Paris CoP21: is the focus on the final text distracting from the real breakthrough?

As the Paris climate summit reaches its climax, all attention is focused on the level of ambition that the final text will reveal. While this is important, it can also be argued that the very intense momentum built up over the past two weeks, and the attention of the media and the public on the issues of climate change like never before, has marked a decisive breakthrough even before the text of the treaty is finalised.

It is also very important to keep a focus on the bigger picture that can be lost sight of in poring over the details of the text. For, whether the high ambition or the lower ambition target makes it into the final treaty, what is certain is that all the world’s countries enter into a completely new situation when this treaty comes into force in 2020. The huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that will be required will dwarf anything we have so far seen and challenge countries in ways they cannot now anticipate.

The momentum generated at Paris cannot be swept away. Most notable has been the level of ambition expressed by some countries, particularly the surprising emergence of the goal of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius rather than the 2 degrees which has been widely accepted over the past six years, with only some scientists arguing for the tighter target. Even if it finds its way into the final text as a weak aspiration, the fact that major countries such as France, Germany and, most surprisingly, Canada backed this energetically at the CoP is a major breakthrough. Be assured that the environmental lobby will never allow them forget it.

The issue of five-year reviews, though resisted by some laggards, now seems to have unstoppable momentum behind it. This emerged from an agreement between the French and Chinese presidents some weeks ago and again has greatly helped raise the level of ambition for this treaty. No matter what way it finds expression in the text, there is enough political will at a global level to ensure it becomes a key plank of global environmental politics. And five-yearly reviews will undoubtedly strengthen ambition over time in line with the ever more insistent findings of climate scientists.

Paris is therefore a start on a long journey. That the start may come too late is a real question but at this moment in history what is important is that a start has been made, and that this may galvanise states and civil society to begin the difficult road to a low-carbon society. Yet, amid the noise of Paris, the real options now facing society worldwide were kept very much in the background. For, in place of the much discussed division between developed and developing countries (a division that remains important but is no longer decisive now that most developing countries have realised that climate change is a real problem they have to deal with), the division between corporate society and civil society was deliberately hidden.

This was not the fault by and large of civil society but of the many corporations which turned up to Paris intent on using it as an opportunity to market themselves, this time with a light green tinge. That Coca Cola could claim they were climate friendly because the drink is manufactured in France shows the risable level to which such marketspeak can sink. This may not be representative, but the claim that addressing climate change is good for corporate profits, a central claim of all those corporations that are seeking to jump on this bandwagon, identifies the fundamental division that is going to mark the social struggles over addressing climate change.

Rob Hopkins, the founder of Transition Towns, put it well in his blog from Paris when he wrote: ‘The idea that our “post-carbon future” will be one of more, of growth, of corporations allowed to function as they please, was the overwhelming worldview on display’ at the Solutions CoP21 exhibition he attended. He found little discussion of degrowth, or of the possibility that a low-carbon future has to be a low-growth future, namely moving into a different type of economy and society where wellbeing is no longer based on more and more quantitative growth.

These, then, are the big questions raised by Paris, questions likely to be drowned out in the detailed debates about ambitious targets and the means to hold countries to account. What emerges in the final text tomorrow is important but what is more important is the political will to transition to a low-carbon society by 2050. The importance of Paris may well lie not so much in the much debated text that is going to keep delegates awake for yet another long night of negotiations, but rather the political will that has been manifested at CoP21. This is what will mark a turning point, if indeed this is what is happening.

CoP21: Might Paris begin the long road to a low-carbon society?

The fact that the world’s leaders turned up at the beginning rather than at the end, as happened in Copenhagen in 2009, seems to have galvanised action during the first week of the Paris CoP. Leaders such as Presidents Obama and Holland made plain the gravity of the crisis facing humanity and the urgent need for action, both pledging their countries would be at the forefront. The contrast with the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny’s attempt at special pleading for poor Ireland couldn’t have been sharper. It was a moment for Irish heads to hang in shame.

Actions came thick and fast. Among the first was a significant call from a coalition of close to 40 governments, hundreds of businesses and influential international organisations to phase out fossil fuel subsidies worth over €500 billion a year and which keep prices of oil, gas and coal artificially low. They estimate that removing such subsidies would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10 per cent by 2050 and free up resources for investment in renewables. Countries making this call include Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, the Netherlands, the Philippines, the UK, the US, Uganda and Uruguay. They are backed by the Prince of Wales Corporate Leaders’ Group (23 European business leaders representing combined revenues of €170 billion and employing 2 million people across 170 countries), and international organisations such as the International Energy Agency, the OECD and the World Bank.

