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Issue #1714      December 9, 2015

Climate: “Time for action”

“Climate science paints a frightening picture – one that tells us that urgent and dramatic action is needed to have any chance at stopping irreversible global warming. This urgency is not just about the planet and the environment; it is also about people, and humanity’s capacity to secure safe and dignified lives for all. The science is unambiguous: the next 10–15 years are critical if the most dangerous effects of climate change are to be avoided.” (Fair shares: a civil society equity review of INDCS (October 2015,

The Paris climate change meeting officially opened November 30, with 150 government leaders and heads of state delivering short keynote statements on their intended actions. The UN says the aim of the meeting is “to reach, for the first time, a universal, legally binding agreement that will enable us to combat climate change effectively and boost the transition towards resilient, low-carbon societies and economies”.

The divide between rich and poor nations was as evident as ever: the rich countries shirking their responsibilities under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the poor countries desperate for the finance and technology for adaptation and mitigation in the face of climate change. They are the most vulnerable, in particular, the small island states of the Pacific.

In the lead-up to the talks hundreds of thousands of people, many of them youth, took part in marches and other actions demanding climate justice. In Paris, participants from around the world attended the 11th Conference of Youth. Many painted a “0” around their eyes to symbolise zero fossil fuels by 2050, which is necessary to keep warming below 1.5°.

The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the UNFCCC has two negotiating streams. The first deals with pre-2020 actions and the second has the aim of drafting the “legally binding agreement”, possibly a new Protocol, for adoption by the meeting.

In May 2015, the UN published a report based on two years of dialogue between more than 70 country representatives and scientists. They concluded that the below 2° target was inadequate, hence their adoption of 1.5°.

According to Saleemul Huq, Director of the International Centre for Climate and Development, the difference between a temperature increase of 1.5° and 2° “is roughly 1.5 million people who will fall through the cracks and most of them will be in vulnerable and developing countries.” (“Saudi Arabia the big bad wolf of the Paris climate change talks”, New Internationalist)

The temperature has already risen by 0.8° Celcius above the pre-industrial era. Global emissions are increasing by around 50 billion tonnes a year. At the present rate the 2° limit will be reached within 20-25 years.

Differentiated responsibilities

The UNFCCC is based on principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. It recognises the historical responsibility that developed countries have – that is their cumulative contribution to emissions over the years.

It also recognises that poverty eradication and the need for sustainable development are the overriding priorities for developing countries.

Hence there is an obligation on developed countries to reduce emissions and provide poor countries with the financial assistance and access to technology required for their development on a sustainable basis and for mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

Under the UNFCCC developing countries were not required to make commitments to emissions reductions, although some including China and Brazil have done so.

Brazil’s President Dima Rousseff hammered the necessity of a fair and effective outcome. “The principle of common but differentiated responsibility is the cornerstone of the proposed agreement. Far from weakening our efforts to tackle climate change, differentiation is a condition to its global effectiveness.

“The Paris agreement should therefore provide the conditions that will ensure that all developing countries can walk the path of the low-carbon economy while overcoming extreme poverty and reducing inequalities. It is therefore very important for this conference to provide unmistakable decisions on the relevant means of implementation, The Paris treaty must also deliver new and predicable finance, technology transfer and capacity building,” Rousseff said.

“With respect to finance we must be assured that the most vulnerable are at the top of the list for funding. This means we need easy access and less bureaucracy. Unfortunately, this is not happening.”

A commitment was made at COP15 for developed countries to make contributions rising to $100 billion per annum by 2020. At present they are far from that target.

Voluntary “commitments”

The negotiations around the Kyoto Protocol, were based on a target for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions was taken into consideration in determining each developed country’s legally binding commitment.

No such process exists for the Paris agreement. Instead governments are making what are described as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The term “intended” signifies that governments are not even making a commitment. The targets are voluntary and non-binding “promises” of emission cuts.

So it is not surprising that the total of INDCs on offer by the developed countries falls far short, in fact far less than half the reductions required to limit the rise in temperature to 2° by 2030.

This also raises questions about the UN’s reference to a “legally binding agreement”, what will actually be legally binding – just an “intention”?

“Together, the commitments captured in INDCs will not keep temperatures below 2°C, much less 1.5°C, above pre-industrial levels. Even if all countries meet their INDC commitments, the world is likely to warm by a devastating 3°C or more, with a significant likelihood of tipping the global climate system into catastrophic runaway warming,” the Fair Shares report warns.

The US, the EU, Russia, Japan and Australia all fall far short of the contributions they should be making.

Australia not a heavy lifter

The Australian government lived up to its reputation of being a mouthpiece for the fossil fuel sector. PM Malcolm Turnbull in his contribution referred to Australia’s commitment to cut emissions by 5% below 2000 levels (equivalent to 13% below 2005 levels).

To arrive at these so-called cuts he was doing some fancy accounting including a reduction in the rate of deforestation – a rule the government hopes to have cemented in the Paris agreement. In reality that target translates to an increase in industrial emissions to about 11% above 2000 levels.

