by Dylan Ruan
FROM COPENHAGEN TO PARIS
It must have been hard to be a climate activist in 2009. In Copenhagen, at COP 15, the United Nations bickered and grappled for two weeks while sewing together a treaty to address the global issue of climate change. Contrary to the ironclad unity envisioned by the UN, the United States, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa discreetly backchanneled a rudimentary climate agreement in the COPs final hours and presented the results to the delegates.
The result? Some slapped it down. Others shrugged. The accord was simply a letter of intent to act on climate change. There were no consequences for inaction. The outpour of ambition and optimism leading up to COP 15 was left in tatters.
Six years later on December 12th, 2015, the United Nations held its 21st Conference of Parties – COP21, and negotiated a landmark agreement to tackle climate change as a unified front.
In many ways, it feels like the Paris Agreement is the coming of age for climate change response. It certainly shakes off the ghosts of COP 15, where 187 of states were excluded from the backdoor negotiations of the climate accord.
In stark contrast, 175 states signed the agreement in Paris and as of this writing, 79 have officially ratified the climate pact in their own nation, the most recent of which being the European Parliament’s near-unanimous agreement to do so. This launched the Paris Agreement well above the required parameters for it to officially enter force and legally bind countries to act on its procedures.
WHERE ARE WE AT
Dissenters, however, have expressed their dissatisfaction with the Paris Agreement since its conception.
Some have argued that the climate pact is an empty husk and real-world politics will render many of the agreement’s promises unrealistic. One of the leading voices on the dissenting side is James Hansen, pioneer of anthropogenic climate change science, who painted a picture of an even more dire situation.
“It’s a fraud really, a fake,” he said.
Hansen argues that negative-carbon emissions, not lower emissions, will be necessary to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. The agreement only acknowledges a goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, let alone promise negative-carbon emissions. To Hansen, the Paris Agreement is sorely insufficient.
In that case, it becomes necessary to examine the Paris Agreement and list the key points and promises it has ironed out in order to address the issues that are leading us to a warming world.
1. All participating parties are required to develop climate action plans, “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), every five years and pursue domestic policy to achieve them. There are no binding emission targets or rigid procedures. The plans are carved out to demonstrate transparency and progress. While the procedure of submitting an NDC is binding, specific targets for emissions reduction are not. Each consecutive NDC is expected to be more ambitious than the last and escalates climate response.
2. Commit all countries to report regularly on their emissions progress for technical review. The Paris Agreement consistently hammers home the notion of transparency. Technical experts digest and review NDC plans and finances. Developing countries may be entitled to financial support to implement programs.
3. Extend the current goal of mobilizing $100 billion a year in support by 2020 through 2025. This point reaffirms the necessity of climate finance and the obligation of developed nations to financially support the efforts of developing nations. Developing countries will be able to work with flexible targets and support to help them reach requirements.
4. Limit global temperature increase to below 2 degrees Celsius, but pursue the goal of remaining under 1.5 degrees of warming. The agreement asks for nations to aim towards reaching “peak emissions” as soon as possible before rapidly decreasing. Developing countries, however, are “allowed” more flexibility to reach peak emissions so that they can address issues of equity, sustainable development, and poverty.
It is expected that the Paris Agreement will enter force before COP 22, which begins on November 7th, in Marrakech, Morocco. Having the conference hosted in the red-dusted city illustrates that climate action in this age is a global effort.
“It’s great to see it in Africa,” said Daniel Fernandez, Professor of Natural Sciences at Cal State Monterey Bay. “The COPs have always been contained in places like Europe so it’s great to see it somewhere else. It’s not a European movement. It’s much bigger than that.”
WHAT CAN STUDENTS DO
It’s easy for students to feel unwelcome and unheard when sustainability negotiations like Paris take place.
Students who protested with climate activists in Paris during COP 21 were effectively declared persona non grata and barred from entering the conference – although city police had understandably doubled down on vigilance because of the November attacks.
In 2016, the presidential debates shortchanged students by ignoring issues that drive conversations between them, swapping out questions about climate change, student debt, and LGBT rights with topics such as Medicaid, health care, and border control.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
“Voting is critical,” Fernandez said. Leaderships change and administrations face turnover. A consistent record of student participation – a continuity of intention in the political process can help students ensure that issues salient to them are addressed.
Voting is not, however, the only way for students to push for change.
Fernandez added. “But how can students maintain a voice in sustainability? It’s an interesting challenge, particularly since students typically only are students for around 4 years. So, there is a high turnover rate and it can be challenging for the student body as a whole to maintain its own “institutional memory.”. However, I think that performing activities such as writing about it in the student press and making it a top issue are critical.”
Raising the student body’s voice — metaphorically, also entails placing students in spaces like local governance where decisions are made and debate takes place. It’s in these situations that Fernandez has discovered students not only make meaningful impacts on discussion, but are also taken seriously by decision-making officials.
Fernandez’s Sustainable City Year program is one example of an avenue where students have been able to occupy sustainability decision-making spaces.
The program provides a “matchmaking” service between a community need and university expertise. Campus faculty connect with local governments taking on sustainability-related ventures that need assistance to get up and running. The city supplies the needs, the faculty integrate the community’s projects within their classes, and the students provide have the drive and do the work that helps the city.
“Cities are hungry for the innovation, creativity, and excitement of students and many students are hungry to make a difference in their communities, to change the way we do things, and get experience that can lead to real meaningful employment,” Fernandez said.
It’s not on the same playing field as the Conference of Parties, but it provides tangible and often transformative experiences for students. Programs like the Sustainable City Year are launch pads for students to work with public officials and community organizers to make decisions, implement projects, and juggle the responsibilities that come with being active participants in local governance.
Fernandez agreed: “City government plays an essential role in our everyday lives as citizens. The level of counties or cities is probably the most influential in terms of making real differences that we can see […] They (the regional governments) are the ones who have the ability toinstigate positive changes for the people who live there.