Mainstream media is celebrating what has been achieved at COP21, and I guess you can see why. It is - whatever you think of it - genuinely a historic deal. But it’s far from being the silver bullet for climate justice that some are saying it is - and there’s still a lot for us to do.
For a start, the deal doesn’t actually meet the two degree target, let alone the 1.5 degrees needed to protect the most low-lying nations. Ahead of COP21, each party submitted a voluntary declaration of what they would do nationally. If you add up all the commitments, you get carbon reductions which end up somewhere between 2.7 and 3.5 degrees warming. Obviously, we need to push our governments a lot harder in the years to come.
I know it’s not constructive to be cynical, and I’m not. There are things to be really pleased about. Not least that - 21 years after we started negotiating - there’s actually an agreement at all. It gives the climate movement something to point to when our governments fail, and something to build from to achieve the outcomes we actually need. And, although it’s aspirational, it’s great to have such a bold target as 1.5 degrees warming on the table.
Most exciting of all: look at how the value of fossil fuels has plummeted as a result of the Paris talks. This is surely the best outcome of COP21. Big oil and coal are rattled, as investors get a clear signal the era of fossil fuels is in decline. The head of the EU coal lobby is babbling that the coal industry will be hated like slave traders and that this just a UN lie to create a “world government.” If he sounds spooked, it’s because he is. This is the weird argument of a desperate man.
Now is the time to divest from fossil fuels as quickly as we can, and reinvest in the renewable alternatives.
But, just as we shouldn’t be needlessly cynical, we mustn’t get overexcited, complacent, and let our leaders off-the-hook. The problem is far from solved. This agreement has not given us what we asked for, and won’t deliver what we need for a sustainable future built on social justice.
To keep below two degrees warming, let alone 1.5, we need to leave 80 per cent of oil, coal, and gas in the ground. But this agreement allows for some odd contradictions. Look at Saudi Arabia’s commitment: they say they’ll reduce their emissions, but only if it doesn’t affect their oil exports. Even by climate policy standards, this is way off the face-palm scale. It’s like saying you want to cut down your daily calorie intake without eating any less food.
We also wanted to see a transition to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050. But the 31-page document only mentions “renewable energy” once, in a vague gesture towards “Africa.” It’s not good enough. It’s going to take international networks of students to put coordinated pressure on our governments to make sure they keep meeting their commitments and advancing their ambitions.
Sure, it’s a start that we have an agreement at all, and the fact we’re even talking about aiming for 1.5 degrees is a huge testament to activists across the world, demanding solutions which reflect reality, not the interests of fossil fuels or the rules of neoliberalism. It’s the people outside the negotiating room who have made the most impact, and we’ll continue to be the most important force for change as we turn this deal into something which actually achieves climate justice.
Meanwhile, here in the UK, David Cameron said: “We’ve secured our planet for many, many generations to come.” He couldn’t be more wrong, nor more arrogant. The deal he’s signed won’t do that. Even if it were stronger, a piece of paper would never tackle the climate crisis. It’s us - students, activists, and indigenous communities - who will do that, and we do it by opposing fossil fuel extraction, reforming our education system, and moving our money into the low-carbon economy.
Be hopeful, but not complacent. The challenge is still ahead of us.
Piers Telemacque is vice president for society and citizenship with the National Union of Students (NUS)
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