Twenty-three years after the Earth Summit of 1992, it took just a few minutes for the Paris climate agreement to be adopted on December 12th at COP21. I watched it happen live on a video screen put up in the hallways of the Le Bourget conference center, as with my media badge, I could not get into the plenary that final day.
Ministers hugged each other and there were plenty of wide smiles and applause. The media stationed outside the plenary went into a frenzy, with bleary-eyed TV journalists from all over the world, excitedly announcing the “victory” to their cameras.
Yes, the 196 countries of the world that are signatory to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (which was born at the Earth Summit) had finally come to a consensus agreement on climate change, and that was a moment to celebrate.
Governments across the world have now given a commitment to keep the rise in global temperatures “well below” 2 degrees C compared to pre-industrial times, while striving to limit them even more, to 1.5 degrees.
However, will the outcome of the Paris agreement be enough to save the poorest and most vulnerable countries from the devastation caused by impacts like floods, hurricanes and droughts?
A few hours earlier that Saturday, when the final draft of the agreement was released online, I had hurried to the conference centre from my hotel in the heart of the city, taking the train, and then the shuttle to the Le Bourget center.
At the enormous conference center set up on the site of an old airport outside Paris, the halls were rather quiet – many delegates had already gone home as the conference was supposed to have ended on Friday.
The media room was buzzing with activity as the text of the new agreement was printed out and almost every computer terminal was taken. I had reached in time for the press conference organised by the Climate Action Network (CAN), a coalition of around 150 NGOs working on climate issues. Their spokeswoman, Ria Voorher informed us that the agreement would “be graveled through later today”; so in effect, the final deal was more or less reached.
The next day, there were to be regional elections in France and it was important for French President Francois Hollande to have the climate deal featured in the media by Saturday night, as a boost for his ruling party.
It was also important for President Obama to have a successful outcome in Paris included in his legacy, as he prepares to leave the White House. He, along with the Secretary General of UN, Ban Ki Moon worked tirelessly all year long with the French government to ensure that there would be an agreement in Paris.
At the press conference organised by CAN, Samantha Smith of WWF International explained: “It was important to include the 1.5 degrees critical threshold (for global warming) – the survival of the Arctic, coral reefs and Pacific islands depends upon this… the latest draft sends a very strong signal that governments have committed to be in line with the science. Governments have recognised the climate crisis and now we need to see action on the ground in all countries – the Paris Agreement gives us the framework to do it and as for actions, it is up to everyone to deliver”.
Kumi Naidoo, the head of Greenpeace International added: “We are still not out of the hole as yet, however. Nations who caused the problem have promised little help to vulnerable countries – we will need to mobilise in greater numbers… we stand for a future powered by renewable energy and we believe we can win. Paris is just a stop on an ongoing journey”.
Earlier that day, thousands of people gathered in the streets of Paris with long red banners urging the world “not to cross the lines that will lead to catastrophic global warming”. More than 10,000 people participated in the rally, which came after the French government lifted a ban on protests issued after the terrorist attacks of November 13.
The protesters unfurled the banners starting at the Arc de Triomphe and stretching along the boulevard Avenue de la Grande Armée. They read: "It's up to us to keep it in the ground” referring to fossil fuels. Thousands carried red tulips and foghorns sounded to honour victims of climate change. There are countless numbers of people around the world who have lost their lives in disasters caused by climate change.
Pakistan, which ranks number 8 in the global list of countries most affected by climate related disasters, is now hit by flooding each year; in 2015 it was the district of Chitral that was devastated by unprecedented floods.
My friend Meera Ghani Ceder, a Pakistani climate activist who participated in some of the protests held during COP21 and who has been attending these global negotiations since Bali in 2007 wrote about:
“Behind the scene’s politics at the COPs where the powerful twist the arms of the poor and most impacted, give ultimatums and deals that go in the favour of these powerful are hailed as successes. I don't know how much people actually believe it was ambitious and how much of it is just being thankful we got something after 8 years of non-stop pushing and nudging leaders (for some 23 years). Maybe it’s celebrating the work people have put in all these years, paying homage to those we lost along the way.... and the millions of lives impacted. All I know I'm not satisfied with the outcome”.
The CAN activists pointed out that the most ambitious pledges (for curbing carbon emissions) have actually come from the developing countries and that it was the Philippines, which has repeatedly been battered by hurricanes, and the threatened Pacific islands which played a major role behind the scenes at COP21, ensuring the 1.5 degrees inclusion and, at least the mention of “loss and damage” in the agreement in the “brutal power politics” that were in play.
Also read: Drowning with the enemy
Rich countries ensured that they would not give any significant funding to poor countries aside from the 100 billion dollars from 2020 promised in Copenhagen and that the words “liability and compensation” were excluded from the agreement. The carrot given was the falling prices of renewable energy around the world, while the stick of course is the increasing cost of climate change in all countries, which will be borne by all of us.
As Oxfam pointed out, “Paris will be the floor not the ceiling for climate action”.
I left the conference center that night with mixed feelings: glad it was over with a final consensus agreement, unlike in Copenhagen and yet, sad that it would clearly not be enough for vulnerable communities like the impoverished mountain villagers in Chitral who might have to face flooding each year.
The agreement made in Paris clearly needs to be nurtured so it becomes stronger. The global economy must be transformed and I’m relieved that civil society will be there to push for it.
But, will world leaders actually deliver on the ground? It is up to all of us to make sure they do, including in Pakistan, currently, one of the most vulnerable countries in the world.