The Paris treaty on Climate Change is a historic moment for humankind

Fr.Sean McDonagh, SSC
On Saturday evening December 12, a multilateral treaty on climate change was signed by 195 countries. This took place at the end of the Conference of the Parties (C0P21) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Le Bourget, Paris. For many people who have been engaged in climate negotiations or those who have reported on the yearly Conference of the Parties (COPs) to the UNFCCC, this was a historic moment.
There are so many different and complex aspects to the treaty. These include commitments to reducing or eliminating greenhouse gases from our industries, transport and our homes in the 21st century. It also envisages helping poor countries adapt to the reality of climate change through establishing a General Climate Fund of $100 billion annually. Finally, rich countries have committed themselves to making clean, non-fossil fuel technologies available to poor countries.
Towards the end of the second week of the negotiations, it became clear that no country would get everything it wanted. In fact, major compromises had to be made. A lot of credit for the agreement must go to the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius and French diplomats. Since COP 20 in Lima in December 2014, they had lobbied every single country in pursuit of a deal. They took time to ensure that the three major pollutants, the United States, China and India would sign up to the deal. During the final negotiations, French diplomats worked tirelessly to achieve compromises. Many of us who have attended previous COPs, especially the failed COP in Copenhagen in 2009, remember the frustration and anger we experienced when two weeks of negotiation failed to produce any viable treaty.
At most of the COPs which I attended during the past decade, the Catholic Church was barely visible, but at COP21 in Paris, the reverberations from Pope Francis’ powerful encyclical Laudato Si’ could be heard.[1]
According to Professor John Sweeney, climatologist and emeritus professor of geography in Maynooth, Co. Kildare, “the 31 pages of the Paris treaty provide a roadmap for tackling the worst extremes of global climate change. The future pathway to sustainability has been laid out for 195 countries, virtually the entire global community, to offer present and future inhabitants of Earth hope that human-induced climate change can be contained.”
According to Lord Nicholas Stern, a British economist who has worked tirelessly on the economics of climate change, the Paris treaty is extremely important. For him “It is a turning point in the world’s fight against unmanaged climate change which threatens prosperity. It creates enormous opportunities as countries begin to accelerate along the path to low-carbon economic development and growth.”[2]
Kumi Naidoo, the International director of Greenpeace welcomed the agreement. For him it “will put the fossil fuel industry on the wrong side of history.” However, he is very aware that the “emission targets on the table are not big enough.” And “the nations that caused the problem have promised too little to help the people who are already losing their lives and livelihoods.”[3]
The treaty binds nations to keep the average global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius and to aim at a 1.5 degree Celsius rise. Getting the figure of 1.5 degree Celsius on the UN agenda was a major breakthrough for small island states whose very existence is threatened by sea-level rise as a result of climate change. Tony de Brum, the charismatic Foreign Minister for the Marshall Islands played an important role in forging this coalition of the ambitious nations. However achieving this goal will not be easy. The agreement which each nation had made to cut greenhouse gases before they arrived in Paris, would result in a 3.7 degree Celsius rise and not a 2 degree rise. So, there is a huge amount of work which needs to be done in this area.
Regrettably, aviation fuel and bunker fuel for ships are however absent from the agreement. Currently these account for the emission equivalents of Germany and South Korea combined.
Also a lack of adequate consideration of human rights is also apparent, an ironic omission occurring in the draft issued on UN Human Rights Day!
Despite major omissions, the Paris agreement demonstrates that global cooperation has the potential to steer us on to a safer path for both people and the planet.
[1] Persona report on Sunday, December 13th 2015
[2][2] John Vidal, Suzanne Goldenberg and Lenore Taylor, “A major leap for mankind; world leaders hail Paris deal on climate,” The Observer, December 13th 2015, page 1
[3] Ibid

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