The UN climate talks that take place yearly have become marathon efforts for the government delegates who lose sleep and perhaps their souls in neon-lit repurposed aircraft hangars fighting over words like ‘shall’ and ‘should’. Yet their appraisal has in recent years frequently come down to the mood music in the very final moments before the gavel pounds down and concludes the talks. In 2009, huge expectation in the run-up to the Copenhagen talks and a weak secretly negotiated accord led to a collapse of the talks and widespread condemnation. Greenpeace labelled the talks a “crime scene”. Yet the same pitiful agreement agreed the next year in Cancun was praised by Greenpeace and many others as a major step forward.
There were fears that the talks in Paris (the co-called COP21) would repeat the experience of Copenhagen. The huge expectation that Paris would deliver led to last-minute fears of a collapse in talks amid warnings by civil society that its contents betrayed humanity. Yet this time as the French Foreign Minister’s gavel came down, the assembled delegates erupted with cheers, a standing ovation, tears and warm embraces. Within moments the media wires and the big non-governmental organisation press releases were buzzing with reports of an “historic” climate deal that marks an “end to fossil fuels”.
But what does the agreement look like once the applause has died on? Well if you are a policy-wonk or a big environmental NGO, the appraisal remains almost uniformly positive. Nat Keohan of the Environmental Defense Fund argues it was a “breakthrough” because it had a framework for reductions that included all nations. 1 A little more nuanced in his analysis, Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations praises it saying its flaws “should be judged against the realistically available alternatives – and Paris, whatever one might reasonably say about what it doesn’t do, looks like a success against that measure.” 2
Beyond the world of Realpolitik, a close look at the agreement shows it can be summed up in just one of its quotes: “Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible”. 3 If that’s a breakthrough in confronting the most serious crisis humanity has faced, it’s hardly a convincing one. It is not a surprise then that many scientists have been less than positive when assessing whether the climate deal matches up to what is needed. UK climate scientist, Kevin Anderson gave the deal “10/10 for presentation; 4/10 for content”. 4 Former NASA scientist James Hansen was even less flattering calling the deal a “fraud”, “no action, just promises”. 5
Communities at the frontline of climate change were also less-than-convinced by words of ‘will try harder’. Ethiopian activist Azeb Girmai described it as “the saddest day for all the poor people in the world facing loss and damage day-in and day-out.” 6 Indigenous communities, peasants, environmental justice leaders and others that make up the It takes roots delegation were equally angry. “The COP21 agreement is a failure, condemning humanity to a slow and painful death...World leaders were in deep negotiations not over climate policy, they were in negotiations about commercialization of nature...based on a carbon market that.... simultaneously let big polluters to continue polluting and result in land grabs and violations of human rights and the rights of Indigenous Peoples.” 7
Seven fundamental flaws in the Paris Agreement
Institute of Policy Studies Associate Fellow, Oscar Reyes, has done a good summary of seven key ‘wrinkles’ in the accord:
- 1. Its ambitious target of 1.5 degrees is not likely to be met. Current commitments would mean a temperature increase of more than 3 degrees.
- 2. There are no legally binding targets to cut climate pollution
- 3. No new money is promised to help developing countries tackle climate change. And of the $100 billion/year previously committed, only $2 billion is actually delivered.
- 4. Climate reparations for the actual impacts of climate change have been ruled out
- 5. It doesn’t require oil, gas and coal producers to leave fossil fuels in the ground. Instead it relies on untested and socially unjust techofixes such as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS)
- 6. It looks to expand the same carbon-trading loopholes that undermined the Kyoto Protocol
- 7. It excludes aviation and shipping emissions even though they are expected to triple and quadruple respectively by 2050.
The fact that India announced it was doubling coal production 8 and the UK gave the go-ahead to fracking under national parks 9 before the ink had even dried on the agreement suggests that the hopes that Paris signalled an end to fossil fuel extraction is rather misplaced.
I have participated in four of these UN climate talks and at each witnessed the similar charade of blame-games, bullying and exclusion of critical voices, high levels of corporate influence, and the aggressive promotion of ineffective and socially-unjust solutions such as carbon trading. 10 In each negotiation, it was clear that for nearly all the major emitter countries maintaining economic growth and business-as-usual was more important than ensuring an effective planned reduction of fossil-fuel use. It is why the agreements always talk about the somewhat ethereal concept of emissions, rather than the actual production and extraction of fossil fuels and the way they are embedded in our global economy. Not for nothing, has American literary critic Fredric Jameson’s quote - “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” - become a modern meme.
