COP21 reached a weak deal

Environmental activists spell out the need for action to save the planet from catastrophe. (Jacky Naegelen, Reuters)

Environmental activists spell out the need for action to save the planet from catastrophe. (Jacky Naegelen, Reuters)


The Congress of the Parties (COP) was self-congratulatory last weekend. The world has been saved, they told us, and history was made. The hyperbole could be forgiven as the product of exhausted relief; so many things could have gone wrong, but didn’t.
The objection of a single party last Saturday could have derailed 13 days of negotiations, yet a deal was reached against the odds.

But the Paris agreement is weak. It commits countries to a de facto voluntary system, in which a single text and peer pressure is all that stands between humankind and catastrophic global warming. It was reached through endless compromise – each of the 195 countries represented gave way on their demands so that everyone would be on the same page.

It almost fell apart an hour before Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, tapped the green gavel to signify that the world had adopted a framework for tackling climate change. Exhausted brains had introduced a grammatical error into the text – “shall” instead of “should”, which was later amended. “Shall” would have made a section of the agreement legally binding, making it unlikely to pass through the United States Senate. The US also had to form an unlikely last-minute alliance with Cuba to convince Nicaragua not to derail an agreement.

This was the story of the previous two weeks. Negotiators poked and probed at their peers, trying to demolish their positions to gain the ascendancy.

When India and China threatened to triumph in their demands, the European Union and the US took away their developing-world support base by joining the coalition of high ambition. When South Africa wanted more detail on funds for the ongoing damage caused by a changing climate, the developed world agreed to make its $100-billion commitment to funding a “base” that would be increased. Small island states and African countries were bought off by a change in the wording of the Paris agreement’s overarching goal – now an aspirational target of lowering emissions to ensure temperature increases do not exceed 1.5°C stood alongside the previous target of 2°C.

Edna Molewa, South Africa’s environment minister, was quick to point to these compromises and cut through the hyperbolic self-congratulation. The developing world had given up more than the developed world, and this would have to be fixed at COP22, she said.

“Again, developing countries have been asked to take this leap without the firm commitments to provide the support that will enable us to contribute our fair share.”

The agreement, as it stands, locks the world into a 3°C temperature increase this century. For Africa it means a 5°C increase this century. Summer temperatures will head into the 40s on a regular basis, and increasing ocean levels will eat away at coastal cities. In South Africa, drought will become more frequent and staple crops will not grow. Livestock will vanish from the interior.

But the Paris agreement, though currently ensuring this future, also gives the pathway towards a world that can be survived. Each country has already submitted its plan for tackling climate change – its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution. These will be reviewed every five years, with a mixture of realpolitik and peer pressure ensuring that countries submit increasingly ambitious plans.

Linked to ever-better sustainable technology – the price of renewables has gone down 80% in the past five years – this will see countries naturally adopting economic models that do not need to emit vast amounts of greenhouse gases. For the first time in more than two centuries, the rule that economic growth comes with a growth in emissions will cease to be true. Thanks to the Paris agreement – with everyone symbolically and practically starting to head in the same direction – humankind may just have agreed to save itself.

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