The Paris Agreement: reflections on a human endeavor


    ON Saturday 12 December 2015, half a century since scientists first told the world about global warming, and after more than two decadesof procrastination and collapsed negotiations, almost 200 nations committed to an historic, legally binding, universal agreement to cut human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, and to stave off the lethal effects of climate change. The Paris accord establishes a solidframework for phasing out fossil fuels and clearing the path toward a low-carbon future. It sets the ambitious goals of limiting global warming to less than 1.5 degreescelsius against a pre-industrial baseline;zero net carbon emissions;and the promise of $100 billion a year between now and 2025 to help developing countries mitigate and adapt. It strives to bring global food security, reduce poverty, protect essential rights, and foster peace among the world’s nations.

    “What brings us here together is the planet itself” said the French president, François
    Hollande, in a rallying, magisterial speech delivered just hours away from the document’s formal adoption. “We will not be judged on a clause or phrase but on the text as whole.

    History is here.” Speaking earlier, Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister responsible, reiterated the model of togetherness and compromise thathad kept delegates from walking out and the talks from falling apart: “Collective effort is worth more than our individual positions.”

    History-making can be a euphoric, fractious, tedious and closed affair.

    Held in Le Bourget, 11km from the city center, the two-week UN Paris Climate summit or COP21 (Conference of the Parties), was tightly contained in a flat-pack convention center that ensured the negotiating process was inoculated from trouble and disruption. Access to the conference was highly selective. The Summit was spread around halls the size of airline hangars, subdivided into colored zones.Negotiations took place in the blue zone, an area cordoned off by heavy security with entry restricted to diplomats, delegates, and the press. Civil society groups and the general public were kept far at bay, a mile or so away, in the green zone where, in the Exposition Hall, militants and curious onlookers had only each other to heckle.

    It isWednesday morning, day 9 of the Conference.Top-level negotiators are again working non-stop into the dawn hours. Former Philippine climate change commissioner turned activist YebSaño,isin the green zonewith a bedraggled group of walkers. They shuffle along, heads bowed, in a continuous looping circle, press cameras and journalists in tow. It is pure theater. They have walked from Rome to Paris for climate justice. I ask him how effective he thinks the Paris talks will be. “Success,” he says, “will be at the grass roots level, not within closed sessions.” His words, spoken with quiet conviction, are almost blotted out by the milling, fervent crowds. A Filipina from New York thrusts a leaflet into my hand and invites me to a protest meeting. She is from a group calling themselves ‘Meatless Monday’ who agitate for a cut in red meat consumption.  “Nobody is talking about methane,” she complains. But not everyone has the luxury of choice. At an indigenous peoples’ press conference, an Inuit describes how starving, disease-riddled polar bears are affecting her community: “Years ago, we ate polar bear raw, now we have to cook it for 6 hours before it is safe to eat”.

    Back in the blue zone, the latest draft agreement has been released and negotiators have two hours before they mustpresent their response at a G77 (a loose coalition of developing countries) plus China group meeting to be held later that evening. The draft stands at 29 pages and is peppered with optionsand 361 square bracketed sections, indicating still unresolved and contentious areas. It is an improvement upon the initial draft,which wasbeset by 1,609 square brackets.

    Inside the Philippine Delegation office, climate negotiators Tony La Viña, Emmanuel de Guzman, and delegate Heherson T. Alvarez, hear opinions from their respective teams, each of which has been working on particular sections of the draft. La Viña, Dean of the Ateneo School of Government, who had helped draft the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, is a dedicated crusader to the cause. Just before leaving Manila, he posted on his Facebook account the rousing motto: “For God, for country, for the Planet.”  He inspires commitment and loyalty in his team members who range in age and experience. He has brought with him 10 young Ateneans, mostly women. The youngest is a 20 year old physics major. Some are seasoned. Jemima Mendoza already has five Climate COP meetings under her belt. She intends to go to next year’s 22nd COP conference in Morocco. “The work doesn’t stop in Paris,” she tells me. “This [Paris] is the seed from which the tree grows.” La Viña, in his booming class-room voice, pulls the teams together.
    “Focus on the text. And what will work for the Philippines.”

    The ensuing discussion reveals several ongoing disputes regarding wording. “There is not enough emphasis on culture and education,” opined NGO activist Cecile Guidote Alvarez in a voice that would brook no argument. But the main contention rested on Article 2.2 which states:

    “This Agreement will be implemented on the basis of equity and in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances and on the basis of respect for human rights.”
    This crucial paragraph pits the developed world against the developing world in terms of responsibility. It encapsulates the political crunch issues of differentiation, finance, and fairness. Should the countries that historically industrialized first and are responsible for past emissions, be held accountable for climate change? The big developing countries, China and India, two of the world’s biggest emitters, argue that it would be unfair for them to scale back their growth to reduce emissions since their role in causing climate change has, at least historically, been marginal or nothing. The paragraph has stayed stubbornly between square brackets.

    Finance was always going to be a major stumbling block – whether it concerned funding from rich countries to help poor countries reduce their emissions, build infrastructure and develop technology, to protect their people from the impact of climate change, or money for loss and damage. In relation to the latter, the US would be unmoved. The idea of liability and compensation, which would potentially expose US companies to law suits for causing climate change, was the definitive ‘red line’, the deal breaker, for the US.

