arts and environment
“Nature is sending urgent signals” cautioned UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as he addressed some 150 delegates--the largest gathering of world leaders in history--at COP21 in Paris. “We need all hands on deck.”
Though not expressly stated, the “urgent signals” he refers to likely include our rapidly rising sea levels (3 millimetres per year), disappearing forests (48 football fields--in area--per minute, lost to deforestation!) and vanishing ice shields, which melted more in the past 20 years than in the previous 10,000.
Hence the pressure on Paris to deliver a clear and unanimous protocol for curbing climate change. And deliver it did. A veritable roadmap for suspending global temperature rise, while demanding transparency and accountability from world nations, the Paris Agreement has been hailed “historic” by climate scientists and advocates worldwide.
Taking a cue from previous failed attempts at a global climate action plan – 1997’s Kyoto Protocol was legally binding, but its objectives were unclear; 2010’s Cancun Agreement was clearly articulated, but not legally binding – the objectives of the Paris Agreement are both painstakingly clear and legally binding.
Barely mentioned in previous agreements, the principles of accountability and transparency are expressly reinforced throughout the document, as is the importance of ensuring gender equality, poverty eradication and the empowerment of women.
But it is the crushing urgency with which the document addresses climate change that makes it truly historic.
Whereas Kyoto and Cancun recognize and recommend, Paris urges, emphasizes, and notes with serious concern. Calling the climate crisis“a common concern for mankind” posing a “potentially irreversible threat to human societies,” it replaces the cautionary warnings of previous protocols with a pragmatic action plan.
Concrete deadlines take the place of variable intervals. Ballpark goals are replaced with quantified measurements, expressed in degrees, gigatonnes and parts per million. Scarcely mentioned in previous agreements, Adaptation & Mitigation, Loss & Damage and Capacity Building merit entire subsections.
Gone are the promises of ”periodical reviews” and requests for “regular updates.” Paris instead imposes mandatory “stocktaking” every five years to ensure countries meet their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.
And whereas previous agreements call on developed countries to provide financial and technological assistance to developing countries, the Paris Agreement requires them to provide a set figure: $100 billion, annually.
Since the founding of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, participating countries have been struggling to form a coherent climate action consensus. Whereas the Kyoto Protocol required its 37 participating countries to bring emissions to 4.2% below 1990 levels by 2012, global emissions actually surged by 50% compared to 1990 by 2012, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency reports. As emissions increased, as did global average temperature. According to the World Meterological Organization, 2015 is on track to replace 2014 as the hottest year on record, a title held previously by 2011, 2012 and 2013.
It thus came as little surprise that the announcement of the Agreement by French foreign minister Laurent Fabius was met with thundering applause, hugs and tears from delegates. World media shared in their praise: The Guardian trumpeted the “end of the fossil fuel era” while the BBC heralded the Agreement “a truly world-changing instrument.” President Obama also weighed in, calling it “the best chance we have to save the one planet we have.”
However, the agreement is not without criticism. A point of contention is the flexibility it affords developing countries, by allowing them to report on emissions “at their own discretion”, while requiring developed countries to submit reports on a biennial basis. As well, like previous protocols, the Paris Agreement entreats that 55% of countries ratify.
Well-known social activist, Naomi Klein, and Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, agree that targets proposed by the 196 countries will not be enough to prevent a global average temperature increase of 2 degrees. Moreover, if world population continues to emit pollutants at the current rate—the Guardian cautions—global average temperature is sure to increase roughly five degrees. To put this into context, the difference between today’s average temperature and that of the last ice age, is five degrees.
Whether the Paris Agreement is the “historic” document it is purported to be, only time will tell (David Suzuki used the same adjective in 1997 to describe the Kyoto Protocol). But what is certain is that, even before being implemented, the Paris Agreement has already succeeded in what may be its most pressing mandate: convincing the world that climate change is simply no joke. ¶