COP Out: The hollow promise of the Paris climate deal

Hal Rhoades discusses why, despite the hype, the climate agreement hatched by world governments in Paris won't save us from climate catastrophe. With analysis on key areas of the agreement text and discussion of the latest climate science, he argues that people's movements, not multilateral theatrics, represent our best hope for avoiding climate disaster.

If you've been following international media coverage of the climate change agreement recently signed into being by world governments in Paris, you could be forgiven for thinking the world has just taken a massive stride in the effort to tackle climate change and create a safer, more just world for all.

The Paris agreement is undoubtably an unprecedented political success. Nations used COP21 as a stage to play out arguably the biggest act of world diplomacy ever, winning huge political capital and public confidence in the process. But ultimately the deal they have struck is a hollow one in the only ways that really matter; namely the deal's ability to prevent catastrophic climate change and to do so justly.

According to leading climatologist Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, this deal is "weaker than Copenhagen," the disastrous agreement of 2009, and "not in line with the latest science".

"COP21 negotiators are looking at the Paris agreement with rose-stained glasses. The truth is that we have is a negotiated failure that has ignored sound science and justice," says Enteng Bautista of Kalikasan PNE, Philippines, pointing out that the agreement doesn't deliver socially either.

COP21 has been framed as a success, as we knew it would be. But, as with all agreements that are this 'high level', littered with technical jargon that renders them indecipherable to most people, the devil is in the detail...

No Respect for Earth's Limits

In the new deal, the world's governments have committed to peaking carbon emissions 'as soon as possible', and decarbonising our societies worldwide 'in the second half of this century'. But these same governments fail to call for binding climate action, give clear definitions of the action required and set all important deadlines for these efforts; deadlines that acknowledge Earth's limits, and that must be met if we wish to avoid enduring and inflicting untold suffering.

In order to avoid catastrophic warming of over 1.5 - 2°C above pre-industrial levels, we must drastically reduce emissions of carbon and other green house gases (GHGs) into our shared atmosphere. The latest climate science suggests that to achieve this goal global carbon emissions must peak by 2020, and be reduced to almost zero by 2050 to have even a 66% chance of avoiding warming above 2°C.

Much praise has been given to parties to the Paris agreement for acknowledging that global average temperature rises must remain "well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C." Big polluter nations had previously refused to acknowledge the 1.5°C goal called for by the world's most climate-vulnerable nations, but it is now the showpiece of their post-Paris PR- a signifier of willingness to tackle the 'climate issue' that is winning them serious political capital.

However, the odds that the Paris deal will keep average global warming below 1.5°C are slim to say the least. The details of the text reveal that up until 2020, when the Paris deal comes into force, countries are only required to reduce emissions according to voluntary pledges called Intended Nationally Determined Commitments (INDCs). Added together, the INDC commitments of all the world's governments involve emitting enough carbon to put us on course for a 2.7-3.7°C average global temperature rise by 2100.

Countries have agreed on a global 'stock take' process that will see them come back to the table to revise their INDCs and 'increase their ambition' every five years. However, by the time they are required to re-examine these targets in 2020 there is every chance we will have emitted enough carbon to lock ourselves into warming of 1.5°C-plus, and next to no chance global carbon emissions will have peaked as the latest science tells us they must.

The Paris agreement says governments should 'pursue policies' domestically to make sure their inadequate INDCs are met, but provides no means of enforcing them. This may be made an impossible task as the deal leaves the door open for free trade deals like TTIP and TPP to trump climate legislation, allowing corporations to sue governments that put in place progressive climate policies that infringe their current and future profits.

The best way to ensure we do not blaze past 1.°5C and risk a degree of warming that will see many small island nations and coastal areas inundated by the sea and massive impacts on ecosystems worldwide, is to keep fossil fuels in the ground. This will involve treading on the fossil fuel industry's toes, to say the least, but instead the Paris agreement gives them a legal edge and a host of benefits-by-omission .

