101 Damned Nations

For my birthday this year, the world leaders (well, their immediate underlings) had a whip-round and gave me a new, landmark agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and so prevent global warming from killing everybody. I didn’t know they cared.

According to most accounts, COP21 has gone pretty well. The delegates themselves seem pretty pleased – there have been some satisfied little smiles in the press – but I suppose the real test of the document is when they all look at it again after three days’ sleep to see if, in their sleep deprivation, they haven’t manufactured a text comprising entirely of gobbledegook masquerading as legalese.

I didn’t envy the bastards, I must admit. With every one of the COP summits being quite literally nonstop tedium and wrangling for a full fortnight, I fear if I were sent as a delegate I wouldn’t COP very well at all.


So hats off to these determined ladies and gents for a fortnight of hard work and for going all the way to Paris with basically zero opportunity to visit the Louvre or something. And more than that, bloody good going not doing a Copenhagen and stumbling over the finish line with a very lacklustre deal (rumour has it there would have been no deal at all that time around if not for Ed Miliband’s intervention. He should have made more of that at the general election).

Is this new agreement really any good though? I’ll let more thorough commentators guide you through it (translation: I had a look but I didn’t understand it at all and then my mind wandered off and I started thinking about Batman). But as usual it seems nobody is in total agreement about whether we’re happy or not. The argument seems to run like this:

We have created an ambitious, rock solid agreement.

The wording of the agreement implies that all the terms are optional.

Yes, but the text includes a clause that every few years we all have a meet-up to swap progress information.

Optional meet-ups.

There’s a good feeling. There’s a sense of momentum, that we’re really gonna do this.

Uh-huh. What about the emissions targets? These will still see global warming to 3.5C by 2100…

Ah, but we’ll review those targets every few years as well and push for better targets.

Seems sketchy. Why didn’t you just commit to better targets now?

I don’t understand the question.

What do you say to the island nations who are telling you that even 2C of warming will see them drown as the sea levels rise?

Well, we’re gonna look at maybe doing something to possibly help mitigate the possibility of that happening by shooting for a 1.5C target.

We’re already at 1C now. You have half a degree left. How likely is that to happen?

I don’t know but I’m glad we’ve got those islanders to sign a piece of paper saying they can’t sue the developed nations for any loss or damage caused by the climate change we created with a century of burning stuff…

That’s a big relief.

You said it.

So it’s fair to say there’s a few holes in this thing. But under the cynical, lanky epidermis of my fragile physical frame beats the heart of a long-suffering optimist. I think I do believe that the momentum to kill fossil fuel burning is in place, and that the negotiators at COP21 genuinely believe in what they’ve achieved. And they’re right to. I think the world really is now on a course to a zero-carbon economy. But I’m afraid it’s all too late.

Here in the UK (while our chief negotiator Amber Rudd was, fairly, congratulating herself for noting the absence of aviation emissions in one version of the draft agreement) a decision on whether a new runway was going to be built at Heathrow or Gatwick was due to be announced. This was suspended for a further 6 months, but not for environmental reasons – all sources are very clear that “neither” is not one if the options. And as recently as Thursday night, hundreds of millions of pounds in subsidies and lucrative tax breaks were awarded to existing dirty power stations and diesel-burning energy generators to keep them on standby, so they can be called upon as a boost for periods of high demand on the national grid.

Her Right-Honourableness Mrs Rudd has signed a strong agreement, but getting the juggernaut of progress to change course is no mean feat and it’s never achieved quickly. And that’s a factor for every single one of the nations that attended Paris. Perhaps that’s why the agreement made today was made so much in advance of when it comes into force in 2020.

But we’re already living in “decade zero”: climate change for the rest of the century is being determined right now and we are running out of time. 3.5C emissions commitments are not enough, and by the time they come round for review I’m not clear how 2C will be achievable, let alone 1.5C to save those island nations.

This isn’t a deal that’s right for the present, I fear. Sadly I think we needed this exact agreement decades ago. I guess you might say that 2020 is hindsight.

So looks like we’re all going into 2016 with a lot of work to do. But then, what else is new? Have a great Christmas, dear reader. In January we go back to work.


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