As if to emphasise that the message is being heard, it was announced at the CoP that more than 500 institutions with combined assets of over €3.4 trillion have now made divestment commitments, among them the London School of Economics, 20 French local authorities and Allianz. This is an increase from 400 commitments with assets worth €2.6 trillion just ten weeks ago, indicating the growing momentum of the move away from investment in fossil fuels.

India, for long seen as a laggard on climate change, also stepped up to the mark this week with the launch at the CoP of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Solar Alliance. This brings together 110 countries, situated between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and therefore rich in solar resources, in an effort to gain cheap access to solar technology from developed countries. This is an attempt to achieve what the Indians call ‘carbon space’, namely the recognition that they still need to be allowed grow and develop their economies, but putting pressure on the developed world to facilitate them to do it in a low-carbon way. India has now promised to produce 40 per cent of its energy from renewables by 2030 though it is still planning to double coal production in order to bring electricity to the 300 million Indians who currently lack it.

Leaders from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Congo, Ethiopia, France, Gabon, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Liberia, Norway, Peru, the UK and the US also endorsed a plan to reverse deforestation and promote ‘low-carbon rural development’, including the restoration of degraded forest, peat and agricultural lands. They pledge to ‘reverse deforestation in our lifetimes’.

And, as if in response to the deep concerns of the 43 island states facing inundation by rising ocean levels, both Germany and France came out this week pledging support for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, below the widely accepted level of 2 degrees that some scientists believe too high but which since 2009 has been the basis for global climate politics. Emmanuel de Guzman, head of the Philippines delegation, a country that has suffered severely from storms over recent years, called the decision ‘historic’: ‘The call of the vulnerable has been answered,’ he said.

All of these are hopeful signs that the transition to a low-carbon society is finally beginning to gather momentum. But of course, the focus of attention remains on the detailed negotiations of the draft agreement being hammered out by negotiators this week before the arrival of Ministers next week. The level of ambition presented by state and government leaders on Monday left little doubt as to the scale of the task if this ambition is to be even partially realised. As the week wore on, parts of the 54-page text with some 1,600 bracketed clauses (representing different positions on which agreement has to be reached) was presented on monitors around the venue.

The French hosts introduced a novel strand with the ‘informal informals’, small meetings at which negotiators huddle over particular bracketed texts hammering out agreement that can then be fed back into the larger formal talks. This is an attempt to circumvent the difficulties of seeking agreement among a group of 194 countries in big plenaries. Alongside these, other groups are working on other key issues such as finance, commitments on reducing emissions and mechanisms for transparent accountability on meeting targets. Failure to find agreement on any of these could scupper a robust outcome up to the last minute.

A disagreement between developed and developing countries on Wednesday showed just how precarious things remain. Poorer countries took issue with the US climate envoy Todd Stern’s claim that donor countries were well on their way to beating a pledge to contribute €100 billion in finance to developing countries by 2020. An OECD report estimating that ‘around €62bn’ has already been pledged was dismissed as a ‘mirage’ by Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko, the South African chair of the Group of 77 and China, speaking for the poorest 134 countries at the summit. This is because what is counted as climate finance includes a broad range of loans, grants and relabeled aid, as well as private capital mobilised by public pledges. This is deeply problematic for developing countries as some of it is not new money at all and some potentially adds to their debt levels.

So, this week has shown that, perhaps for the first time ever, a real political will exists to reach an ambitious deal, and that this is shared by the developing as well as the developed world. Of course, such will is never sufficient and major issues still await decision. But, as the first week ends and a draft text is being refined to hand over to the French hosts to work on over the weekend, one can be cautiously optimistic that CoP21 Paris may go down as the turning point when the world at long last begins the difficult transition to a low-carbon society.

CoP21: Holding the fate of humanity

Just three days before the historic climate change summit opens in Paris on November 30th, Malaysia and Jamaica became the 179th and 180th countries respectively to register their pledges to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with the secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Bonn.

The previous day, in Nairobi Kenya Pope Francis had highlighted the stark choice facing the Paris summit, which he said was ‘either to improve or to destroy the environment’. He called for ‘a global and transformational agreement based on the principles of solidarity, justice, equality and participation’.

These actions, on the eve of what is arguably the most crucial summit conference ever held in human history, set the scene for what distinguishes from its predecessors this 21st Conference of the Parties as it is called in UN parlance. On the one hand, it has introduced the innovation of asking member states to pledge their INDCs or ‘intended nationally determined contributions’, namely their targets for GHG reductions by 2030.

