There is no doubt that the talks will go down in history at the sight of so many emotional delegates who expressed their satisfaction, and also for François Hollande, in one of the best speeches of his presidency. You would have had to watch the live streaming of the COP on Saturday late at night to hear any discordant voices from the NGOs, the trade unions and the younger generation who spoke up as observers of the COP, expressing their negative and final judgment. A pity, because only some of Laurent Fabius’ exhausted delegates were there to hear them.
There was one high ranking observer who put it in a nutshell: George Monbiot, the environmental columnist of The Guardian: “when you see what it could have been, it’s a miracle; when you see what it should have been, it’s a disaster”.
A miracle, yes, in that the “multiparty system” worked. The result was a text drawn up by 196 countries, 195 plus Palestine, who became a fully-fledged “party” at the end of this Conference and whose delegate insisted, on Saturday night around midnight, on what that meant for Palestine (Israel had left the room), and with such divergent interests such as those of Saudi Arabia or Nicaragua, it was historical. Kyoto gathered approximately fifty countries, some of which left the boat on the way. This conference was a miracle in that the text clearly stipulates that 1.5°C is not to be exceeded (for island countries), and the need to be accountable every 5 years (idem). The climate fund will be at least 100 billion$ (for least developed countries), carbon neutrality ensured both by falling emissions and the capturing of carbon – both naturally – (the importance of forests) and artificially (opening up to carbon capture and storage) from 2050 onwards (so as not to go too fast for fossil energy producing countries); the reference to “loss and damages” is mentioned (for already-impacted countries), and the principle of differentiation, highlighted in different articles of the final text and also the reference to human rights.
A balanced miracle, and as Fabius described, a strong and solid text [especially referring to the 1.5°), but also a difficult text in that all 195 countries in one way or another are taken into account.
A disaster, on the other hand, in that this paper comes late, very late: 23 years after the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 with the first international text on climate change Public awareness and momentum steadily built up to the last COP six years ago in 2009: Copenhagen, which was already the “COP which was to save the world” … And if we are to compare this paper to the text that laboriously emerged from the Copenhagen conference, we can say that in six years, we have only advanced to 0.5°C . In 2009, we were talking of not going beyond 2°C and now, in 2015, the Paris conference talks of “not going beyond 1.5°C”. Moreover, we have just agreed to $100 billion of the “green funding” that had already been mentioned in the Copenhagen text, with no detail regarding its source.
A disaster especially because since Copenhagen, we have fundamentally changed our approach, even if it has been so rarely mentioned. Before it was the top-down approach which required that countries reach an objective of GHG (Greenhouse Gases) reduction. Whereas today, with the famous INDC or the “intentional nationally determined contributions”, each country is invited to provide its voluntary commitment. On Saturday evening the UN welcomed the fact that 186 countries out of 196 had returned their “contributions”, some like Venezuela on the Saturday afternoon before the closure of the Paris summit! The problem lies in the fact that the sum of the current contributions made completely derails the trajectory of 1.5°C, because with current commitments, it is 3.5°C. So we have moved from an impossible “top-down” to an insufficient “bottom-up” which the binding text requires to be reviewed every five years, with prohibition to return to previous commitments. Explained to my 14 year old daughter, it becomes, “but if they don’t do it or don’t do enough, it doesn’t change anything, so what does it all mean?” If this disaster is not due to Paris itself, the very lack of control shown by China, which forgot to record a mass of CO2, then the whole process is hardly credible.
During the COP21 side talks, the notion of “loss and damage” was raised, the principle for compensation to a country which suffers a “weather event”, such as a devastating hurricane. This concept is mentioned, but in no case materialised: impossible therefore for the Philippines to turn against oil producers while the famous Green Fund is only expected to run until 2025. The South may just maintain the hope that it will be enough to encourage rich countries to fulfill their responsibilities: nothing is less certain and some, like Naomi Klein, believe that poorer countries have been forced to accept their own destruction. Others will have noted that the reference to food security, present in previous versions of the text, no longer appears in the final version. It is said that this is the result of the lobbying of the American and Brazilian agro-food industry, while climate change is likely to impede the capacity to feed 600 million people.
