COP21: Triumph and tragedy in Paris

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When the 21st Conference of Parties to the UN Framework on Climate Change (COP21) opened in Paris, few expected a comprehensive climate treaty acceptable to 195 countries to emerge. Yet, with French diplomats playing a leading role, the multilateral framework where the Marshall Islands have the same vote as the United States produced an agreement signed by the entire UN membership.

Call it a 70th birthday present for the United Nations. For the last 40 years, the organization born in the hope after the Second World War has been eclipsed by the dominant power politics played out in the G7, NATO, the IMF Executive Board, and all-encompassing trade deals such as NAFTA or the fledgling TPP.

The language of the Paris accord preamble matches the aspirations of the UN founders:

"Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of Indigenous peoples local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity."

The shortcomings of the accord are that commitments made to reduce emissions will not reduce global warming by less than 2 C let alone the aspirational less than 1.5 C. This gap is also noted in the preamble:

"... the urgent need to address the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties' mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 C above pre- industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 C."

Next to the triumphs of Paris climate diplomacy must be set the tragedy of the military-industrial complex model of development that prevails in the U.S., and China, the two main sources of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and that drives economies in Europe, Canada, and all wealthier nations.

Without a transformation of the profits-first way of producing goods and services and extracting resources, the road to climate justice runs straight uphill. Many international NGOs and green campaigners have been pointing this out, acting to change the way people live.

In the U.S, itself a radical transformation of the relationship of the economy to the environment was put on the agenda decades ago by writers such as Rachel Carson, Murray Bookchin, and Barry Commoner. However, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell provided vivid testimony to the difficulty of implementing change through international treaty when he characterized the Paris agreement as "based on a domestic energy plan that is likely illegal, that half the states have sued to halt, and that Congress has already voted to reject."

If there is no reason to expect excessive energy use to change as a result of the Paris agreement -- that will take a raising of consciousness, and regional, municipal and individual commitments to live green -- there are good reasons to support the accord.

The mechanism agreed to in Paris is "blame and shame." Measuring the scale of emissions, publishing them, allowing for verification, and providing for regular five-year tightening of commitments is an essential step to bring science to bear on climate change. Reporting requirements are legally binding. All countries are guaranteed to receive the technical support needed to implement plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The costs of climate change are already being felt by small island and coastal states. The Paris agreement has a provision for "loss and damage." When climate-related disaster strikes, rich countries will contribute to aid packages, without however acknowledging legal liabilities.  

The Paris text identifies a goal of $100 billion per year from advanced countries to compensate emerging economies for the cost of foregoing the carbon path to economic growth taken by the rich nations.

The idea of net-zero emissions advanced by the G7 nations refers to attempts to suppress and reduce GHG emissions as a way of countering increases. Positively, this could amount to major reforestation; negatively, it could mean recourse by the rich to carbon-offset schemes designed for profit-making.

The 195 sovereign states of the world said "yes" in Paris. But for change to take effect, "We the peoples of the United Nations" invoked in its charter preamble must work "to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained" and "to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples."

The challenge of climate justice is similar to that of ending war that inspired the founders of the United Nations. It will require citizens to own the issues that affect them directly.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: COP PARIS/flickr

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