    That night, at the G77+ China meeting, reactions to the draft are mixed. Uruguay wants a clear definition of support from developed to developing countries. Timor Leste reasons that loss and damage needed to be part of the section on adaptation. Sudan bluntly dismisses the draft as “unacceptable.” China repeats her position: the most important problem is differentiation. Moreover, reporting on transparency, the Chinese argue, puts an extra burden on developing countries. Bernarditas Muller, special adviser and representative of the Green Climate Fund, keeps things simmering by calling the draft a “statement of the status quo” and claims to see “nothing on adaptation financing nor any assurance that there would be any kind of predictable scaling up of funds.”  The Philippines wants the retention of strong language on human rights but is largely conciliatory. “Let’s find solutions internally,” says de Guzman, the Philippines’ chief negotiator and head of the delegation, “and not negotiate against one another.”  De Guzman, an expert on disaster risk reduction, was recently appointed Climate Change Commissioner. He has a placid demeanor and speaks in a calm, even tone. It is his first COP and, according to some, he has had to “train while running.”

    The Philippine delegation arrived in Paris with unprecedented leverage. There was an outpouring of international support toward the Philippines after the devastating 2013 super-typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). The country is at the helm of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, an influential blocmade up of 43 countries most vulnerable to climate change. The Philippines has submitted an intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) that is, by most accounts, impressive. The country pledged to reduce its emissions by 70% by 2030. But how this would be achieved remains vague and the cuts seem to wholly depend on the country receiving foreign support. “It is an aspirational figure,” said Heherson T. Alvarez, a veteran of climate negotiations. Days before leading his country’s delegation, President Benigno Aquino signed off on 23 new coal plants. The disconnect between ideals and pragmatism seems wide and deep. Pledges from elsewhere in the region appear cautious by comparison. Measured against a ‘business as usual’ scenario, Cambodia, for instance, has pledged a 27% cut between 2020 to 2030 conditional on support; Vietnam promises an 8% cut, rising to 25% with foreign money by 2030; and Indonesia thinks it can cut emissions by 29% by 2030, but up to 41% with foreign cash.

    But not all think foreign financing is the key to greater cuts in emissions by developing countries. Antonio Oposa, one of the Philippines’ leading environment litigators, believes a lot can be achieved if government agencies would just comply with existing environmental laws and responsibilities. “Why are we conditioning our INDC on financial support for the development of technology? Why do we need money for adaptation?” Oposa asks and cites Executive Order 774, which aimed to increase and augment environmental protection. Issued in 2008, the Order has been dismissed by Greenpeace for being “ridiculous and confused.” Yet, Oposa has a point. Are developing countries doing enough on their own?

    Catering at the Paris Summit is good but expensive. There are plenty of cafes, restaurants, and stalls that serve up crêpes, raclette and vinchaud at inflated prices. As I look about, most people seem to be subsisting on coffee and jaw-busting ham and cheese baguettes. In the media center, where the world’s press is camped, the tables are littered with bags of potato chips, apple cores, and bottles of water. The Philippine Delegation is making the best of the situation. Juan Romeo ‘Neric’ Acosta, Presidential Adviser for environmental protection, has brought in large tubs of boiled rice, bags of grilled chicken, and tins of sardines. Pasta and sugar doughnuts also materialize. Delegates and negotiators trickle in and their mood visibly lifts at the spread. La Viña flops into a chair and from his pocket produces a couple of bags of peanut M&Ms.

    It has been a grueling night. Nearing midnight on December 10, and 48 brackets and 13 options remain in the current draft.

    Acosta flavors his rice with the oil from the sardines. He has an expansive smile, eats with
    gusto, and speaks with energy. “The agreement will not be perfect, it will not be ideal,” he says, “but it will signal to the world that we can all still come together and do this. The process has been ennobling. As a country I think we will have a clearer strategy and sense of direction. The Philippines will catch the zeitgeist.” Even Alvarez seems to be afflicted with optimism. Referring to the ambitious temperature goal, he adds, “I think 1.5 can be made to stick”.

    The science, politics and economics of climate change are bewilderingly and immensely complex, and the stakes are high. Climate change is already wreaking colossal destruction on the planet – acidifying seas and sea level rises, freak weather conditions, floods, drought, melting Arctic ice sheets, and mass extinction of floral and faunal species. The Paris Agreement falls short on so many fronts. Countries are under no legal obligation to cut emissions, nor is there any provision to claim legal liability for climate change. The Human rights clause was dropped from the operative part of the text and only a much-watered down version of Article 2.2 was retained. In the Philippine case, who among the current crop of presidential candidates will hold true to de-carbonization promises couched in fuzzy language?

    Nonetheless, the Paris Agreement is an extraordinary document. A negotiator from Barbados remarked: “While we may not get all we want, we should do what needs to be done.” His words capture the steadier, thicker, determination that slowly began to prevail at the Paris Summit. One is urged to believe that at the imperative, legally binding core of the Paris Agreement lies the resolute force of human will, the collective bid for salvation, and the desire for a redeeming future.

    (About the author: Rachel Reyes, PhD, was born in Manila and raised in Europe. She is a writer and historian of Southeast Asia at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She is the author of Love, Passion and Patriotism: Sexuality and the Philippine Propaganda Movement, 1882 to 1892; Sexual Diversity in Asia, c. 600-1950; and a contributor to the Routledge Handbook of Southeast Asian History. She is based in London and Amsterdam.)


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