COP21 – We must, we can, we will.


If you woke on Sunday morning wondering if the previous night’s announcement in Paris was a dream, it’s OK – it wasn’t. But after years when the main concern after the December COP was to try and find something, anything, even vaguely positive to say you’d be excused for thinking it might have been.

To get just shy of 200 countries to agree to anything at all is remarkable. To get agreement on a 2°C target, with the aspiration to limit average warming to 1.5° is, frankly, stunning.

It is a testament to the extraordinary efforts of Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and her team. With a mix of charm, grit, efficiency and granite determination she has maintained that ‘We must, we can, we will’ since she was appointed in 2010. Many of us had dared not hope for such an outcome, for fear it would come to nought. The crushing defeat of Copenhagen was hard to bear. Thankfully, others had more faith. To its credit the UN team learned and applied the lessons from that failure. So too the French hosts, who by many accounts ran the COP with skill, diplomacy and verve.

Paris was the first COP where businesses, NGOs and faith groups have stood together, side by side, on an equal basis and committed to act whatever the outcome – a provocation to the politicians to succeed. The presence and voices of all faiths, including Christians who prayed, marched, demonstrated, wrote, petitioned (1.8 million of them), rode and walked to Paris, helped to create momentum for a successful outcome. So did the Papal Encyclical and the unequivocal support of Pope Francis.

This was also the first COP where alternatives to fossil fuels were demonstrably more than ideas. In the last six years renewable energy technologies have been deployed around the world at scale. The argument that only by burning fossil fuels can we meet our energy needs now sounds shrill. And the direct impacts of climate change and the localised impacts of fossil fuel pollution are too obvious to ignore or dismiss.

It’s difficult to overstate the implications of a 2° threshold, let alone 1.5°C. Temperature is a poor proxy for the manifestations of a changed climate system or the scale of intervention now required to address it.

Bar the handful of countries that are already on track to becoming 100% renewable, every nation now needs to rethink its energy and economic strategy in the light of what was agreed. That includes the UK Government and the Chancellor George Osbourne. To suggest that dismantling the building blocks of a low energy, low carbon economy is compatible with a 1.5°C or even 2°C world is specious nonsense. The Government needs to be held to account on the commitments agreed by all UK parties. But so too every other sector of society, because by definition this must involve all of us. The simple question which applies to any action is ‘How does this contribute to a 1.5° world?’

Paris strengthens the case for disinvestment from fossil fuels, and weakens that for continued engagement with the companies concerned.

At 2°C up to 80% of fossil fuel reserves have to remain in the ground. A 1.5°C threshold pushes that percentage even higher. So what is left to engage about? Either fossil fuel companies are on board, in which case they dust off their 1.5° business strategies and sell them to the world, or they aren’t, in which case they surely don’t deserve the investment of our time, money or trust. After more than twenty years of talking, we require the big players to act not delay, distract and defer.

For all the relief following the weekend’s announcement there are notes of caution.

There is no ‘safe’ level of climate change. The consequences of the 1° of average warming we experience today are already devastating. At 1.5° millions of people will be displaced and entire ecosystems destroyed. So any idea that climate change is ‘sorted’ is sadly fanciful.

The decision to set a meaningful target has been left to the last possible moment. And what has been agreed is simply a target. There is a severe lack of detail as to how this will be achieved. To step off one of the current trajectories for a 3, 4 or 5° world we need to act now. In the end this boils down to physics and chemistry; we get no credit for good intentions unfulfilled.

And there will be pushback, from the fossil fuel sector, and others with vested interests including governments, mainly I suspect along the lines that we don’t need to rush this, and that we will be need fossil fuels for decades to come – a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But for all the limitations of the Paris agreement it is at last acknowledgement that a planet where the average change in temperature is 4, 5 or 6°C above the pre-industrial average would be damaging beyond measure. Limiting the degree of change will be exceptionally challenging but it is achievable if we can find the will.

We can and we must.

Further info

Video (above): Professor Alice Bows-Larkin of the University of Manchester, and Tom Burke of E3G give their response to the Paris deal, and highlight the importance of reducing energy demand, innovation and ending the dependence on fossil fuels. Click here to view in Youtube.

Professor Piers Forster, a professor of physical climate change at the University of Leeds and recipient of the Royal Society Wolfson Merit Award, reviews the implications of a 1.5 degree C target in this guest blog on the Carbon Brief website. Click here to read more.

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