On November 28 last year about 7000 Wellingtonians marched on parliament demanding action on climate change. Hundreds of thousands more marched across the world: in Beirut and Barcelona, in Mexico and Melbourne. The timing was designed to put pressure on heads of states and diplomats from across the globe who were attending the Paris Climate Conference. Similar conferences occur every year, but in recent times they have been unproductive due to conflicting agendas and lack of consensus. Paris needed to break this trend. After two weeks of rigorous discussion an agreement was finalised to a cacophony of applause and self-indulgent slaps on the back. But did they do enough?
The Paris Agreement was quickly hailed as a major success. Our then Minister for Climate Change Tim Groser described it as “a huge and historic step forward.” Barack Obama described it as “the strong agreement that the world needed.” Other commentators have been more reserved. In an article for the Guardian, George Monbiot was ambivalent in his characterisation of the agreement: “by comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to would it should have been, it’s a disaster.” Paris gives us a place to start, it provides us with the framework that we need to move forward. But, Paris is limited. It is just the beginning and there is so much more that we need to do.
The most widely celebrated achievement of the agreement is the commitment to limit the increase in global temperature. 2015 marked a significant global temperature increase, reaching the milestone of 1.0 °C above preindustrial levels, and the trend is only going up. Preindustrial levels refers to the average temperature taken between 1850 and 1900. The Paris Agreement is endeavouring to limit further increases, ambitiously aiming for an increase that is “well below 2.0 °C above preindustrial levels,” and hoping to limit the increase to only 1.5°C. It is more than most could have hoped for in the lead up to the talks, especially in light of the mess that was the Copenhagen summit in 2009. Whether it will be enough is another question. In the past limiting the temperature increase to 2.0 °C was thought to be adequate for preventing the most harmful effects of climate change. However, more recent evidence suggests that even a 1.0 °C rise in temperature could lead to significant harm. Climate scientists, like Kevin Anderson from the UK based Tyndall Centre for climate change research, have begun to say that avoiding harmful effects of climate change in the conventional sense has become impossible. That is not to say we should throw our hands up in the air and say we have lost. The effects of increases in temperature are exponential; a 2.0 °C increase in temperature will be much more harmful than a 1.0 °C increase, especially to developing nations. When you start to reach increases of 4.0 °C the climate will become unstable and could spiral into chaos.
Paris’s goal is therefore quite ambitious and very important. Green MP Julie Anne Genter who attended the conference credited the Pacific Islands and the host nation France, for creating momentum and pushing for more ambitious targets. The statement that we will pursue limits to keep global temperatures below 1.5 °C is something we can be proud of. However, there is still a question about whether or not the goals will be met. The agreement functions by impelling its signatories to submit “intended, nationally determined contributions” or INDCs. These are to be submitted every five years and the first were sent in in the lead up to Paris. INDCs should be ambitious and constructed with a view of keeping to the 2.0 °C limit. However, they are not enforceable. INDCs are more like an expression of a country’s intention rather than a binding commitment. There is a review mechanism in which each country’s success or failure in achieving their INDCs is analysed, but the UN cannot force countries to adhere to their INDCs as they said they would. It’s more about naming and shaming. Having a system where governments choose their own contribution can enable greed. Climate change is affected by the aggregate of all countries emissions, and if we are achieve the targets set by the Paris Agreement then the aggregate emissions need to be reduced. However some countries have decided, and some surely will decide in the future, that their transient fossil fuel fueled growth is more important than the targets. Other countries must then pick up the slack. We can name and shame these countries as much as we like, but some world leaders won’t care. An organisation called Climate Action Tracker has analysed all the INDCs that were submitted in the lead up to Paris and rated them based on whether they are in line with the 2.0 °C threshold. New Zealand’s submission to reduce emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 was placed in the inadequate category, alongside the submissions of nations such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Australia. The organisation projects that current climate pledges will lead to about a 2.7 °C increase in temperature.
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The Paris Agreement also goes some way to addressing what’s called the “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” of different nations. This mouthful of an idea highlights that we all have a common responsibility to address climate change, but the way that different countries take this responsibility can be quite different depending on their capacity and capabilities. New Zealand, for example, contributes significantly to researching ways to minimise agricultural emissions. However, the main dichotomy that illustrates this idea is that between developed and developing nations. It is hypocritical for developed nations who built their economy on fossil fuels (but now have the wealth and infrastructure needed to cut emissions) to impose strict limits on developing nations that are only now industrialising in order to grow and improve the quality of life for their people. But, we also can’t sit idly by, as developing nations now contribute about 63% of emissions and this number is climbing. Every country on Earth has some kind of responsibility.
