When I was offered the opportunity by the United Nations Development Program (via Eco Cult and Ethical Writer’s Coalition) to write this piece, I was both pleased and surprised.
My mother, who was an eco-activist herself, had much to say about the events of the past COPs which have occurred yearly since I was in the second grade. I, in fact, spent much of my formative years attending events highlighting related environmental concerns, and found it disheartening to realize in the time it took for me to grow from a child to a woman, the countries of the UNFCCC have only just (this week) begun to act on an international agreement which endeavours to stave off global disaster due to climate change. It has been a daunting and time consuming task to research and write a piece which both respects the long hard work of the United Nations who have brought 195 countries together in agreement for the first time in history, while also expressing my concerns that this agreement, though impressive, may be too little, too late.
MY COP 21 EXPERIENCE
Last year, I was in Paris during COP 21. It was a weird time as we had just recently experienced a series of terrorist attacks which had the city in a State of Emergency. This status allowed French government, who was in the midst of a re-election campaign, to use its (genuine) security concerns to ban demonstrations. A ruling completely reasonable considering the events which had transpired, but in a fit of double standards still allowed large public gatherings in the name of commerce and sport.
At the event itself, inconsistencies continued. During a lobby tour of Solutions 21, a sort of trade show where companies promoting things like ‘clean coal’ and ‘low carbon fossil fuels’ were displaying their work; research and campaign group, Corporate Europe Observatory offered what they were calling ‘toxic tours’, sharing with members of the press the issues they found with some of the large energy companies which were sponsoring the event. It was covered by a VICE news reporter and I remember watching with a twisted stomach as security cattled them in, surrounding the campaigners and press members in a tight circle, before arresting ‘toxic tour’ leaders as well as a number of journalists for their ‘civil disobediences’ in a way I’d not yet witnessed as a child of the ‘free world’.
Despite my fears of being arrested myself (and kicked out of France for good), in the final days of the COP I participated in a demonstration hosted by 350.org called ‘Red Lines’ for which activists were meant to create a human chain between L’Arc de Triomphe (the grave of the unknown soldier) and Porte Maillot (in the direction of the financial district) to symbolically represent the victims and perpetrators of the climate crisis. The demonstration was intended to honour the countries who would face the most damaging and deadly repercussions of an issue they had played very little part in creating, caused by the over consumption and greed of the first world. Despite its best intentions, the event ended up looking more like a burning man gathering of left wing first world privilege - complete with flamboyant costumes - than anything resembling a movement which would be relatable or moving for those with the political influence to create meaningful change.
None of my experiences were the fault of The United Nations, who had worked hard to gather the world’s leaders to discuss the future of our planet. All the same, all that had passed before me had left me with a less than amicable feelings towards the unsteady foundations on which the world’s powers were preparing to lay change. With such clashes of ideologies, could our species be saved from the horrors global warming is expected to bring?
ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING
The issue which gathered the world’s nations last year, is considered to be the biggest threat humanity has ever faced. It is known as global warming and is caused by over production of carbon dioxide and methane which traps solar energy that would otherwise escape.
Since 1990, global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) have increased by almost 50%. These emissions are caused by fossil fuels produced by the oil, coal and gas industries which power our cars, stoves and lights, and heat or cool our homes. They are also caused by methane, which is 70 times more damaging per ton to the earth’s atmosphere than CO2, and is formed in the burps and bottom ends of animals (mainly beef) used to produce meat and dairy on a factory level.
Just to give you some perspective, during the past year, measurements taken across the globe have reported abnormally high temperatures, with July 2016 being the hottest month on record EVER. Between 1880 (just after the start of the industrial revolution, which most temperature increases are based off of) and 2012 alone, the planet’s surface temperature has increased an average of 0.85 °C.
At the rate we’re currently going, during this century, that number will rise to surpass the 2°C warming that scientists have set, bringing us to the danger zone of 3°C (+). Though such a minimalistic increase seems insignificant, it’s ramifications are immense; setting into motion a sort of post-apocalyptic state in which 30% of animals will be at risk of extinction, oceans will acidify, wildfires will get bigger, droughts more severe, and entire countries could disappear due to sea level rise.
