C&EN @ COP21 – Paris Climate Change Conference – 2015, November 30 to December 11

Paris Talks May Hinge on Climate Justice

The climate change negotiations in Paris have four main components: 1) a universal agreement among countries; 2) pledges by each country for emission reductions, wise forest and land use, and climate adaptations; 3) a financial organization called the Green Climate Fund; and 4) an “Agenda of Solutions” offered by businesses, cities, regions, and nongovernmental organizations such as environmental and poverty-fighting groups. To ensure a major success from the meeting, all four elements must be in place.

But the first element is jeopardized by potential feelings of mistrust and betrayal on the part of the most vulnerable locales, including island and coastal nations, poor countries, and those in the throes of increasingly violent weather.

The Maldives, an island atoll in the Indian Ocean, is the lowest lying nation in the world and is among the countries that have the most to lose to climate change. Credit: ESA

The Maldives, an island atoll in the Indian Ocean, is the lowest lying nation in the world and is among the countries that have the most to lose to climate change.
Credit: ESA

The second and third day of the meeting saw pleas for greater global action from these parties. These included a call for tightening the policy goal of restraining global average temperature rise above preindustrial times by the end of the century from 2 oC to 1.5 oC, to protect better Earth’s most vulnerable populations. One-half a degree may not sound like much, but it means a lot in terms of the emissions cuts that would be necessary to achieve it. Nations would need to roughly double their emission reduction pledges from the equivalent of about about 7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to 15 billion metric tons to ensure a good chance of keeping the warming to less than 1.5 oC by 2100.

In addition, the Alliance Of Small Island States (AOSIS), consisting of 44 low-lying island and coastal countries, are adamant about financing. At the last major global climate meeting, held in Copenhagen in 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put forth a financial goal for rich countries to provide $100 billion per year into the a Green Climate Fund to assist countries most affected by the effects of climate change. AOSIS insists that such funding should be provided in a timely fashion and consist of new and additional financing, above and beyond existing international programs or official development assistance. AOSIS also wants international compensation for loss and damages due to the impacts of climate, such as inundation of coastal areas by rising sea level.

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“Loss and damages” is an important phrase in Paris because it embodies the notion that there are seriously affected parties who suffer through no fault of their own. With damages, the legal quid pro quo is reparations should be made. While we are far from reparations, there are moves afoot to protect people from the effects of climate change. The Group of 7 countries–Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S.–are investigating how to provide 400 million people living on the frontlines of climate change with climate risk insurance within the next five years–a dramatic achievement if it can be accomplished. It’s called the InsuResilience Initiative.

In the absence of action on these financial aspects, the Paris deal stands to lose the support of some disaffected countries — and it would become impossible to pass the first component, a legal universal agreement, which requires unanimous approval of all 196 parties. That is what happened at Copenhagen when a few countries chose not to sign the declaration at the end of the meeting. Organizers hope that will not happen in Paris.

Let’s remember that AOSIS and other blocs like the Climate Vulnerable Forum–a group of 20 countries including Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Bangladesh–are already experiencing upheaval and suffering from sea-level rise, increased storm surge, more frequent flooding, and more intense droughts. Their “loss and damages” are real and their nightmares are increasing. In the words of Bridgette Burkholder of Climate Nexus, a group working to change how climate change is discussed in the U.S., these countries are the “least to blame, hardest hit.” Truly they have the most to lose.

Jerald Schnoor is attending the Paris meeting on assignment for Chemical & Engineering News.  He is professor and co-director of the Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa, and former editor-in-chief of Environmental Science & Technology.  Follow him on Twitter @JerryatCOP21.

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