On the other, as evidenced by the words of Pope Francis and his broad-ranging encyclical letter of last June, it takes place as the issue of climate change is being taken beyond the narrow realm of scientific and technological innovations, to being seen as a challenge to our model of development. As the Pope added in the garden of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi: ‘We are faced with a great political and economic obligation to rethink and correct the dysfunctions and distortions of the current model of development’.

Paris, therefore, opens with very high expectations. Unlike previous such conferences, such as the disastrous Copenhagen CoP of 2009, much more is known beforehand of what the likely outcome will be. So, for example, we know that the pledges made by the 180 of the 196 member states will, if achieved, be inadequate to keep global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius.

This target has become the scientific measure for what is regarded as the highest level of warming that can be permitted before catastrophic climate impacts occur, though some influential scientists urge a lower target fearful that 2 degree warming will trigger dangerous tipping points. A number of reports have examined the likely impact of the pledged reductions: the most optimistic says they would keep global warming to 2.7 degrees while the most pessimistic puts it at closer to 3.4 degrees.

Paris is therefore likely to mark an advance but not a sufficient one. But this relatively optimistic outcome fails to take one vital dimension of the INDCs into account. For, reading through them, what is striking is the number of countries that make their reduction pledges ‘conditional on international funding’. This therefore links the achievement of GHG reductions with what has been the vexed issue of global finance, and this may prove a far more difficult issue at Paris.

The pledge of a fund of $100 billion a year by 2020 was agreed in Copenhagen in 2009 but many developing countries are frustrated at the slow pace of developed countries to make their contributions. Ireland was badly embarrassed at the last CoP in Lima when it was named and shamed as one of the last developed countries to announce its contribution. Don’t underestimate the determination of developing countries to dig in their heels on this issue at Paris.

A report published last month by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimated that in 2014, climate finance flows from the North to the South reached around $62 billion, with about 25% of that coming from the private sector. Yet, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate has estimated that some $90 trillion will be needed over the coming 15 years to invest in infrastructure in developing countries to avoid them locking in a dependence of fossil fuels and therefore high GHG emissions.

Up until this year, the CoP process has tended to push all the difficult decisions towards the very end of the two-week conference when the government ministers arrive to make final decisions. This has meant that they mostly run over their allotted period and that final decisions are made after marathon night-long final sessions among exhausted politicians and their officials. By and large, it has been a shambolic process.

The French hosts have this year asked the heads of state and government to attend the opening session next Monday. Taoiseach Enda Kenny will therefore make his first visit to a CoP in the company of over 100 other such leaders. What impact this is going to have on the pace of negotiations is impossible to say but if it helps to get delegations to begin resolving the 1,200 bracketed issues that require decision, it may mean fewer issues being pushed to the final few days when the Ministers arrive, among them the Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly.


Meanwhile more and more authoritative reports are providing evidence that climate change is no longer a future risk but is a present reality. A report from the United Nations on the eve of Paris found that weather-related disasters over the past 10 years have occurred almost daily, nearly twice as often as they did two decades ago. It found that 90 per cent of these were tied to ‘floods, storms, heatwaves and other weather-related events’ and only 10% to geophysical disasters such as earthquakes.


This sort of evidence focuses attention on what is at stake at Paris. While Paris can’t resolve the problems of global warming and the climate change it is causing, it may just put in place the elements of a trajectory that begins to see a steady decline in GHG emissions over the coming decades. If it fails to do this in a decisive way, it is highly unlikely we will get another chance. What is at stake for the future of humanity could not be greater.

The Path to Paris: Can we save humanity?


Series of talks in Cloughjordan to prepare for the climate summit in Paris in December 2015

 We are on the eve of what is perhaps the most important summit ever held by the world’s political leaders. As scientists alert us with ever greater insistence to the damage we are doing to the environment, to the climate and to livelihoods by our carbon-intensive lifestyles and societies, the Paris climate summit may be the last chance to agree an international treaty that could save humanity. Will it finally begin a process to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thereby limit climate change and the damage it is doing around the world? This series of talks is designed to inform the general public about the issues involved.

Climate Change: The Moral Case

Thursday, October 8th:

‘An Inspiring Call to Contemplation and Action: The Ecology Encyclical of Pope Francis’,

Speaker: Fr Donal Dorr, author and expert on Catholic social teaching


Climate Change: The Scientific Case

Thursday, October 22nd:

‘Principal findings of the 2013-14 reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’

Speakers: Dr Colin Fitzpatrick and Dr Ken Byrne, UL. Dr Byrne is a member of the IPCC.