It’s a real mounting issue, but so intangible for us humans and frightening to imagine, it doesn’t garner much interest nor effort from the masses. We the people and our elected officials have been too distracted by politics, economics and conflicts to concentrate our finances and efforts on solutions for the negative changes our planet and its inhabitants face.
ABOUT COP 21
COP stands for the "Conference of the Parties,” and acts as the supreme decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It is, in all honesty, our only political hope for industrial improvements.
In December of 2015, COP21 took place in Paris, the largest international conference ever to have occurred with over 195 countries meeting to discuss climate change.
I’ve heard it described as a potluck dinner for 25,000 people who don’t get along, yet are expected to work together to save the world from climate disaster. It’s an incredibly difficult feat to take on, especially for mediating bodies like the United Nations.
In the previous 20 (occurring since 1992) gatherings of nations, there were agreements made and treaties signed, but they didn’t really work. Countries shifted responsibility for cutting emissions and the improvements required weren’t made.
To combat this lack of change, the UNFCCC reversed the protocol for COP 21, asking each country to voluntarily bring their own plans for climate change to the table instead. These plans were to be made with full knowledge that the issue at hand is an irreversible one which poses a major threat to humanity and the planet on which we live. The policies were also meant to reflect the reality that the window for repair is a tiny passage of time which would require actions to be both bold and swift.
THE PARIS AGREEMENT
The plans offered by each country along with the negotiations and events which occurred during COP 21’s 12 days, resulted in ‘The Paris Agreement’ which aimed to limit global warming to less than 2°C while limiting further temperature increase to 1.5 °C (**we’re currently at 0.85 °C, so this mixture of figures agreed upon kind of doesn’t make sense, as 0.85 + 1.5 = 2.35, more than 2°C).
To achieve this, the parties set their target of reducing CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050 and 100% by 2100. 195 countries including the biggest greenhouse gas polluters: China, U.S and Europe made specific commitments via INDCs or Intended National Determined Contributions (that have no penalties for failing to achieve) which they’re required to update with increasing ambitions every five years to bring them closer to their end goal of curbing greenhouse gas emissions all together. They also agreed to publicly report on their national greenhouse gas inventory data, a sign of transparency that would allow the world to help them keep track of their goals.
Each country made individual commitments as well (which comes with their fair share of scrutiny). For example, China committed to 40 million hectares of ‘afforestation’ and the EU committed to getting 27% of its energy consumption from renewable energy by 2025. The US committed to reducing greenhouse gasses by 26-28% by 2025 compared to 2005 figures (keeping in mind the 50% emissions commitment made by all countries by 2050 is based off the pre-industrial emissions, not post), while the Kingdom of Morocco, who will host COP 22, has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 23% by 2030.
To the untrained eye, it looks and sounds like a great success, and in many ways it is, it’s a historical achievement like none other, but it comes with its caveats, and those caveats have the potential of being quite serious.
COP 21 CAVEATS
First, the totality of commitments made still leaves the planet with projected warmings of 2.7 to 3.5 °C above the pre-industrial temperatures (which the 2°C goal is based off of) by 2100 - which means we’re still racing, albeit at a reduced speed, towards climate catastrophe.
In a UN climate change report from 2014, it warned that warming beyond 4°C would likely result in “substantial species extinction, large risks to global and regional food security, [water shortage], and impacts on normal human activities”. This information was supported by an article I read in the Telegraph, which quoted Richard Black, director of Energy Climate Intelligence Unit stating that in order for us to avoid this from happening, we would need to be cutting fossil fuels completely before the end of my lifetime. The 50% C02 emissions cuts offered by The Paris Agreement by 2050 are about 50% too little, too late. Oscar Reyes from the Institute for Policy Studies said that “achieving [the limited temperature rise of] 1.5 °C would require substantially larger emissions cuts — of the order of 70–95% by 2050,” The Paris Agreement doesn’t take full effect until 2020, at which case the chance to achieve the 1.5 degree goal will have already gone.
