Paris COP21: Big Hype, Little Substance

In December, 25,000 official delegates from 195 countries meeting at the 2015 Conference of Parties finalized the language of the 12-page “Paris Agreement.” Although hailed as an unprecedented victory by national, international, and corporate leaders, The Paris Agreement failed to deliver the drastic changes necessary to avert climate chaos. As George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian, “by comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle…by comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.” Pablo Solon, former Bolivian climate negotiator decried, The Paris Agreement will “see the planet burn.”

What is COP21 and The Paris Agreement?

The yearly Conference of Parties (COP) gathers under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to discuss global climate change solutions. 2015 marks the twenty-first year of the Conferences of Parties—hence COP21. The 2015 Paris Agreement, according to Reuters, was a “long-overdue turning point,” superseding the previous agreement written in 1997, The Kyoto Protocol. This agreement sets global climate policy for the next decade, to be revisited in 2025, and dictates the relationship that developed and developing nations will have to each other, and to the planet.

Why is the Paris Agreement hailed as a Victory?

According to most establishment accounts, the COP21 resulted in a historic transformation away from fossil fuels, laying the foundation for a decarbonized future. Secretary of State John Kerry stated that, “it is a victory for all of the planet and for future generations.” By virtue of the sheer number of national interests present at the COP21, The Paris Agreement amounted to a diplomatic success. With nearly 200 nations present, arriving at any agreement appeared seemingly impossible.

The final document contains measures that many thought unlikely. For example, low-lying island states won a target of limiting global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C. The agreement includes pledges of financial assistance from rich, developed countries to poorer, developing countries. These pledges amount to $100 billion by 2020 and a further $100 billion yearly until 2025; these $600 billion will provide seed money to repair damages caused by climate change and to build green infrastructure.

Why Was it a Failure?

Although lauded as a turning point in the industrial era, the Paris Agreement, with all the lofty goals that it encompasses, is not legally-binding. Absent from the document is a method of legal recourse to keep countries accountable, and indeed, as noted by James Hansen, “There is no action, just promises.”

These “promises” are in the form of an “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC) from each nation. The INDC’s are non-negotiable, and scientists predict that, as submitted, these INDC’s will provide a framework that will heat the planet between 3 to 4 degrees C, double the target limit of 1.5degrees C. According to the UN International Panel on Climate Change, in order to limit warming to 2 degrees C, 80% of global fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground. However, the words “fossil fuels,” “oil,” “natural gas,” and “coal” never appear in the text of the Paris Agreement. The focus is on carbon emissions rather than on fossil-fuel extraction. Thus, oil-rich nations, such as Saudi Arabia, can increase production, so long as the state agrees to lower emissions within its own borders.

The Paris Agreement reinforces carbon trading and carbon offsets. Under the “Mechanisms to Support Sustainable Development,” carbon allowance trading will allow for emissions to continueunabated. Moreover, the “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degredation” (REDD)mechanism allows for polluters to “offset” emissions through the replanting of forests. These policies have failed to reduce carbon emissions.

These market-based policies are not only destructive to the planet, but result in indigenous communities being evicted from ancestral homes. Many have called the REDD mechanism “carbon piracy.” Language safeguarding indigenous rights only appears in the preamble to the Paris Agreement, not in the text.

The Paris Agreement, not only fails to safeguard the planet, it fails to reflect the needs of those most impacted by climate change. Despite pledges of $600 billion by 2025 to developing nations, estimated costs from damages caused by climate change fall at $1.7 trillion yearlyby 2050. The Paris Agreement falls drastically short in all aspects, from carbon reductions, to legal accountability, and especially human rights.

What Next?

As spokesperson, Thomas Coutrot, of Attac France, an environmental justice organization explained, “The emptiness of this agreement reflects the powerlessness of governments to attack the true causes of climate disruption. This comes as no surprise: the greed of multinationals, the fossil fuel energy, and the obsession with growth are considered untouchable.”

The failure of the Paris Agreement to effectively address the threat of climate change points to the need for a bottoms up, comprehensive, systemic approach to climate change. It emphasizes the importance of the Local Clean Energy Alliance and other climate justice organizations in charting the way forward.