Towards the end of the December climate conference, things became very emotional. Tears were shed, and the tense atmosphere among delegates and observers alike gave way to great relief. After all, many of the participants had not reckoned with such a surprising outcome. Whether in Kyoto, Bali, Cancún or Durban, there had often been no indication whatsoever of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ever reaching an accord. After the UNFCCC had been launched at the sustainability conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, the now 196 member states spent 23 years negotiating this agreement.
At the time, the world was still a different place. There were developing and industrialised coun-tries, and there was hardly any mention of renewable energies. This group of countries has since been joined by the emerging economies which, although they have long joined the ranks of the big-gest greenhouse gas emitters, still wish to be treated as developing countries. China and India, in particular, owe their economic growth to excessive coal consumption. They insist on also catching up with development levels by using fossil fuels. Alone the falling price of renewable energies and the fact that they have long become viable competitors of fossil energy sources and nuclear power speaks for radical changes in these countries. Their governments refuse to commit themselves to such changes, and they totally oppose any international monitoring. Saudi-Arabia also belongs to this group. It is a country that lives exclusively on oil exports and stalled negotiations by insisting on compensation payments for profits it would lose if its precious natural resource had to remain un-derground.
Climate witnesses up close
A first-hand impression was provided in Paris of just what the impacts of climate change are like in poor countries and among marginalised sections of the population nowadays. Participants included Indios from Brazil whose forest habitat is simply being clear-cut, Eskimos from Northern Alaska, where the ground is melting away, island and coastal dwellers who had to be resettled because they were threatened by sea-level rise, and Indios who no longer know how to get water to drink or to farm with now that the Andes glaciers have melted away. This was more than just a face-to-face encounter with reality – it was an outcry, a call on the polluters, on the big greenhouse gas emitters, to at least do a U-turn and get the world onto another, sustainable development path.
The group of small island nations in the Pacific and the Caribbean Sea have succeeded in turning anger and despair into a political asset. Tony de Brum, Foreign Affairs Minister of the Marshall Is-lands, spoke of “fossil fuels” and “fossil fools”, referring to the blockers represented in Paris who were living almost exclusively on revenue from oil exports. de Brum brought about the coalition of ambitious states. In addition to the developing countries, the USA, the European Union as well as Canada, Brazil and other hardliners joined it. Thanks to this initiative, the agreement stipulates that global warming be limited to less than two degrees Celsius until the end of the century. There is even mention of 1.5 degrees, a question of survival for the island nations.
Abandoning coal and oil: wishful thinking or reality?
Only how should this goal be achieved? Decarbonisation, a total departure from coal, oil and gas, is not demanded in the accord. Agreement was reached that, in the second half of the century, no more greenhouse gases must be emitted than what nature could absorb. This was a demand that China, India and Saudi Arabia were able to come to terms with, although the balance reached polit-ically must not conceal the fact that scientific insights call for significantly more stringent measures on the part of government actors. Continuing the decarbonisation initiative of the G7 states launched in the June Paris agreement and focusing on a social and economic transformation making use of socially and environmentally compatible technologies would have made more sense than opt-ing for immature technologies that a clause in the new agreement refers to. According to the latter, greenhouse gases may further be discharged as long as emissions are compensated for or absorbed through biomass or stored underground. The abbreviation of this approach is BECCS (Bioenergy and Carbon Capture and Storage). We are well aware of the negative implications that this has for food security and poverty eradication, given the phenomenon of land-grabbing.
A further question that remains unanswered is how the necessary decarbonisation of the world economy is to be achieved if the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), an-nounced by 186 states, are insufficient for this purpose. If they are implemented, the world will be moving towards a warming up of 2.7 degrees Celsius. We have already reached one degree of warming. What is still at issue is whether the monitoring conferences agreed to be held every five years will be able to bridge the emission gap.
The agreement also lacks any strategy to raise the 100 billion US dollars needed for climate protec-tion and adaptation from 2020 on. Although the industrialised nations are “requested” to mobilise financial resources to combat global warming and emerging economies are “encouraged” to volun-tarily contribute to climate financing, just what this process will look like is only going to be negoti-ated at the next climate conference in Marrakesh, Morocco.
Civil society must not let itself be lulled by the agreement
The agreement explicitly refers to damage and losses caused by climate change. This aspect is of particular importance to the inhabitants of island nations and other vulnerable groups. But here too, a timetable is lacking that would demonstrate how alternative and innovative financial resources could be tapped. The USA urged that the agreement mention that including “loss and damage” did not imply assuming liability let alone paying compensation for damages or losses already suffered.
Paris certainly marks a historic agreement. Ultimately, it was indeed thanks to clever French diplomacy that the conflicts of interests between the negotiating governments did not stand in the way of the agreement. At the last minute, US legal experts discovered an obliging “shall” in the paragraph addressing the industrialised countries’ commitments to reductions and replaced it with a voluntary “should”. COP President Laurent Fabius explained the delay this had resulted in by referring to a translating error that he apologised for and attributed to the tired-out staff. Good for di-plomacy, but bad for climate protection. For this is where the real work starts. Civil society world-wide, which has contributed constructive and critical support to the process, will not let itself be dazzled by the success achieved in Paris but will immediately insist on its implementation. At any rate, for Germany, this means bidding coal farewell. Immediately.
Michael Kühn, Welthungerhilfe, Bonn/Germany