Environment & Health HKFP Voices

The enormity of these words: Reflections from the Paris climate talks

By John Sayer

Participants in the Paris Climate talks have returned home for holidays after the marathon negotiation sessions and the achievement of a historic agreement. But the period of rest and self-congratulation must be short. Many of those present have already remarked that ‘the hard work starts now’.

Now is the time to understand the enormity of the words agreed in Paris. The purpose of the agreement involves “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.” This represents nothing less than a call to move the world economy into a new post-carbon era. To achieve this will require the greatest change in both our economic and social systems since the industrial revolution.

Some of the targets set before or during the Paris talks concern 2020. The year 2016 is a few days away, and 2020 just four years ahead of that. More profound 2030 targets are just 14 years away.

The Paris climate summit reached an agreement.

The Paris climate summit reached an agreement. Photo: Flickr via UNclimatechange.

Where do we begin?

One of the speakers in Paris reminded us that after the Pearl Harbour attacks in 1941, the United States managed to redirect 25% of its economy into war-related production in a period of less than a year. The unprovoked attack on the US was a sudden, shocking crisis. But the response showed just how possible it is for economies to massively redirect investment and production in times of overwhelming challenge.

Climate change is not as abrupt a jolt as Pearl Harbour. But we should not be frogs in slowly-heating water failing to notice the crisis surrounding us. Do we have the imagination to take the Paris Agreement as a wake up call to shift our economies in a dramatic way? The World Bank report on climate change and development notes that holding temperatures down to two degrees (let alone 1.5 degrees) will require “deep structural changes in the world economy.” It is not just activists like Naomi Klein who are saying “this changes everything.”

If we do not rise to the challenge of this historic accord and act with courage and imagination, we will bungle the sustainable revolution.

Glacier ice installation 'Ice Watch' at Place du Panthéon, Paris

Glacier ice installation ‘Ice Watch’ at Place du Panthéon, Paris. Photo: Flickr via UNclimatechange.

Leave no one behind

Previous revolutions, whether social, economic or technological, caused loss of livelihoods, dislocation and appropriation, because changes inevitably hit vulnerable, marginalized people hardest. We now have the opportunity, however, to achieve far-reaching change with our eyes wide open, and with the benefit of hindsight from earlier disruption.

This is why the Paris agreement notes that in the process of de-carbonization, of creating a green society, we must do this while managing the dislocation, the job transition, the migration, the job closures and the job creation in ways that acknowledge the vulnerability of certain groups.

The Paris Agreement specifically notes that when taking action to address climate change, countries should “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.”

It also calls on parties to take into account the need for “a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities.”

The entire agreement is set within the context of the sustainable development goals, which seek to end poverty and reduce inequality in the coming few decades.

A flashmob protest outside the Paris Climate Change Summit.

A flashmob protest outside the Paris Climate Change Summit. Photo: Flickr via UNclimatechange.

High ambition, non-binding

The Paris Agreement is the first time 196 countries agreed on the threat posed by climate change and set us all on the path towards doing something about it. But the real danger that we will relax in the afterglow of achieving a universal accord on the issue. The document is high-ambition in its ultimate vision, but low on binding agreements or clear allocation of obligations.

There are some studies which suggest that high-ambition, but non-binding agreements can ultimately achieve more than low-ambition compromise agreements. But this is only true in countries where domestic organizations and institutions are strong enough to use the agreements to push governments to achieve these high ambitions. Stakeholders across society have to be included in genuine ways to discuss and plan what can be done if international agreements are to achieve their potential goals.

Studies also show that transparent, participatory arrangements for sharing of knowledge and monitoring results can drive progress, not just measure it, because they increase understanding of the challenge. The Paris Agreement is strong on knowledge sharing and accountability.

A protest at the Paris Climate Change Summit.

A protest at the Paris Climate Change Summit. Photo: Flickr via UNclimatechange.

The task ahead

There will be no time better spent in coming few years than using all means to persuade our governments and our public that action is needed now; that the green transition is an exciting opportunity, a noble journey to a happier and healthier community, rather than a threat to a better ways of life.

Nowhere will this be more important than in the big-economy, big-emission countries. In China, the challenge is to persuade the central government that independent stakeholder groups openly debating and pressing on environmental issues is a contribution to success and in the nation’s best interest rather than a threat. In America, while organizations don’t face political challenges to their existence, they do face a wealthy, established ideological lobby which denies that climate change problem and uses all its economic might to block change or progress, to defend the status quo and to preserve vested interests. These groups refuse an evidence-based debate about our common future.

We don’t know every detail about what the transition to a carbon neutral world will look like, which makes it even more important that affected people and organizations are engaged with the process in order to reduce coercion, collateral damage or tyranny.

The Paris Agreement offers us the chance not only to move forward, but also to progress in a way that reminds some of us of a gentler, more balanced, calmer values of the past. We have the opportunity to rekindle a time where shared values took account of not just material satisfaction but also of the values of community, preservation of common assets such as our beautiful surroundings, our heritage, our collective memories and our interdependent well being – a future in which a health-promoting environment is as important as a growth-promoting one.

There is no time to lose in making real those words set down in Paris.

John Sayer is a Director of Carbon Care Asia and Member of the HK NGO delegation to The Climate Summit in Paris 2015.

The enormity of these words: Reflections from the Paris climate talks