As COP21 talks enter their final days here in Paris, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon perhaps summed things up best when he said, "The clock is ticking on avoiding a climate catastrophe.”
Our observer status allowed us to attend the morning briefings at Le Bourget, where climate negotiators provide updates on the progress of the talks to representatives of the press and the general public. At this stage of the discussions, it appears as though negotiations have reached what are being called the crunch issues, which predominately focus on money and the sharing of burden between developed and less developed countries. The representative from India again stated his country’s position of working towards a goal of a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise limit, but reminded those of us in the audience that Americans use 35 times more energy than Indians. The question of social equity between developed and less developed countries looms large in all of the discussions and negotiations.
Of course, the other significant challenge that French coordinators are faced with in facilitating these negotiations is the legal context in any documentation given the large number of various political systems of the participating nations. Will the result of this conference be considered a treaty, agreement, or perhaps a memorandum of understanding that differing governments can accept? More recently in the negotiations, the European Union appears to be softening on its insistence that countries’ targets on limiting carbon pollution need to be legally binding, which unfortunately is something US negotiators have rejected due to the opposition in the Republican controlled Congress.
In the face of national constraints, our home state of California is demonstrating what can be done to effectively implement climate and clean energy policies that reduce carbon emissions while growing the economy. California is the seventh largest economy in the world and in the last four years has had stronger job growth than the national average. California Governor Brown has demonstrated that states and other subnational governments can join together to take meaningful climate action.
Today’s Washington Post Op-Ed by Katrina vanden Heuvel, “Once Again, California Leads the Way” highlights the commitment of Governor Brown and our other state leaders. Governor Brown has argued that “the real source of climate action has to come from states and provinces. . . . We’re going to build up such a drumbeat that our national counterparts — they’re going to listen.”
Governor Brown has also championed the Under 2 MOU agreement, under which provinces and states across the world have pledged to reduce emissions 80 to 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. The more than 50 regions and states that have signed on to the MOU represent what would be the “largest economy in the world,” according to Governor Brown.
Despite the monetary and political issues still remaining, negotiators describe a much higher spirit of cooperation and solidarity than at any time in the history of COP gatherings.
The question we all hope will be answered by the time COP21 wraps up on December 11th is whether or not that same cooperation and solidarity will produce meaningful results that still need to be approved by each participating country's ministers. There is no doubt that those of us who represent the rather large contingent of NGOs from around the world have put significant pressure on the politicians and their negotiators at these events.
Beyond Paris, there have been worldwide marches, demonstrations, and large-scale gatherings of people drawing attention to climate change, highlighted all week by the media. I think most people here at Le Bourget attending COP21 would agree that everyone involved in this battle against climate change should get an A for effort, but the question still remains today, will that effort produce real and meaningful results that limit global temperature increases to a maximum two degrees Celsius? Sadly, there are those who think that until we can significantly reduce the current level of carbon consumption by both developed and less developed countries, the global inequality between those countries makes reaching a level of consensus a daunting challenge.
Meanwhile, China plays an increasingly major role in the outcome of these discussions; although like the US, they want their contributions to carbon reduction to be voluntary, and as a centralized government, they have good reasons to take steps to do so. As the world biggest carbon polluter, China has significant domestic reasons to act, as evidenced this week by officials in Beijing issuing the city’s first ever red alert for smog, calling for school closures and imposing restrictions on factory and traffic emissions on a daily basis due to the extremely high levels of unhealthy air impacting its citizens.
The final piece to this debate centers on many countries calling for a target review in five years, which by most standards would seem reasonable. Unfortunately, the initial draft of the agreement in progress calls for the year 2024 as the earliest date of such a reappraisal; a date many, if not all, representatives of island nations believe is too late for them, in some cases to literally avoid extinction as sea levels continue to rise. While for obvious reasons these delegates are in favor of a legally binding agreement to protect their countries from sinking in rising ocean levels and thereby causing the mass displacement of their citizens, the US, China, India and the other largest contributors to climate change aren't inclined to support any document that legally binds them, and at least in the case of the US, any such document would most likely be rejected by the Republican controlled congress.
Perhaps Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres summed up where we are at this stage of the negotiations best when she said that she is kept up at night by a vision of “ …the eyes of seven generations beyond me asking me, what did you do?”
Among the many other NGOs advocating climate change, we at Global Green can point to what we have accomplished and will continue to work for, until we reach the goals of significant global carbon reductions and a halt to increase global temperatures.