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Historic climate agreement reflects real world change, protects vulnerable people

195 countries reached across traditional divides today to unite behind the greatest moral challenge of our time and seal the deal on a historic climate accord. The Paris Agreement is an inclusive, ambitious, science-based deal that recognises the urgency and scale of action required to address climate change, and hastens the transition from dirty to clean energy that is well underway. The Paris Agreement heralds the end of the fossil fuel era, giving the world the tools to drive emissions to net zero, to protect the world’s poor and vulnerable, and to address the desperate pollution situation in India and China. People have been peacefully marching on the street for years, while diverse groups like faith, health, parents, unionists, Indigenous peoples, cities, businesses and investors among others have long called for climate action. Civil society will continue to put pressure on leaders – starting today and ramping up in the next few months – to ensure real world change continues to accelerate.  In the spirit of this global response to the global climate crisis, the Paris agreement puts forth a new imperative to make a real and lasting difference.

  • In a historic moment, all the world’s countries came together to signal that it’s game over for fossil fuels. Faced with the fundamental shift already taking place in the world’s economy and no longer able to ignore the growing calls for climate action, 195 governments have, today, used their collective strength to protect the public and forge a legally binding agreement tackle the growing threat of climate change. This includes a commitment to a long-term goal to bring emissions down to zero and a regular review of national commitments every five years to get us there.
  • By supporting such an ambitious deal, governments have shown unity with the world’s most vulnerable. As the impacts of climate change hit home in communities around the world, from Chennai to the Philippines to the UK, the voice of vulnerable communities has been heard in Paris like never before, and the new agreement recognises their needs and concerns. It keeps the door open to limiting warming to 1.5DegC, while setting a bar for increasing support for the most vulnerable people, including scaling up finance.  
  • For world leaders, the hard work begins now. While Paris marks the beginning of the new era for climate action, there is far more to be done by governments to further accelerate the transition to a 100 per cent renewable future and ensure that communities can adapt and are protected from climate impacts. All eyes are now on nations to use the commitments enshrined in the Paris agreement to urgently speed up the ongoing energy transition at a national level, and come back to the table and increase their climate commitments as soon as possible.
  • A Paris agreement is not the end point, but rather a tipping point for the climate movement. Everyone has is at risk from a warming planet, and scaling up action early will bring benefits for us all. As the gavel goes down on the UN climate talks, people from all walks of life are already pushing harder to keep fossil fuels in the ground – choosing instead a just transition to a future powered by renewables. As the transition gets stronger and faster in a post-Paris world, citizens around the world will continue to hold governments and corporations accountable as they work to make the spirit of the agreement part of the fibre of life.

The activists, observers, analysts, reporters and negotiators heading home from the climate summit in Paris this weekend have been witness to an historic moment for the planet and for its peoples. Although the final agreement text does not fully reflect the level of ambition called for by civil society and many of the participating nations, it is the first time that so many countries have signed onto a binding deal to limit climate change and committed to reducing their carbon emissions. For that reason alone, the outcome in the French capital will go down in the history books.

The final text consists of two parts: a binding ‘agreement’ and a ‘decision’.  Observers recognised the historic nature of the agreement and the fact that it marked a milestone on the path to a fully renewable energy future, but commented that civil society was still far ahead of governments, and that leaders – once they had signed the agreement – would still need to deliver on it.  

– Immediate ambition and long-term goal: The text says countries will seek to keep temperature rises to “well below” 2DegC above pre-industrial levels, beyond which dangerous climate change is expected. It also includes a reference to a tougher limit, saying countries will “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5DegC”, which is necessary to the very survival of the most vulnerable nations.  Countries will aim to peak climate change-causing emissions “as soon as possible’, and “in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty”. In other words, this is a long-term target of net zero emissions by the end of the century (which leaves the door open for techniques such as carbon capture), and while the inclusion of such a target will have a real impact on emissions, it is considerably less ambitious than the target of full decarbonisation by 2050 that many support.

Differentiation: The new deal stresses developed countries “should” take the lead on greenhouse gas cuts, but also encourages all countries to adopt tougher economy-wide emission cuts “over time”, in light of their differing national circumstances. The text on differentiation has been welcomed as avoiding a richer versus poorer divide, while recognising that countries are in very different positions.

