely need to lower our use of energy. One of the assumptions on all of the energy solutions is that we need to raise the efficiency. But do we really need to use all of this energy? Probably, we don’t.”

"If not now, when?" A protester writing on a Paris street, December 12, 2015. Photo by Bianca Benjamin
“If not now, when?” A protester writing on a Paris street, December 12, 2015. Photo by Bianca Benjamin

A hotter issue

The deal is by all means a historic one. 196 countries came together for the climate. Nobody can deny that there is a crisis here. That something must be done. As someone wrote on the pavement at the massive protests in Paris on the 12th: ”If not now, when?”

Even though the agreement is not enough to stop the climate crisis, the meeting has proven something. The political discourse about the climate is now a topic the politicians must address. Marcus Wråke, researcher at IVL Swedish Institute of Environment, said before the meeting that he saw this meeting as an opportunity to make the environment an issue which can win political points. And this is important.

”No politician wants to put their hands on a ’loser issue’,” he said. ”This is why paris can be meaningful even if the deal in itself isn’t ambitious enough. This will not necessarily mean Paris is a failure.” This is where organisations and parties within the green movement come in. Putting pressure on political leaders and corporations in order to do anything real about the climate.

Marcus Wråke also stated the importance of looking over the agreement regularly in order to see how the commitments are progressing. The parties have pledged to review the commitments every five years. Let’s hope they use the momentum created by this historic agreement.

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