The Conference of the Parties for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) was the 21st meeting of this organisation that was held in Paris in December 2015. The pre-negotiations suggested that there were good chances of an agreement this time. However there were major issues that needed to be resolved at the Paris Conference.
There were 195 countries at the conference. The debate was tough but an agreement was reached. It is not all the campaigners hoped for. It is not all that the developing countries hoped for. It is definitely not what the fossil fuel companies hoped for. This makes it sound like it did not work.
An agreement among 195 nations after 20 previous attempts is an achievement. At the start of the conference the participants were looking for a 2oC limit on warming. This was the figure proposed by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. However many of the developing countries who are already experiencing the impacts of warmer climates insisted that this was not enough. This group wanted the climate to return to pre-industrial levels by 2050.
The big decision was that all countries accepting the agreement were working for a rise of no more than 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels in the next 20 years. The original proposal was 2oC but the developing countries, particularly those who are experiencing the effects of climate, pushed for the reduction. In the future I suspect this target will be challenged and it will be interesting to see where the pressure comes from. At present the UK contribution suggests that this country will struggle to make the necessary changes for this to be achieved. There are policies in place but the plans and projects do not match the timescale.
The phrase – fossil fuels are history – started at this conference. This is a challenge but this is important as in Scotland the urban areas are dependent on natural gas for heating. To change to a non-fossil fuel alternative involves major changes in infrastructure and housing. However this change relates to another part of the agreement that there needs to be a growth of renewable energies.
Renewable energies have been seen as a major method of dealing with the changes that are necessary. However there are problems with energies that depend on sun or wind where the production can only be intermittent at best. The main problem is storing energy produced at times of plenty for use. Conventionally we have used batteries but this is not efficient and expensive. The need for research in this area is now vital but until this work has been done the development and growth of renewable energies will be limited. However there are many areas of the globe where the current technology would be a major benefit. This development needs capital investment and support.
This investment and development could be possible if there are new markets for carbon that allow development countries to participate in trading emissions. This element of the agreement required a lot of negotiation but the lobbying of faith groups and non-governmental organisations were very influential in supporting the developing countries.
The final agreement was the protection of forests. The importance of trees in storing carbon has been recognised. However this is not about forestry but about biodiversity and the health of ecosystems. The forests, woodlands and even individual trees need to be part of a functioning ecosystem that is sustainable in the long term.
This suggests that COP21 was a great success but there are some caveats.
Just one of the topics not included in the agreement is agriculture and food production and diet. If we are to share out the land used in agriculture fairly then we should all move to a vegetarian diet as livestock production has a large carbon footprint.
As I write only 177 countries have signed the agreement. Enough countries have ratified the agreement that it now becomes United Nations policy and these countries need to incorporate the agreement in legislation and practice. This is where everyone of us as active citizens need to be active.
Sheena Wurthmann, SRT Project Committee Member