– Ambition mechanism: The text refers to a five-year cycle for reviewing and potentially raising the level of pledges countries have made to tackle climate change up to 2030, which are currently not enough to put the world on a path to meet the 2C target, let alone the tougher 1.5DegC goal. The non-binding ‘decision’ element of the agreement says there should be stocktake of collective emissions reduction efforts in 2019, to see if they are in line with the long-term ‘greenhouse gas neutrality’ target.

The inclusion of an ambition mechanism despite some nations’ objections is a positive result for forward-looking countries, featuring stronger legal language to help stay under a 2DegC rise. It also sets the first review date for 2019, a year later than some observers were calling for.

– Financial support and adaptation – On finance, the text stipulates US$100 billion should be a “floor” of commitments from developed nations, but underlines the need for other emerging economies to contribute “on a voluntary, complementary basis”. It talks of finding “new sources of finance” , refers to achieving a balance between adaptation and mitigation finance, and recognises that the great the impacts of climate change, the higher the risks of exceeding adaptation limits.

One of the most thorny issues in the negotiations has been resolved by mentioning finance from both developed and emerging economies, but making emerging economies’ contributions voluntary. While it is addressed in the decision text, the exclusion of finance from the core agreement, including an adaptation finance target will disappoint some observers, who stressed that it was the best way of ensuring the nations hardest hit by climate change were helped to adjust.

– Loss and damage – There is no mention of a financial mechanism to address the issue of loss and damage.

This means those peoples whose homes and communities have already been affected by climate change will get no specific help to make up for those impacts. It will be a blow to the world’s poorest, who suffer most from climate change even though they are the least responsible for it.

As the summit began at the end of November, it was not a given that a binding universal deal would be reached at all. Hopes were high, however, with many signs in the outside world that there was momentum for a strong agreement, and that lasting change was already taking place.

This year saw unparalleled political alliances for the climate, such as the US-China partnership, the Germany-Brazil declaration and US-India meetings. Leaders of some of the most polluting nations such as US President Barack Obama and China’s Xi Jinping committed to major emissions reductions and made climate finance pledges, showing that their countries were ready to get behind a deal they hadn’t pushed in the past. India’s Narendra Modi spoke of the importance of climate action, and set ambitious domestic renewable energy targets. In Australia and Canada, two countries which had been labelled climate “villains”, changes of government in the months preceding the summit were further boosts for the movement. And vulnerable nations and small island states showed cohesiveness and leadership as they spoke out for a strong deal.

In the energy world, the costs of renewables were continuing to fall, and clean energy was quickly gaining market share in richer and poorer regions. In 2015, 1,000 cities, including Paris, announced targets of 100 per cent renewable energy. Businesses like Google, Coca-Cola, BMW, Microsoft and many others did likewise, committing to a fully renewable electricity supply.  

The other side of the renewables boom was the crumbling of fossil fuels – particularly coal – with projects cancelled, firms in dire financial straits, and prices in turmoil. The divestment movement gained huge amounts of strength, with experts such as the Bank of England’s Mark Carney warning of the risks of stranded assets. Financial behemoths such as Axa and Allianz, cities like Melbourne and Münster, academic institutions like the London School of Economics and Oxford Brookes University – over 500 institutions in total – all pulled their money out of fossil fuels, reaching a total of $3.4 trillion during the climate summit.

As fossil fuel firms realised they were being pushed out of the picture, some tried to stay relevant by promoting a global carbon price, by creating new social media campaigns – including even inventing their own followers – by sponsoring the very climate talks whose success would hurt their bottom lines irreparably, and by paying lobby groups to do their dirty work for them. Such attempts were systematically shown for what they were by an array of studies and analyses which exposed the yawning chasm between fossil fuel firms’ actions and words.

Perhaps the most consistent and united calls this year for a meaningful Paris deal to speed up the ongoing transition to 100 per cent renewable energy came from civil society groups. The Pope, through a historic statement on the importance of protecting the planet and then further speeches, fired up the world’s Catholics and other faith groups got in on the action. A ground-breaking study in the Lancet journal on the impact of climate change on public health was a focal point for the many medical workers and doctors who marched and called for change. Trade unionists and workers also spoke out and marched for a just transition. Others from parents, to gender groups, indigenous people, young people and more joined in.