The Road to Paris: Prospects

Thursday, November 5th:

Prospects for Climate Action: Paris and beyond’

Speaker: Oisin Coghlan, director, Friends of the Earth


Addressing climate change

Thursday, November 19th:

‘How Ireland is doing’

Prof. John Sweeney, NUIM

‘Legal approaches: how adequate?’

Dr Rónán Kennedy, NUI Galway and Cloughjordan ecovillage


All the talks take place in the MacDonagh Heritage Centre, Main Street, Cloughjordan, beginning at 8:15 and ending around 10:00. Visitors coming from Dublin are encouraged to come on the evening train which arrives in Cloughjordan around 7:45. Accommodation is available at Django’s ecohostel:

 There is no charge though donations are requested to cover rent of the room.


Britain's Podemos moment

If the result of the Labour leadership election shows anything, it is that democracy can make the impossible possible. To have predicted this landslide as recently as three months ago would have risked been considered someone who had lost any sound grasp of reality. Yet, it has happened, in what can only be called a democratic revolution. It is Britain’s Podemos moment.

For capital’s version of reality has seeped into every nook and cranny of our societies (and indeed of the minds of most of us). This is what we call neoliberalism, the primacy of the market over public authority which, for over three decades became the accepted wisdom. And so-called ‘New Labour’ was nothing less than the surrender of the British labour movement to his ‘reality’. With the Corbyn landslide this is now history.

As with Podemos in Spain, this marks the birth of a new ‘demos’, the children of neoliberalism who are finally awakening to the profound vulnerabilities that the rule of grand capital brings to all our lives and our societies. This is the generation that now realises it lives in societies that can no longer promise a better future, greater security, quality education and healthcare, and protection when risks strike. And it realises that the reason is because the market rules, generating gross levels of inequality and benefiting the few over the many.

This is what marks Corbyn’s election as being different from that of Micheal Foot, the last time Labour had a serious left-wing leader. Foot, after all, was elected only by Labour MPs and had the misfortune to become leader just as the neoliberal reformation was beginning to reshape society. Foot’s election generated no new demos; Corbyn’s election has become the catalyst for one finally to emerge into a powerful force for change.

In essence, this is nothing less than a return to the founding principles of democracy itself. For, if democracy means anything, it is the sovereignty of the people. Yet, in complete contradiction to this principle we have for decades now lived in societies in which the market is sovereign, with political leaders and the state itself placing the needs of capital over those of citizens. As in Spain, young people up and down Britain are now saying with determination: ‘This must end’.

Of course, the mighty power of capital will now mobilise to do its utmost to ensure that this never happens. The media will rant and rail against the dangers of the policies Corbyn will seek to promote. They will frighten and threaten citizens and politicians that rising taxes on the rich and on capital, that funding decent public services, that nationalising essential services, and vigorously promoting peace will somehow destroy society.

As we face into the climate summit in Paris in two months time, it has never been more necessary to begin building again a strong state that can curb the destruction that capital is doing to our planet, a state that can mobilise people to move into a new and more collaborative relationship with the biosphere on which we all depend. For it becomes ever clearer that neoliberalism has brought us to the brink of catastrophe, warming the world and causing unpredictable changes to the climate. It is very difficult to see how we can begin any decisive movement towards a low-carbon society as long as the market controls society.

As the contributors to a ground-breaking new book entitled The Politics of Ecosocialism (edited by Kajsa Borgnäs, Teppo Eskelinen, Johanna Perkiö and Rikard Warlenius, Routledge, 2015) convincingly argue, our ecological crisis requires a fundamental re-sharping of the ideas and institutions of our society to take us beyond the era of economic growth and into an ecosocialist future. Is the Corbyn landslide a sign that at long last the politics to lead such a transformation is beginning to emerge?

And what does all this mean for Ireland? Do we see any signs that a new demos is emerging here that might form the basis for a decisive move to the left in our electoral politics? Unfortunately, the water charges campaign, while having successfully mobilised large numbers against austerity, tends to re-inforce rather than challenge the deeply entrenched anti-state and anti-tax instincts bred by decades of Fianna Fáil hegemony and by the power of global capital over our society.

More hopeful was the mobilisation around the marriage equality referendum last May, which bears some similarity to the Corbyn phenomenon. But there are few signs that the wave of democratic activism around marriage equality is being extend to the hard issues of electoral politics: taxation and jobs, decent public services, effective redistribution from rich to poor, development policies both urban and rural, and the immense challenges of climate change. It is difficult to see right now what might make that happen.