Finally, as to this objection to reaching zero CO2 in 2050, it would have been so welcome to write in black and white that it was necessary to choose renewable energy and bury – or rather leave buried – fossil fuels once and for all. On the contrary, when the text refers to the capture of carbon, naturally, but also technically, it goes far and clearly emphasizes the path to technological delusions mentioned a few days ago, including the famous “carbon capture and storage”
And what next?
Unlike before Paris, even if the text does reveal many deficiencies, it has great merit in actually existing and providing a framework with which we can now judge any policy decision on energy, mobility, green taxation, agriculture, forest management, etc. We will be able to judge, especially in the moral sense of the word, and the “naming and shaming” will be so much easier.
The pressure on fossil fuels will increase and particularly on investors in oil and coal companies. And they will not refrain from advocating that they still have time. They will be sure to use technological developments, which have yet to prove their effectiveness to capture or suck carbon. Meanwhile, the nuclear industry, such as the Nuclear Forum, did not waste any time in publishing in Belgian newspapers immediately following the COP the merits of low-carbon energy sources, while denying all the rest.
As for the world of business, hyped up by the initiative “From Lima to Paris” by the French government, it still has a lot of work to do to convince the rest of the world that it is not just conducting ‘window dressing’.
On the other hand, we can count on civil society. Despite the restrictions imposed post-November 13 Paris attacks, the French civil society has shown a certain amount of dynamism during the past 15 days in Paris, combining creativity and technology (see Friends of the Earth), a renewal of the troops with many young activists (refer to” Climate Express”) and a strong will at the end of the Paris conference not to stop there. However, a little more unity and strategy will be needed to carry more weight. There was also on Saturday night, around midnight, the intervention of the Unions (ITUC) representative who also criticized the agreement without reservation: a strong message, but very top-down; it remains that the base is hard to mobilize. And when will there be strikes for the climate to which the civil society may adhere?
Not to mention the religious authorities who, behind Pope Francis (repeatedly praised by some delegations in their final speeches), have finally taken up this whole issue of the connection between Man and creation.
Bye Bye le Bourget
On leaving Paris, I wondered what was to become of all these white offices which were the standard model in all the rooms of this COP, and the lamps and the tens of thousands of plywood panels, the partitions, the booths, the floors….. and the thousands of headsets for the translations. These headsets were used, in fact, to be able to actually hear the lectures as the rooms had no soundproofing system and therefore, headphones were essential. I wonder indeed how this ephemeral COP city will disappear.
On leaving Paris, I could not help thinking about the hundreds of people and what sort of work they will find next. All these people who were there to shuttle the participants to and fro, sometimes improvising a guard of honour and always present for security checks. They were there to clean the toilets, give IT support, retrieve headsets – all these Black Blanc Beurs (multicultural)really illuminated the COP with their smiles and kindness, demonstrating all the care that France had taken to make this event a success from every point of view. And at the same time, how that hatred of November 13 and the incurring speeches of the same kind almost won at the regional elections, but proved to be in vain and pathetic.
On leaving Paris, I also thought of those delegates from all over the world. I thought of John Kerry who returned to Washington DC and of his colleagues who returned to Port-au-Prince or Singapore, Manila or San Salvador. They shared an almost common destiny for two weeks but went back on Monday morning to such a “differentiated” reality, as an agreement on climate would put it.
Bill McKibben, creator of 350.org (350 as 350 ppm, that is, the mass of CO2 in the air that would be sustainable for our planet (we have just reached the 400ppm!)), summarized Paris with these words: “This agreement has not saved the planet, but it may have saved the chance of saving the planet.”
This article was originally published on Etopia.
 The process of capturing waste carbon dioxide and storing it, for example, underground, where it will not enter the atmosphere.