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Vulnerable countries leave mark on Paris agreement


It has been an exercise in managing optimism and reality in the week after the Paris Agreement on climate change. When we have had such a rough time getting our act together, merely sorting out a plan feels like an achievement. We protect ourselves at the same time by attaching all sorts of caveats.

Tony La ViñaWe have wanted this breakthrough for so long, yet doubt our capacity to meet its demands. We assure ourselves that doing nothing is surely worse than not doing enough, soon enough. We fret that our plan may yet be sabotaged.

One thing that can be certain is that COP21 is pivotal, not just because of what it signals, but in terms of the model it offers for solutions to global problems.

The Paris summit departed from a top-down approach, facilitating differentiated, voluntary pledges from governments based on their unique situation. This blunted some of the adversarial positions that skewered the 2009 Copenhagen conference.

The conditions enabled the 43-member Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), led by current country-chair the Philippines, to work persuasively.

'We were more united,' says Tony La Viña, dean of the Ateneo School of Government in Manila and veteran negotiator. Events such as Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the Philippines in 2013, likely provided impetus to assertions long made by island states and small developing nations.

La Viña adds that trust was critical to resolving intricate issues. It is the foundation of indaba, a Xhosa/Zulu discussion format first adopted at COP17 in Durban in 2011. This streamlined process enabled each participant to speak personally about their 'red lines' (hard limits) and propose common ground solutions. It reportedly broke a deadlock at the Paris summit within half an hour.

The imprints of less powerful countries are thus all over the Paris text. The CVF had pressed for the 1.5 Celsius cap above pre-industrial levels (previously abandoned at Copenhagen), financing for technology transfers in clean energy and adaptation, as well as a human rights framework that accounts for indigenous peoples, women and intergenerational equity.

The CVF had also sought a binding mechanism to deepen emission cuts. Current pledges are fundamentally patchy and projected to keep the planet on track for a temperature rise of 3 degrees Celsius at the end of this century.

A climate pledge audit every five years from 2020 concretises the mutual expectation that emissions reduction goals should become ever more stringent. It is a compelling investment signal for decarbonisation and renewables; even if businesses aren't sold on climate ethics, it is not in their interest to stay idle.

This is far from saying that the Paris outcomes are adequate. A liability mechanism for 'loss and damage', attributable to developed high-polluting countries, did not make it to the final agreement. It means that locked-in climate change effects — for example the loss in revenue for tourism-reliant, inundated island states — would not meet reparations.

There are in fact parallel discourses asserting that the wealth of the developed world was built at the expense of its former colonies. Jason Hickel, anthropologist at the London School of Economics, points out: 'The reparations debate is threatening because it completely upends the usual narrative of development. It suggests that poverty in the global south is not a natural phenomenon, but has been actively created. And it casts western countries in the role not of benefactors, but of plunderers.'

It is something that may well feature in future negotiations. If nothing else, the Paris summit demonstrates that possibilities are opened when all countries get to sit at the table, and the most vulnerable ones taken seriously as self-agents. That is something worth hoping for.



Fatima Measham

Fatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister .

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Paris, COP21, climate change, Philippines, Tony La Viña



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Existing comments

Dear Fatima, the Philippines suffers 19 tropical cyclones a year and 6-9 of those make landfall. You have to go back to 1821 for the deadliest storm and 1911 for the wettest ( 87 inches of rain fell in three days ). These reference points as an example of changing meteorological patterns demonstrate no understanding of the science. The question to ask is how the occurrences - normalized - are changing and whether it is a statistically significant change and the meteoroligical data determines it is not. These arguments are emotive, unsubstantiated in scientific method and they do not help in the process of an informed scientific debate.

Luke | 18 December 2015  

Luke, didn't you notice that Fatima was not discussing the science? She was discussing the process and outcome of the COP21 conference recently finished in Paris. Happily, the discussions in Paris took global warming/climate change as a given, and focussed on the measures required to mitigate likely impacts, especially in Fatima's article, impacts on small, island nations. Her only reference to tropical cyclones in the Philippines was the likely impetus of Typhoon Haiyan to "assertions long made by island states and small developing nations." Definitely, Luke, continue investigating informed scientific debate about global warming/climate change. Some of us believe the probability is so high that we have to put in place processes to mitigate impacts, even if acknowledging that the worst predicted outcomes might not eventuate.

Ian Fraser | 18 December 2015  

1. Whatever the pluses and minuses of historical colonialism, poverty in the South today has nothing to do with it. It is caused by a lack of economic freedom. Hong Kong, a British colony until the late 1990s, proves this. It experienced monumental growth in wealth from the 1950s because it was basically a free market economy. In any case, much of the poverty in the south is disappearing steadily as it wakes up to the strengths of capitalism and integrates into the global economy. 2. The record of government to government foreign aid is that it has contributed to keeping countries locked in poverty. It is difficult to see how calling foreign aid "reparations" would alter the underlying unhealthy dynamic. 3. Where are these "inundated island states" we keep hearing about? New Zealand hasn't received one application for its climate refugee visas. The majority of pacific islands have either grown or remained stable in size since the 1930s. The Maldives, another low-lying island nation, while bleating for climate handouts, is planning to build no less than five airports at sea level. Great ... but how can we possibly take their complaint seriously?

HH | 18 December 2015  

There is a good article in The Australian today, 18 Dec, by Matthew Canavan about 'CO2 witch hunt' and the exagerrations about climate change being made as compared to real scientific data knowledge.

Gerard Tonks | 18 December 2015  

Awesome article and must read it.

HCN NEWS | 28 December 2015  

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