While many climate marches took place across the world this year – particularly in New York around the UN’s sustainable development meetings in September – the biggest ones were scheduled for the weekend before the COP21 summit kicked off, on 28-29 November. The tragic terrorist attacks in Paris the week before meant that the civil society actions planned for the French capital were cancelled. Instead, climate activists and campaigners placed hundreds of pairs of shoes on the Place de la République to represent those who could not march, and 10,000 people formed a human chain to call for an end to fossil fuels. But elsewhere around the world, from Dhaka to Tokyo, Geneva to Jakarta, 785,000 people turned out in force to march for the climate, as summit talks began.

Previous negotiations sessions, led by the French COP21 presidency, had led to a text going into the Paris summit that had been trimmed down but which still lacked bridging proposals on key elements such as climate finance, a mechanism to increase national ambition on reducing emissions, and a long-term decarbonisation goal. Throughout the year, countries had submitted their own national pledges for climate action. As talks opened in Paris, 160 countries had done so – and the combined effect of the implemented plans would be enough to keep the world on a path of around 3DegC of warming – still far from the 2DegC or 1.5DegC limit needed to avoid dangerous climate change – but a bigger step forward already than previous climate summits had managed to achieve.

Those going into the first week of talks were aware that one of the chief crunch issues would be climate finance – providing the pledged $100 billion per year for the developing countries by 2020, and scaling it up afterwards. Observers were also calling for a significant amount of climate finance money to be allotted to adaptation: that is, helping those countries already facing climate change impacts to adapt to and deal with them.

Other elements observers said were crucial to reach a strong agreement were a long-term goal for full decarbonisation, as supported by the G7 and the most vulnerable nations, and an ‘ambition mechanism’. This mechanism would mean countries have to review and increase their climate commitments every five years, ideally starting in 2020 at the latest, to meet the long-term decarbonisation target. Another issue campaigners saw as key was that of ‘loss and damage’: that is, supporting and assisting those nations already losing out due to climate change impacts.

On November 29, the summit opened with leaders of participating nations addressing delegates, as the world watched and again made clear its desire for a strong deal through a 3.6 million-signature-heavy petition. Leaders were praised for their words, which were generally strong and were seen to be injecting ambition into the beginning of the two week meeting. Those of most vulnerable nations were particularly welcomed, after they signed a declaration for 100 per cent renewables. After leaders went home, negotiators took over for the first week, followed by ministers the second week. As the days progressed, there appeared to be some progress made, for example on issues like the 1.5DegC temperature rise limit, with more and more nations, both developed and developing, supporting it.

Other countries, however, were accused of being ‘blockers’, and ‘fossils of the day’, but with real world momentum gaining speed outside the summit, it became ever clearer that they were fighting a lonely battle. With  major financial commitments secured, historic alliances forged, new targets for renewable energy, massive new divestment pledges, an unprecedented joint call for action from all parts of the health sector, and new figures showing global emissions had reached a plateau and that coal consumption worldwide is falling, it was clear that outside the walls of the negotiating rooms, a global shift was already taking place.

As ministers handed over their draft text on Wednesday of the second week, people attending COP21 staged a peaceful two-hour sit-in to remind governments of the need for an ambitious Paris deal that delivers enough emissions reductions and finance to protect the world’s most vulnerable. Six million people signed a petition delivered to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling for a strong solution. As citizen groups came together to demand climate justice, so did countries – albeit more slowly – to try and resolve key elements of the deal being negotiated, like a long-term decarbonisation goal and regular reviews to increase ambition.

Late on Thursday, another text was produced, which was then scrutinised by countries until 6am on the Friday morning. After another day of discussions, the final agreement text was delivered by COP21 president Laurent Fabius this afternoon, Saturday 12 December.

Despite its flaws, the Paris agreement is an historic agreement which unites an unprecedented number of countries in cutting emissions. It will help speed up the ongoing transition to a 100 per cent renewable energy future, protect people’s health, habitats and communities, and support the most vulnerable.

However, the ambition missing in certain crucial areas means there is still much more to be done. Politicians have been outpaced by the growing numbers of people, groups from economists to health and faith leaders, businesses and investors acting for the climate, and the real world shift from fossil fuels to renewables, which is set to gather speed post-Paris. The faster this can be scaled up, the greater the chance we have of minimising global temperature rise and protecting the world’s peoples from the worst impacts of climate change, and of maximising the benefits for young and old, poor and rich, men and women, north to south, east to west, of the coming clean energy future.

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