“I have never experienced such a positive feeling in the room, such a real hope that we’re going to do it this time.”
The highly anticipated Paris climate deal is here – agreed by 195 countries. Barack Obama has hailed it as a “historic agreement”, while David Cameron has called it “a huge step forward in helping to secure the future of our planet”, and François Hollande described it as “a major leap forward for mankind”. But many climate experts and civil society activists argue that the deal does not go far enough and could lead to a 3˚C rise in global temperatures – double the ideal target of 1.5˚C.
Whatever you think about the deal itself, the negotiations have sparked an exciting debate. The IPF was present at the final day of negotiations and spoke to two climate experts: Katharine Knox, policy and researcher for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation; and Lindsay Cook, the Quaker United Nations Office’s climate change representative.
As the world begins to take stock of the final agreement, we look back at what it was like on the ground while negotiations were still ongoing.
Can you each tell us a bit about what you do?
KK: The Joseph Rowntree Foundation funds research on climate justice issues in the UK. We’re really concerned about impacts of climate change and who’s going to be worst affected, particularly thinking about poorer, more disadvantaged communities. Although we have a focus on the UK, clearly we’re also concerned about the international picture as well, so that’s why we’re here to see what’s happening and learn about the agreement.
LC: The Quaker United Nations Office is based in Geneva and New York, but we also have an office in Bonn. For the last two and a half years we have been bringing together a very diverse group of delegates from the climate negotiations, off the record, to try to help build understanding and communication because these negotiations have been very painful. We have been bringing them together to engage more on a human level, to speak more frankly in a very safe environment on very sensitive issues that they’re sometimes unable to discuss in the negotiations.
Lindsay, has progress in these off-the-record negotiations been better than what’s been made on the public scene?
LC: Delegates have told us that the space we have offered has been very humanising for them. It gives them a chance to start to build a relationship with other countries with whom, in the negotiating room, they may have a very tense relationship. They start to hear each other speak about their kids, their hopes, their fears, and that has really helped in the spirit of the negotiation. In the last three years of observing these negotiations, I’ve noticed that often people aren’t talking about climate change – they’re talking about unfair trade, they’re talking about colonisation, and about how to protect their national interests.
“Although there is still a long way to go in terms of decarbonisation of economies, getting negotiators to see that this is a challenge to humanity, that their national interests are global interests, and that they can’t survive without each other has been a huge achievement.”
What are your opinions on the text of the agreement so far?
KK: There are some things in there that are quite significant, including a reference to 1.5˚C as a threshold to be aiming for rather than 2˚C, which is obviously significant for many island states who are concerned about their futures if temperatures go above 1.5˚C. However, there is no reference to actual time-scales to be working towards in terms of that limit, so there are questions about how clear that is as a goal.
There are questions, too, about a number of things that aren’t in there or that haven’t got a lot of detail in the agreement, rather than the preamble around questions of human rights and migration.
There have also been big questions about a common but differentiated responsibility of nations; the extent to which the developed world will take responsibility for historic emissions while also recognising that developing nations now are responsible for a very large proportion of global emissions.
There’s been a big shift since 1992, and China has been particularly significant. Linked to that, there are questions about climate finance and how finance can be used to support developing nations with making transitions.
You’ve mentioned the human rights implications of climate change – can you elaborate on those?
KK: If we think about small island states which are potentially at massive risk of sea level rise, what’s going to happen to those states and what happens in terms of displacement of people? Will those people have rights to migrate to other countries and be accepted with proper rights to employment or protection?
At the moment there’s no climate refugee designation or protection through international law.
It’s unclear what will happen, but we do know that there are some island states who are buying land overseas in order to have a place that their populations can move to. Then it’s unclear what would happen if their populations did move in terms of how they’d be integrated into other countries and societies.
How have the talks addressed the question of helping communities adapt to the effects of climate change?
LC: Adaptation, in many ways, is at a place where people feel comfortable. Loss and damage is not.
When you think of the amount of money we subsidise fossil fuels, what if tomorrow we decided to shift that money from subsidising fossil fuels and helped those who are already profoundly affected?
Or what if we had a carbon tax and said: Let those of us who continue to pollute, and let those of us who buy polluting technologies help pay for the damage it’s causing because that will also shift. That will shift behaviour and it will shift where the money goes.
Could you sum up the atmosphere at the conference over the last few days?
LC: During the first week, the negotiators did not solve the question of differentiation, i.e. how to fairly distribute the burden of mitigation, and how that affects ambition and finance. So that’s always been the elephant in the room.
But what was moving last week was that there was a summary report that was given out about the effects of the difference between 1.5˚C and 2˚C increase of temperatures above pre-industrial temps, and it was blocked. And that was very traumatic for a lot of people.
Somehow, the trauma of oil-dependent states blocking a report that was very clearly saying there would be significant differences to human suffering between keeping temperatures at 1.5˚C rather than 2˚C has, I think, influenced them to engage in more of a 1.5 narrative. It would be extremely difficult to hold to that, but it’s still possible.
We have to take responsibility for our children of what is possible and what can we do now.
KK: There’s been a ratcheting up of mobilisation from people who are feeling concerned about what’s going to end up in the final agreement, whether it’s going to be adequate. Equally, there are also people who are been extremely positive: one commentator described the agreement as being at the edge of “va va voom” – he was quite upbeat about what might happen. It all depends on what angle you’re coming from and what things you want to see. It’s a lot about using the agreement to push forward action on climate change whatever happens.
LC: I have never experienced such a positive feeling in the room, such a real hope that we’re going to do it this time. Obviously there are people who want a much stronger agreement and people who want a less strong agreement. There’s a tight tie between countries like the US who can’t have certain legally binding issues because they’ve chosen not to bring it to congress. The European Union would like more legally binding targets. They have to work that out and hope that those who want the strongest and most effective agreement are able to keep their voices clear.