We'll all remember Paris
This morning was like waking up the day exam results are due. Important exam results. Overnight, while we slept in a country far away from climate change action, a 31-page agreement was adopted by all 196 countries of the world, in Paris. As we had gone to bed, the UN and French organisers of COP21 were making their last heartfelt appeals. In stressing the last opportunity to be history makers putting the planet on course to avert calamitous climate change, they were cleverly making it well nigh impossible for any country to put the kibosh on a deal. Imagine the global opprobrium.
The key difference between exam results day and the finale of the Paris climate conference is that pass marks soon become less meaningful as time passes; whereas the lesser or greater degree of commitment to defined and necessary actions agreed at the Conference of the Parties will be of increasing significance in a warming world over the next couple of decades. Exactly how we will remember Paris is the point.
While I am pleased about delegates' positivism about their achievements, it's highly unlikely I would ever have been happy with the outcome. I do, however, acknowledge that it could have been far less satisfactory. For two weeks, the attention of the world has been focused on climate change, all the more so because the leaders of the world's greatest powers took it seriously. And renewable energy will get a bigger profile as a result; witness Malcolm Turnbull's reversal today of That Idiot Abbott's ban on government funding of wind power.
There are big buts, however. 'Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognising that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties…' is disappointingly woolly, and no more than an aspirational statement.
There's no statement of intent to leave all coal reserves in the ground. That means no new mines, anywhere, from this day forward. Coal isn't mentioned at all in the agreement, in fact. Nor oil. There is no directive that says further fossil fuel exploitation must cease. Now.
There's nothing about protecting the oceans, from death by oxygen depletion, acidification or overfishing. And no suggestion of curbing the vast emissions from animal agriculture. Or details of how to accommodate large numbers of climate refugees forced to move by overpopulation, harvest failures, dust-bowlification, rising sea levels, and so on.
Worst of all, the biggest issue didn't even get a look-in at COP21. System change. Was it even on the agenda of a fringe meeting, bearing in mind that the world's largest corporations and industrial lobbyists funded the whole shebang and packed it out? Business as usual is simply not compatible with big enough action on climate change. Alternatives to capitalism have always been in the too-difficult box, however, and no one took along the key with them to Paris.
It's admirable that everyone agreed that a 2-degree rise in global temps was too high and a maximum of 1.5 degrees should be the target. But the pledges (Intended Nationally Defined Contributions, or INDCs) to curb emissions made by countries before they got to Paris would see temperatures rise by 2.7 degrees, and don't forget that Earth has already warmed by one degree. So, the hard work starts once delegates are back home and left to their own devices. That's why there's going to be a 'stock-taking' of emissions achievements every five years. The INDCs, though recognised by the Paris agreement, are not legally binding, so a review mechanism is essential to ramp up pledges so that the target temperature is met. It could be argued that, given the degree of warming already, five-year gaps in monitoring are too long. And where are the fines (with proceeds to the climate aid fund) for laggards?
In addition, mechanisms were put in place recognising 'the importance of averting, minimising and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change'. And to make finance available for developing countries to adapt to climate change and make the transition to clean energy. In case you think these points are obvious and must have been relatively easy to insert into the agreement, bear in mind that Saudi Arabia, a 'developing country' apparently, lobbied for financial aid beyond the point at which the bottom drops out of the oil market completely.
In years to come, perhaps people will ask, 'Where were you when the climate change talks in Paris changed the course of the world?' I'd like to think so. I'd also like to think my awareness of an accelerating sea change is more than wishful thinking. It's not where I am right now, on the bottom right edge of the planetary map, but it's out there. It was in Paris, but among the 10,000 who filled the streets, post-COP, and created red lines of danger o'er which we step by not doing enough soon enough. There are reasons to be cheerful, as long as you relish the prospect of the challenge facing everyone in future. Ostensibly not much has changed, but maybe it's too early to see that everything has.
Photo credit: Matt Dunham/AP