According to the latest science, as much as 80% of all known fossil fuel reserves must remain unexploited and unburned if we hope to avoid climate catastrophe. In practice this means 100% of tar sands, 82% of coal, 49% of gas and 33% of oil must be left in the ground.

And yet there is not a single mention of fossil fuels- oil, gas, coal or tar sands- in the Paris deal and many big polluting industries go entirely unmentioned and unscathed, including shipping and aviation.

Meanwhile, governments gave direct and indirect subsidies to the fossil fuel industries worth $5.3trillion in 2015 (that's $10 million every minute). This figure dwarfs the $10.2 billion promised by governments to the Green Climate Fund which was ostensibly set up to redistribute cash to combat climate change in some of the world's most vulnerable nations.

Without clear timelines for peak emissions and decarbonisation based on the latest science; without massive and immediate emissions reductions above and beyond current national pledges; and without any appetite to end fossil fuel extraction, the Paris agreement renders its own aims nigh-on unachievable and is out of touch with planetary reality.

No Justice for the most vulnerable

To make the massive transition from a world addicted to fossil fuels to one powered by renewables, the International Energy Agency estimates $1 trillion will be required every year by 2020, with $680 billion of this needing to go to countries in the Global South. These nations will also require $150 billion per year by 2020 and $300billion by 2050 to pay for adaptation according to the UN Environment Programme.

According to the principles of climate justice, reflected in the official COP talks through the concept of 'Common But Differentiated Responsibility', rich nations responsible for the majority of historic carbon emissions, and therefore the climate crisis, should stump up the majority of this money.

However, these same nations are promising just $100 billion per year by 2020, just an eighth of what is required. There is no concrete process for reviewing and increasing this figure written into the deal, only an aspiration to do so. Nor is there any certainty of what form this 'climate finance will take'- it could come as private finance with conditions on repayment, or be re-allocated from aid budgets.

These paltry pledges reflect rich countries' long-standing fight to avoid being saddled with major responsibility for redistributing wealth to help global south nations mitigate and adapt to climate change. Their success in this battle is also reflected by the fact that there is no wording in the deal that creates an obligation for rich nations to do their fair share to combat climate change according to their historic responsibilities.

In the section of the agreement that deals with loss and damages occurring as a result of climate change today and in the future, the deal provides "no basis for liability and compensation", meaning that rich states and their corporate entities cannot be sued for their role in causing climate change. This leaves those nations already suffering the impacts of climate change after just 1°C of warming disempowered, isolated and facing worse times ahead.

The deal also fails to detail how those workers dependent on polluting industries for their living will be supported and retrained in decent, climate-friendly work as part of a Just Transition towards a zero-carbon economy. This is a crucial part of the climate justice puzzle, key to weakening the grip of the fossil fuel industry at the level of the household as well as the policy and financial level.

At every turn, those who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and climate action stand to be most negatively affected by the terms of the Paris agreement. And it doesn't stop here...

False solutions: A whole flock of wolves

Around the planet Indigenous Peoples, local communities and the groups supporting them are taking action to combat climate change in ways that are socially just and ecologically sane.

It is no coincidence that the territories of Indigenous Peoples are home to 80% of the world's remaining biodiversity, including the forests that draw down vast quantities of carbon. Nor that small scale and peasant farmers around the world can feed themselves, their families and 70% of the world's population from just 25% of the world's farmland, largely without the use of fossil fuels and whilst sequestering carbon in healthy, life giving soils.

These peoples' long and intimate relationship of care with their land enables them to live in a mutually enhancing way with the planet and care for the climate. As such, recognising the indigenous and human rights of these peoples and their central role in combatting climate change is a crucial part of climate justice.

Yet it is precisely these peoples who are stripped of their rights and see their Earth-centred practices ignored by the Paris agreement. Mentions of human rights and Indigenous rights have been removed from the final deal. Previous drafts had included wording that would mean all solutions to climate change would have to be implemented with respect for these rights.