One of the major ways that the Paris Agreement addresses this is by compelling developed countries to provide money, or “climate finance,” to developing countries so that they can both mitigate and adapt to climate change. There is a collective goal that developed countries should be providing developing countries with $100 billion (USD) of climate finance annually by 2020. While the general obligation to provide money features as a binding part of the Paris Agreement, the $100 billion target is just one of the many “decisions to give effect to the agreement.” These decisions are important but do not have the same binding character as the agreement itself; they are more like decided upon guidelines on how to achieve the goals formally set in Paris. Regardless, providing climate finance is important and this is a step forward. Over 500 million Africans do not have access to electricity. African heads of state have launched the African Renewable Energy Initiative which seeks to triple the African energy capacity by 2030 through the use of renewable energy like solar, wind, and hydropower. As well as reducing emissions, this investment will help meet growing demand from a growing population as well as improving health and sustainability. It serves as a good reminder of the way so many global issues are connected. Combatting climate change can be done in a way that also combats poverty and social injustice. The problem is that if action to fight climate change is too slow, these same issues will be massively exacerbated.
This issue is addressed in another part of the agreement concerning damages. It is unjust that so much of the damage caused by climate change will be done to developing nations who have barely contributed to the problem. Under international law, countries are generally responsible for actions done inside their boundaries that cause environmental damage to other countries. However, this becomes complicated in the case of climate change where the responsibility is globally shared. The recent cyclone Winston destroyed over 9000 homes in Fiji and it is estimated that it caused $250 million (USD) in damages. Increasing global temperature will lead to increasingly violent storms, rising sea levels, floods, and desertification—and who is supposed to pay? In a last minute compromise “loss and damage” was recognised as an independent and important pillar of the climate regime. Although no notion of emitters being legally responsible for damage caused by climate change was included, the Paris Agreement suggests that this will be reconsidered at the next conference in November this year. There is also discussion of the need for cooperation to support things like early warning systems, emergency preparedness, and the development of resilient communities. It may not seem like a lot, but this was an important success for the developing nations who pushed so strongly for some recognition of what they stand to lose.
New Zealand’s record on fighting climate change has been on the decline since the National party came into power in 2008. The priority has been strengthening our economy through things such as agricultural intensification. As such, our environmental record has suffered. In the lead up to Paris, John Key said that we don’t “need to be and shouldn’t be a leader in climate change.” Some will argue that this was the responsible decision, that we should focus on growing our economy so we can deal with issues like poverty and unemployment. But, the time is coming when we must start to seriously look who we are and what we stand for. In the days following the flag referendum Key talked a lot about the importance of having a discussion about the nature of our nationhood. For me, being a leader on important global issues should be axiomatic in our identity. New Zealand was the first nation to give women the vote. New Zealand told the American’s that they can fuck off with their nuclear submarines. When our Climate Change Response Act was passed in 2002 we were world leaders and maybe if more had followed our lead the planet needn’t have risen even 1.0 °C. But that is not the reality. New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme, our main tool for moderating carbon emissions, is currently under review with the aim of ensuring it is fit for the purpose of achieving the goal to reduce emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. This review will provide an interesting insight into the government’s attitude towards climate change.
In 2018 we are going to have prepare our next set of INDCs. I hope that whoever is in power takes climate change seriously, and I hope they respect not just 2.0 °C limit but the 1.5 °C goal as well. But, we must remember that climate change is not just an issue for politicians. When I spoke to Julie Anne Genter, she reiterated the importance of everyone becoming invested in this issue. We should not feel powerless; there are so many small things you can do whether it is using public transport or talking to your conservative parents about the reality of what we are facing. One of the powerful things about the INDC system is that it gives grassroots organisations a legitimate role in pressuring the government to set ambitious goals and to keep them. Genter pointed out that inaction on climate change is just benefitting a few vested interests in the short term, while we all stand to lose. These groups are influential. In Paris there was a lot of talk about limiting consumption of fossil fuels, but not about limiting their extraction. Combatting climate change can feel a bit like rowing upstream, we must all paddle in unison if we want to move forward.
I really do think that Paris was a success and I think that the agreement is ambitious—at least compared to what it could have been. Simon Hillier, a Victoria University student who attended the Paris Conference, described the surreal experience of passing by the Alliance of Small Island States booth on the last day and seeing a group of pacific islanders singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. The Paris Agreement is something we can be proud of, but it is still to be seen what will come of it. It is still to be seen how the countries of this world will act. Election focused governments struggle to make short term sacrifices for long term gains. Responsibility is then left with the people to make sure that climate change is thick in the public discourse. If we want real action then it must be demanded. T.S Eliot once said that between the idea and the reality there exists a shadow. If we do not start acting soon then that shadow will begin to spread.