Paris climate talks: 'no action, just promises'

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Paris climate talks
Activists defied the protest ban at the Paris climate talks

There was much build up, for participants and campaigners alike, to the COP 21 climate talks that took place in Paris in December. The outcome of two weeks of deliberation by 196 countries, now known as the “Paris Agreement” has been heralded as a historic success.

The headline-grabbing figure is that the deal aims to keep the global average temperature rise to “well below 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5°C”. The scientific consensus is that we need to keep temperature increase below 2°C in order to prevent catastrophic climate change. To have agreed a lower temperature increase seems positive. However, there is nothing in the agreement to say how this will be achieved.

The emissions cuts are based on voluntary pledges called “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” that governments drew up and submitted in advance. Even if governments keep to their pledges we will still be on track for warming of between 2.7°C and 3.7°C, according to Steffen Kallbekken, director of the Centre for International Climate and Energy Policy. The voluntary pledges are not legally binding on governments, and the Paris Agreement requires no emissions reductions before 2020.

If we are serious about cutting carbon emissions then we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. But, as Naomi Klein has pointed out, coal, oil and gas are not mentioned once in the agreement. Similarly aviation and shipping — both major contributors to emissions — are not mentioned either. So rather than challenging the power of the fossil fuel industry, the deal allows for business as usual.

We also need massive investment into renewable energies. Yet the Paris Agreement only mentions renewables once and specifically in relation to Africa. Instead the door has been left open for carbon trading mechanisms which have been completely ineffective in cutting emissions.

The term “net zero” is very misleading. It does not mean zero emissions but rather allows for emissions to continue as long as they are “offset”, allowing countries to claim “net zero” emissions even if emissions are rising and locking in market mechanisms as a way to solve climate change. Such carbon markets will no doubt make the very rich even richer.

One of the main areas of contention during the Paris talks was how much support richer countries should provide for developing nations. Industrialised nations have been able to grow wealthy by burning fossil fuels for the last 200 years. Countries containing just 10 percent of the world’s population are responsible for around 60 percent of the greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere.

According to the International Energy Agency the transformation to a fossil free world would require investment of $1,000 billion per year by 2020. Around two thirds of this would need to be spent in developing nations. Yet the Paris Agreement only commits to “mobilising” $100 billion per year by 2020 to cover not just emission cuts but adaptation. This is far short of what is required. And it is worth noting that, as Naomi Klein estimates, fossil fuel companies get $775 billion to $1 trillion in annual global subsidies.

Developed countries have done more to cause climate change and therefore have the responsibility to solve it. But this principle, known as “common but differentiated responsibility”, has been watered down in the Paris Agreement. Rather than a clear statement that richer countries should provide finance to poorer nations for adaptation the Paris deal just says that developed countries should “take the lead” as part of a “shared effort” by all parties. This was due to pressure from the US and other industrialised nations.

Given all this, it is no surprise that the climate scientist and activist James Hansen has called the agreement a “fraud”, “fake” and “bullshit”. As he says, “there is no action, just promises”.

World leaders have come under increasing pressure from mass movements over the last few years. Campaigning has forced politicians to acknowledge that we need action. The fact that they even talk about limiting warming to 1.5 degrees reflects campaigning across the globe including from those impacted communities.

After the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks six years ago activists had few illusions that Paris would deliver the emissions cuts required in the timescale needed. The demonstrations prior to the talks drew hundreds of thousands across the globe, including 70,000 in London — the biggest climate demonstration in British history. On 12 December activists from across the world converged in Paris, defying the state of emergency that the French government tried to use to ban all protests during the talks.

The clear message was that the movement will continue. Crucially in Britain we need to break the Tories’ plans to continue reliance on fossil fuels and open up whole swathes of the country to fracking. The Tories want to overturn Lancashire council’s decision to ban Cuadrilla from drilling in the county. Protests are planned for 9 February. Meanwhile, there is talk of action to shut down the fossil fuel industry in May 2016. These need to be mass actions involving all those who want serious action to save our planet.

For more on the outcomes of the COP 21 talks see Suzanne Jeffery, “Protest has shaped the debate, but Paris didn’t save the planet” and Danny Chivers and Jess Worth, “Paris deal: Epic fail on a global scale” at