Paris sadly did not vary from the script. This becomes particularly evident when you examine the means by which the nations aspire to achieve the unexpected new goal of keeping global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees. As Kevin Anderson pointed out any possibility of staying within this target relies not on dramatic reductions in fossil-fuel use but rather a massive expansion of negative emission technologies, in particular the currently most favoured method called Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), an expansion of trees and crops that extract carbon dioxide alongside the injection of carbon dioxide into geological formations. 11 Not only is carbon capture and storage largely untested, but deploying BECCS, according to one watchdog, would require land 1.5 times the size of India, while still providing enough food for a global population that is expected to exceed nine billion by 2050. 12
This determination to constantly look for illusory technofixes and sustain capital expansion at all costs, is why despite the ‘show’ at Paris, the real action on climate change is more often to be seen in military and corporate strategies that seek to manage climate change consequences rather than tackle its underlying causes. There is a growing chorus of military voices warning and developing strategies to cope with the national security “threat multipliers” of climate change. Meanwhile corporations’ long terms plans increasingly include sections which look at how to minimise risk to their operations by climate change, and where possible to profit from the consequences. From land speculation to catastrophe bonds, a growing number of businesses are turning climate change from a threat into yet another business opportunity. As Peter Slaiby, vice-president of Shell Alaska, put it: “I will be one of those persons most cheering for an endless summer in Alaska.”
Strangely despite the failure of Paris COP21 to deliver and the clear dangers facing us ahead, I did not return either disheartened. Nor did I feel the sense of dismay and disempowerment experienced at previous UN climate talks. Perhaps it’s because away from the pronunciations of a few big NGOs, there seemed to be so much more clarity and awareness among clearly growing popular grassroots movements present in Paris of the real causes of climate change and awareness of the real necessary systemic changes needed to address it. You could see it in the way many movements geared themselves up to do their main demonstration on the last day of the talks, knowing it would not deliver and determined to have the last word. 13 You could hear it in the debates in civil society forums that examined the systemic issues of corporate power, militarism, trade policy that underlie climate change. You felt it in the boldness of activists as they defied a state of emergency ban to creatively protest. You could sense it in the announcement days after Paris of the largest planned international civil disobedience action in history 14. This is where real hope lies, not with the spin around empty accords, but with an emerging powerful movement determined to keep gas, oil and coal in the ground and developing working alternatives of a solidarity-based renewable economy.
This is a draft version of a journal article that appeared in the journal Globalizations as part of a series of analyses on the Paris Climate Deal.
See also: Clive Spash, This Changes Nothing – the Paris Agreement to ignore reality; Eduardo Gudynas, Climate Change, the Quadrilemma of Globalization, and Other Politically Incorrect Reactions; and Jamie Morgan, Paris COP 21: Power that speaks the truth
1. N. Keohan, Report back from Paris - What the the new climate deal means and where we go from here, 15 December 2015
2. M.Levi, Two cheers for the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, 12 December 2015
3. UNFCC, Adoption of the Paris Agreement, 12 December 2015
4. K.Anderson, 10/10 for presentation; 4/10 for content, 13 December 2015
5. O.Milman, James Hansen, father of climate change awareness calls Paris talks a ‘fraud’, Guardian, 12 December 2015
6. D.Voskoboynik, The Paris Agreement, Medium, 17 January 2016
7. It Takes Roots, Press release: Call to action: the COP21 Paris Accord failed humanity, 12 December 2015
8. India says Paris climate deal won’t affect plans to double coal output, Reuters, 14 December 2015
9. D.Hellier, UK government hands out new fracking licences, Guardian, 17 December 2015
10. For more on carbon trading, see O.Reyes/T.Gilbertson, Carbon Trading: how it works and why it fails, November 2009, and on corporate influence on climate talks, TNI/CEO, COP19 Guide to Corporate Lobbying, November 2014
11. K.Anderson, The hidden agenda – how veiled techno-utopias shore up the Paris Agreement, 6 January 2016
12. A.Ernsting and O.Munnion, Last ditch climate option or wishful thinking – Bio-energy with Carbon Capture and Storage, Biofuelwatch, November 2015,
13. See http://d12.paris/
14. See http://breakfree2016.org/