Instead of acknowledging the people as part of the solution, as outlined in Oil Watch's Annex 0 proposal, the world's governments have chosen to open the door to false solutions with a track record of failure and contributing to the violation of people's rights and nature's rights.

Language around renewable technologies in the agreement is vague, which could prove crucial. With this deal, governments had a key opportunity to define the character of the 'renewable revolution', which undoubtably needs to happen fast, and ensure these technologies avoid reproducing the injustices of our current energy system.

First and foremost, we need renewable technologies that are designed and produced for a post-extractive world, emphasising longevity, durability and recyclability to ensure we do not have to mine in perpetuity to build these technologies, destroying even more ecosystems and violating the rights of communities in the process.

As far as possible, renewable technologies must also be decentralised and democratically owned by communities around the globe, rather than part of privatised mega projects. This will help us to avoid the kind of energy monopolies that see millions, even in wealthy nations like the UK, go without sufficient energy because they cannot afford it, whilst others consume more than their fair share. As has been mentioned, those nations with the least capacity to make the transition to 100% renewables need to be supported to do so by economically wealthy nations.

None of these caveats and nuances are contained in the Paris agreement, leaving governments free to dictate the nature of the renewable technologies they will encourage. This is bad news as governments worldwide have a track record of supporting destructive mega projects, such as hydro dams, that displace peoples and disrupt ecosystems, the healthy functioning of which is key for climate resilience. Control over these projects and their profits is frequently held by private companies and corporations.

The Paris deal also gives an overt endorsement to carbon markets, referred to in the deal as 'internationally transferred mitigation outcomes'. Through these markets, corporations and others can buy the right to continue polluting, supposedly offsetting their impacts by buying and protecting forests and other 'carbon sinks' elsewhere in the world.

Market schemes such as REDD+ and so-called Climate Smart Agriculture have been broadly criticised by Indigenous and peasant groups, as well as NGOs, for financialising nature and facilitating 'green' land grabs that violate the indigenous and human rights of those living the solutions to climate change. These financial fixes have been proven incapable of addressing climate change. They ignore the fact that the financialisation of nature aids and abets its destruction by reducing complex ecosystems and their homeostatic functions to units of capital to be bought and sold.

Indeed, solving the climate crisis is a secondary aim for the corporate entities pushing these market-based schemes. Profit is paramount, but climate change lends a useful framing for pushing GMOs and soil carbon credits in place of food sovereignty and privatising forests and 'marginal land' instead of recognising and supporting indigenous ownership and management.

Language in the deal around ambitions to decarbonise the global economy between 2050-2100 is rendered in terms of achieving climate 'balance', defined as equilibrium between emissions and carbon sinks. This indicates that governments are not intending to stop burning fossil fuels, and that, as well as incentivising carbon markets and green land grabs, they intend to turn to unproven technologies such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and Bio-Energy with CCS (BECCS) as solutions to the climate crisis.

Cripplingly expensive and unproven at any kind of scale, CCS and BECCS are touted as a silver bullet solutions to the climate crisis by the fossil fuel industry. The promise of these technologies is that we will be able to keep burning fossil fuels, but capture the carbon created and store it deep in the earth. Their mere existence is used as an excuse to keep the fossil fuel economy chugging on. Critics say the likelihood of CCS, and variations of it, being able to play any meaningful part in keeping us below 1.5-2C are nil. Even energy bosses, who are desperate for this technology to come good, admit it won't be viable before 2030 (if at all). But as the Paris agreement demonstrates, CCS technologies could play a key part in encouraging a false confidence (or, more cynically, a sly corporate diversion) in climate technofixes that sees us soar past these limits.

Climate change is a 'super wicked problem', solving it requires us to look to its roots- the philosophical and economic commodification of nature- and employ constellational thinking to bring about true systems change. But the Paris deal has fallen into the trap of capitalist solutionism. Denying the complexities of the interconnected crises we face, it places faith in those who have done the most to create the problem and who are lining up for a feeding frenzy of disaster capitalism that has many names:

REDD+, Climate Smart Agriculture, GMOs, BECCS, CCS, Mega Hydro...

