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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

There is an agreement
distributed 1/8/16 - ©2016

It is almost a month since the climate negotiations ended in Paris. (How time flies in the midst of Christmas and New Year's celebrations, and end-of-the-year fundraising!)

Having used some of that month to study the outcome of those negotiations, I find that my shorthand evaluation is exactly the same as I voiced right at the end of the conference. On the mid-December Sunday morning just after COP21 concluded, during the prayer time of my home church, I lifted up just five words of celebration: "There is a climate agreement." And the congregation applauded in joy.

The fact of an agreement -- the first universal agreement on climate change -- is profoundly important, but a more expansive evaluation is helpful as we think about what is needed in the post-Paris world. I'll use two weeks of these Notes to reflect on the negotiations and their outcome. Today, I'll focus on my affirmation of getting an agreement at all.

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News reports during the negotiations gave some indication of the difficult process involved, noting that delegates wrestled with "bracketed" sections of the draft documents -- the places where phrasing was in dispute. The full scope of that negotiation process only became clear to me when I looked through a 47 page "summary" of the conference from the Earth Negotiations Bulletin.

I learned that the Paris Agreement itself includes "16 preambular clauses and 29 operative clauses," and the text of the agreement fills up 30 pages of the summary. In addition, I learned, the parties also adopted 34 other complex decisions. It was a busy two weeks.

What is utterly remarkable to me is that all of those decisions were by consensus. Every statement, every promise, had to be affirmed by every one of the 196 countries taking part. Those negotiating parties range from the island nations whose existence is threatened by rising seas, to the US and China as the largest polluters, to Saudi Arabia whose financial existence is threatened by climate action.

A taste of the challenge involved is shown in a description of negotiations around some wording in the (non-binding!) preamble:

Two parties, opposed by two others, requested that language on response measures be bracketed in a paragraph on the intrinsic relationship between climate change, poverty eradication and sustainable development. Parties also disagreed on the clarity of the phrase "harmony with nature," on the term "best available science," and on the accuracy of a paragraph on historical and per capita emissions.

If you've ever been to a church convention and witnessed the debate over a controversial resolution -- which needs only a majority vote to pass -- you'll know that agreement is hard to reach. Now imagine 200 passionate delegates representing nations with strikingly different beliefs and interests coming to full consensus on a 30-page, highly technical statement that directly impacts their own future. That is what happened in Paris.

That "there is a climate agreement" in the face of such a diplomatic challenge tells us that the nations of the world really do recognize the reality of climate change, and the urgent threat that it poses to global order.

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Getting to a consensus agreement has a serious down-side: the accord does not go anywhere near far enough in addressing the crisis.

The language of the agreement commits the nations of the world to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, with an aspirational goal of keeping below 1.5 degrees. But the actual pledges for emission reductions that have been offered from those countries still set the world on a track to 2.7 to 3.5 degrees of warming.

Grist reporter Ben Adler has written a concise summary of "what you need to know about the new Paris climate agreement" that outlines both what it does, and what it doesn't do. I'll dig into some of those positive and negative aspects next week.

But I'll wrap up today's affirmative assessment with another nod to why the simple fact of an agreement is important. (I'm drawing on the an excellent analysis of the process and outcomes of the conference that is at the end of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin summary, starting at page 42.)

The success of the Paris conference will be seen not only in the specific government actions that are defined in the agreement, but also "by showcasing and mobilizing action by all actors; and by expanding the UNFCCC's role in the fast-changing global implementation space." At the start of the conference, "UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Paris to send a clear message to markets that transition to a low-carbon, climate resilient global economy is 'inevitable, beneficial and already under way.'" The agreement also provides assurances that climate finance would be available and scaled up post-2020, in particular for the most vulnerable.

It is not clear, yet, what the governments of the world will do with the plans and promises that came from Paris. But it is clear that action will be taken, by all countries and by prudent businesses. It is now impossible for nations and businesses to presume that business-as-usual will continue unchallenged.

The presence of this consensus agreement -- however weak -- points us toward a world where action on climate change is prominently and officially on the global agenda. The word is out that the future will increasingly be one of renewable energy, with strong steps toward mitigation and adaptation.

That future would not be anywhere near as certain if the Paris negotiations had failed to reach an agreement. Next week, I'll be less up-beat. But today, and always, I give thanks that there is an agreement in place.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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