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Paris Climate talks surprisingly successful

24th Dec 2015

The long-awaited Paris Climate Conference, COP21, has finally reached its conclusion. Just two weeks after terror attacks that left 130 dead, between November 29 and December 12, world leaders from more than 190 countries gathered to negotiate a legally-binding agreement to tackle climate change.

Chaired by French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, the negotiations aimed to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The agreement has been hailed a success, as previous conferences (Copenhagen and Warsaw) had ended with little actually being accomplished. Part of Paris’ ‘success’ was the fact that much of the work was done beforehand; countries submitted their INDCs, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, in the months leading up to the conference, to show that they were ready to negotiate.

In all, these goals would only limit warming to 2.7 degrees above pre-industrial levels, but without commitments to limit carbon emissions, that number would have been much higher. More vulnerable countries called for even stricter aims of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels; this goal was put into the text as a voluntary commitment.

The two weeks of negotiations saw fewer protests than planned due to security reasons, but activists used creative outlets to get their messages across, and many cities held marches in solidarity to express citizens’ calls for a strong, legally-binding agreement.

The art collective, Brandalism, described as, “a revolt against corporate control of the visual realm,” installed advertisements all over Paris mocking the corporate sponsorship of the talks.

The ads looked legitimate, using the official corporate logos and advertising style of various companies; one poster mocking AirFrance, stated (in French), “Tackling climate change? Of course not, we are an airline. Air France. Part of the problem.” Another, which could have easily been mistaken for an actual Volkswagen advertisement, said, “We’re sorry that we got caught,” referring to the diesel emissions scandal that was exposed earlier this year.

Less controversial calls for action included “No Plan B” illuminated on the Eiffel Tower, and Pope Francis’ statement on Vatican Radio, “For the sake of the common home we share and for future generations, every effort should be made in Paris to mitigate the impact of climate change and, at the same time, to tackle poverty and to let human dignity flourish.”

There was also light show with images of life on earth displayed on St Peter’s Basilica to inspire action at the negotiations.

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! covered the conference, but focused on the stories of refugees fleeing their war-torn countries (Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Sudan) for a safer life in Europe.

Goodman interviewed a resident of the Calais Refugee Camp, Frances largest refugee camp about an hour outside of Paris, and exposed his plight, similar to many others, and implicitly questioned what will happen to those who will inevitably become climate refugees, when their island states are inundated by rising sea levels.

The Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of 20 developing Global South nations that are the most susceptible to the impacts of climate change, drafted the Manila-Paris Declaration, calling for greater focus on the plight of those disproportionately affected by climate change, as they are generally the ones polluting the least, but seeing the most immediate effects of climate change.

Dr Jane Goodall attended the conference, with the intention of bringing attention to the issue of deforestation. In 2007, the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program was adopted, which basically acts as a carbon market for forests, allowing nations or companies to buy credits to protect the forest in another nation. The problem with this is that a large percentage of deforestation happens illegally in countries rife with corruption.

Evidence gathered by the World Resources Institute shows that, “stronger indigenous land rights are consistently associated with lower carbon emissions from deforestation.” World Resources Institute launched an interactive global mapping initiative called Global Forest Watch Climate, in order to translate deforestation rates to carbon emission benchmarks as a function of time, and clear up who is responsible for gathering and communicating deforestation data.

Indigenous peoples’ rights are sometimes infringed upon in the name of reducing emissions, when renewable energy projects turn into indigenous land grabs. This “balancing act” often leaves indigenous people fighting to retain their culture.

In all, the 21st Conference of Parties showed that the world nations can compromise on the dire issue of climate change. Accountability is a major factor in keeping countries on track with their commitments and the document’s legal nature assists in that effort.

Emissions are not set to peak for some nations, like China, until 2030, but the goal is for them to peak prior to that date. The US drove a hard bargain to ensure the same level of oversight across the board, mostly to make sure that China and India were following through; this became a point of contention but was eventually hammered out. The agreement called to reconvene every five years to review progress and negotiate greater commitments.

One thing that we cannot forget, even amid the cheers of success, is that a direct link between more warming and specific climatic effects has yet to be drawn; a 2 degree rise may still very well bring about major shifts in the Earth’s atmosphere that will affect farming, the number and scale of natural disasters, and the health of ecosystems including that of the human population.

As always, there is still a lot of work to be done; Paris is only the beginning of nations holding one another legally accountable when it comes to the health of our shared planet and the rights of all people.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall
, B.S. Environmental Science & Policy

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