Emissions in Australia are still rising. They have risen 3.5% in the past 15 months. Likewise the promised reduction of 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030 is just as rubbery.

“The majority of developing countries have made mitigation pledges that exceed or broadly meet their fair share, but they also have mitigation potential that exceeds their pledges and fair share,” Fair Shares says.

Australia’s Fossil Fuel Minister Greg Hunt has hypocritically come on board offering to support the 1.5 percent “aspirational” goal of small island nations. The issues facing these nations are not about hopes, they are about survival.

Question of survival

The Prime Minister of the small island state of Tuvalu, Enele S Sopoaga, came straight to the point in his contribution:

“For a country like Tuvalu, our survival depends on the decisions we take at this Conference. Let me emphasise this point. Our survival as a nation depends on the decisions we take at this Conference ... . We stand on a cliff edge. Either we stand united and agree to combat climate change or we all stumble and fall and condemn humanity to a tragic future.

“The plight of refugees we see today, and dare I add of increasing terrorism and radicalism, represents a small measure of what the world will face if we do not tackle climate change. We must urgently cut GHG, and dramatically transform the global economy to a fossil fuel free future.

“Let me repeat once more our appeal ... . No leader around this room carries such a level of worry and responsibility. Just imagine you are in my shoes, what would you do. We want to be assured that our children and our grandchildren have a future,” the Tuvalu President concluded.

He pleaded with the developed countries to set a temperature goal of below 1.5°, that such a goal was critical for many Small Island Developing States, Least Developed Countries and many others.

President HE Christopher J Loeak of the Marshall Islands presented a petition from 3.6 million people from around the world, saying “This is a time for human solidarity. But this is also a time for action.”

Environmental justice

Raphael Correa, the president of Ecuador, pointed to the undesirability and impossibility of unlimited economic growth. He pointed the finger at greed and rich countries. “Technology and efficiency expand limits but do not eliminate them,” Correa said.

He also raised the need for “environmental justice” and an International Court for Environmental Justice which should punish violations of the rights of nature and establish obligations in terms of ecological debt and consumption of environmental goods.

Correa said we have courts to protect investments, to force the payment of debts, but not to protect nature or impose fines for violations of the rights of nature.

Almost 80% of electricity in New Zealand already comes from renewable energy. Around half of the country’s emissions are from agriculture. They have set a target of 90% by 2025.

New Zealand PM John Key delivered the UNFCCC executive secretary a message on behalf of close to 40 nations calling for the removal of fossil fuel subsidies.

In India, with a population of 1.25 billion, 300 million people are still without electricity. Yet India was able to announce an ambitious target of a 33% reduction in emissions by 2030 based on 2005 levels. PM Narendra Modi also said India would produce 40% of its power from non-fossil fuels.

The Canadian government boasted that it had one of the cleanest electricity systems in the world, with almost 80% of its electricity supply already emitting no greenhouse gases.

Socialist planning

Two contributions that stood out were from Cuba and China. Neither country is leaving it to the “markets” to produce results. They are planning and taking action.

China outlined a number of measures it had already taken, demonstrating it was well on the way to reaching the target set in 2009 for 2020. It outlined new targets and indicated these would be achieved by planning, strengthening laws and regulations on climate change; and the integration of climate-change-related objectives into the national economic and social development plans.

In 2009, China announced internationally that by 2020 it would lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40% to 45% from the 2005 level, increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to about 15% and increase the forested area by 40 million hectares and the forest stock volume by 1.3 billion cubic meters compared to the 2005 levels.

President Xi Jinping reiterated the point made by a number of developing countries, that climate finance and transfer of technology are a crucial aspect of the negotiations with a view to the adoption of a global agreement binding and applicable to everyone in Paris.

Access to new and additional financial resources and environmentally sound technologies has been a historical claim of the developing countries to advance on the path of sustainable development.

It is provided for under the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol but has yet to be delivered to anywhere near the extent required or the targets set.

As Cuban First Vice-President of the Council of State and Ministers Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermúdez told the meeting, it is essential to the application of the principles of common but differentiated responsibilities, and equity.

He outlined some of the measures that Cuba has taken over recent decades, despite the difficulties of the illegal US blockade. For example, in 2005 Cuba commenced the replacement of incandescent light bulbs – changing 9.4 million of them. It changed 2.6 million refrigerators, one million fans, and so on.

It has installed 200,000 m2 of solar water heaters in residential and industrial sectors, solar pumps in agriculture, uses organic waster for biogas production, etc.

As the Guardian goes to print the meeting is still in progress, but there is little evidence that the representatives of the developed countries have listened to the pleas of the poorer, vulnerable nations. The fossil fuel corporates sitting around the table appear to have the upper hand and are not concerned about destroying the earth’s ecosystems, the basis of human survival.

The PM of Tuvalu aptly concluded his statement: “Let’s do it for Tuvalu. For if we save Tuvalu we save the world.”

Speeches by leaders:

Statements made during the Leaders Event

INDCs as communicated by Parties

Next article – Editorial – Playing the race card

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