A Climate Call to Action

So, what do we do when our leaders have failed us, yet call their failure "our best chance of tackling climate change", in the words of President Obama?

The answer lies outside the stuffy negotiation chambers of the official COP21 space, littered with plastic animals and the sterile stalls of solutionists, with the people's movements that have brought us this far.

Make no mistake, politicians would not have met in Paris and thrashed out even this hollow deal were it not for the mounting awareness and pro-activeness of ordinary people worldwide. And now that our governments seem to have reached the limit of what they consider politically possible, it is up to us to impress upon them that this is not socially, ecologically or climactically acceptable.

We need everyone to understand that we have not been saved by the Paris deal. That is the first task we face- to cut through the media sensationalism and confront the reality, no matter how desperate we are for a success.

We must look to strengthen our movements to keep fossil fuels in the ground. From the snake-way of the Keystone XL pipeline in North America, to the lignite fields of Germany, to the lush highlands of the Philippines, communities and people's movements everywhere are succeeding in doing this. But we need to win more often. We must find new ways to stand alongside frontline communities and defend Earth's defenders so they can continue to live the solutions and to share them with the world. This is the big challenge for networks and movements like Yes to Life, No to Mining, and we must rise to it.

We know that when there is the popular will, the grit, the determination, our nations can be encouraged do what is right. As Enteng Bautista reminds us, "Costa Rica has legislated a moratorium on fossil fuel exploration and mineral extraction. The island nation of Kiribati has proposed a global moratorium on coal. The Ogoni people of Nigeria have successfully kept oil companies out of their lands for years."

The Paris deal places responsibility for climate action in the hands of individual states. So, in our home countries, especially those of us living in the Global North, we must escalate pressure on our governments to do their fair share to tackle climate change. A battle on many fronts, we need to look to initiatives like Canada's Leap Manifesto for inspiration. We need policy for rapid national decarbonisation, to cut subsidies to big polluters and the fossil fuel industry, reign in corporations registered at home who are destroying and polluting abroad, scale up climate finance for more vulnerable nations with no strings attached, push for a Just Transition at home and call for diplomatic relations that encourage other nations to do the same. We must coordinate these national efforts internationally.

At the deepest level of all, it is imperative that we pioneer new ways to put Earth back at the centre of our collective thinking. Unless we act from a deep understanding that the health and the future of humanity are deeply interwoven with that of our living planet, our solutions will continue to be co-opted into business-as-usual. Knowledge of our dependence on Mother Earth must be our anchor in the times ahead.

Perhaps because it provided this anchor, for me, the most powerful event in the civil society spaces outside COP21was the International Rights of Nature Tribunal. The Tribunal advances a new legal paradigm that draws on Indigenous knowledge and governance systems, recognising nature's inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve. It represents one critical way to revive the planetary realism we need so desperately right now and is a model that should be taken and replicated elsewhere, and soon.

There is no one solution to climate crisis, no silver bullet. Nor can any one person, or government, or group of governments articulate an entire alternative system to our current one that is at war with people and planet. Rather, the systems change we want and so desperately need will emerge from the actions of our societies', bravest, most vibrant, resilient and determined groups, who are driven by a moral imperative that transcends current norms and augurs a better future. Ever was it thus.

The path ahead won't be easy and there are no guarantees we'll be successful as the climate clock ticks. But we know the alternative- inaction and catastrophic climate change- is unconscionable.

Our hope must be manifested in struggle.


Other good sources of analysis

Paris Deal: Epic fail on a planetary scale (New Internationalist)

Analysis: the final Paris deal (Carbon Brief)

Grand promises of Paris climate deal undermined by squalid retrenchments (The Guardian)

See also the Deconstructing Paris blog for analysis of all drafts and a complete version of the final text.