There are other issues as well, the agreement was signed with no legally binding targets to cut climate pollution, no talk of climate reparations and no carbon tax implemented. There was also no call for oil, gas and coal producers to leave the 80% of fossil fuels in the ground and unburnable (a major part of meeting our 2-degree climate target), nor does it limit the production of fossil fuels altogether.
Then there are the carbon trading loopholes, which allow rich countries to buy ‘carbon credits’ from poorer countries instead of reducing their own domestic emissions, the exact loopholes which aided in undermining the last climate deal in existence (you watch this 83 second video to see a visual of the lack of progress these loopholes allow).
What makes this all worse is that the countries who will be most affected by climate change are most often the ones who have done the least to cause it, like the Kingdom of Bhutan which is not only carbon neutral, it’s carbon negative, and has pledged to remain so for all time. Or Republic of Kiribati, which back in 1999, had three of its islets disappear under water, and are, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change going to lose the rest of their islands (which means the remainder of their country) within a century due to sea level rises caused by global warming. Imagine, just for one minute, how heartbreaking it would be to see the country you and your ancestors descended from, disappear under the ocean in your lifetime. It’s devastating.
The issues with The Paris Agreement are no secret, the United Nations knows it, Barack Obama knows it, Pope Francis knows it, even Leonardo DiCaprio knows it. The question that remains is: what are we going to do about it?
The Paris Agreement acts as both a signal and a roadmap to the world that our current way of being - our energy sources, deforestation habits, and the way we are eating - is unsustainable. The United Nations with the help of climate change scientists have successfully convinced world leaders that this is a real issue, one which requires swift action and potent progress.
It opens up the opportunity for climate change funding to developing countries which will ideally transform economies with investments into green energy, resilient infrastructure and agriculture while pushing for forest, ocean and landscape protection.
The Paris Agreement represents progress, but leaving that progress in the hands of our leaders alone would be irresponsible. Accelerating the speed of our country’s promises which United Nations has worked so hard to achieve requires us, the citizens of the world, to exercise our powers of democracy.
That means voting for politicians who acknowledge the validity of global warming. It means buying less, and making sure whatever we do buy supports companies who are actively invested in protecting the planet (ie// items which are produced ecologically, palm-oil free, chemical free, and organically). It means adjusting our eating habits away from factory farmed dairy, meat and fish. It means choosing to pay a premium to receive power from renewable resources. It also means measuring the impact of our habits and voluntarily paying a carbon tax to show governments we support contributory capitations which lead to positive progress.
Ignoring these issues won’t reduce global warming’s impact, we must accept the realities we face and allow the seeds of change to plant themselves inside of us; rooted in knowledge and watered by positive action. The most monumental ripples this world has seen throughout history started with just that: a seed that took form and flowered into progress. Our politicians are our representatives and if we don’t ourselves represent the change this world needs to see, how can we vilify them for failing us, when in truth, we’ve failed ourselves. It is our responsibility, as members of the species which caused global warming, to partake, pay attention, and unite with an empathetic sense of equality and utmost urgency, before we’re all, as Prince EA so poignantly puts it are “equally extinct”.
MORE FROM ETHICAL WRITERS X UNDP:
MORE FROM ETHICAL WRITERS X UNDP:
- 40 Ways To Fight Climate Change And Live A Better Life on The Notepasser
- A Busy Gal Primer to Deforestation & Climate Change on Selva Beat
- Boiling Point: What Climate Change Means for Oceans in a Warming World on Out of Wilderness
- How You Can Combat Climate Change in New York City on Sustaining Life
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PHOTOS: SHANE WOODWARD
SOURCES: UNFCCC, CLIMATE ACTION TRACKER 1, CLIMATE ACTION TRACKER 2, BBC 1, BBC 2, MY DOMINO, THE ECOLOGIST, RED PEPPER, CARBON BRIEF, HISTORY OF CLIMATE CHANGE, IMPERIAL, THE BULLETIN, THE GUARDIAN, TIME, ABC, TELEGRAPH, BBC 3, TELEGRAPH 2, TED, UNFCCC 2, UNDP 1, UNDP 2, UNDP 3, EUROPE UNDP, SCIENCE MAG, UNDP 4, UNDP 5