Paris Climate Summit: What happened, why it matters and the role Christians played
By Paul Cook. Well, the talks are finished, the venue is being packed down and 40,000 delegates, observers and journalists are on their way home, but what was achieved in the Paris climate change conference and why does it matter for the communities we work with?
The governments of the world met in France for the first two weeks of December to negotiate the Paris Agreement. For the first time in history every nation signed up to play their part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent dangerous levels of climate change. Tearfund has campaigned over many years on the issue in the run up to the conference and was there to lobby delegates and speak to the press.
Why it matters
For us climate change is a critical issue because, like other EU-CORD members, we see first-hand the impact it has on the millions of people living in poor communities across Africa, Asia and Latin America who are the most vulnerable to climate change and have done the least to cause it. I was privileged to be at the conference with Ramesh Babu, Director of Programmes for Tearfund partner EFICOR in India. As he says
We have 7,500 kilometres of coast line (including island territories) with 73 coastal districts and are therefore highly susceptible to rising sea levels. Some 16 per cent of our country, ten states, are in the Himalayas where climate change is causing landslides and glacial melt. In the last three years we have seen terrible floods in Uttarakhand, Cyclone Phailin devastate Orissa, flooding in Uttar Pradesh as a result of glacial melt, flooding in Kashmir and now the worst flooding in Chennai for 114 years where 280 people have died and nearly 70 per cent of the city is affected. At the same time there are 302 out of 676 districts declared officially in drought and we had unprecedented heat waves this year. Climate change is affecting us seriously, there is food insecurity, water stress, sinking livelihood opportunities, forcing people to leave their places and migrate. I have witnessed distress migration, human trafficking and farmer suicides from our communities where we are working. It is always the poorest who bear the brunt of such climate catastrophe.
But did the conference give the communities Ramesh works with anything to hope for?
What we got
Well, yes it did. Nations signed up to hold “the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees”. This doesn’t sound like much, but it is the critical level that the science indicates we need to stay below to prevent the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. Indeed there has been growing recognition that the science points towards limiting warming not to 2 but to 1.5 degrees. The Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of over 40 of the poorest countries who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, led the momentum in the Paris talks to see the limit strengthened from 2 to 1.5 degrees, a major victory.
In order to stay below 1.5 degrees, the Paris Agreement says we need to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”. Basically humans must stop emitting more greenhouse gas emissions than the planet can absorb naturally through rainforests, oceans, soils etc. This is not the clear commitment to shift to 100% clean energy by (not after) 2050 as Tearfund would have liked. Nevertheless, it means that for the first time ever the governments of the world have accepted that the safe level of emissions is effectively zero, and that the fossil fuel era is coming to an end to be replaced with 100% clean energy.
The Paris Agreement locks in and confirms the planned cuts to their emissions over the next few years that each country put on the table before they even arrived: their Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC). Together these will reduce global average temperature rise from a catastrophic 4 degrees to 2.7 degrees. This obviously isn’t enough given the level we need to stay below is 1.5 degrees, but it is finally a good start.
In order to close this remaining gap the Paris Agreement institutes a system whereby every five years the emissions cuts nations have planned can be reviewed and ratcheted up until we finally do get down to a level which will keep the world below 1.5 degrees. The first window of opportunity for this is in 2018. None of this will be easy, and each time will no doubt be a tough fight with millions of Christians and others around the world mobilising to put pressure on their governments to be more ambitious in their planned cuts. However, there is also strong grounds to hope that the clear signal the Paris Agreement has given and the implementation of the INDCs once begun will finally be a tipping point driving huge investment out of fossil fuels and into clean energy, accelerating the progress and enabling nations to move much faster than they currently think.
Developed countries reaffirmed their commitment to provide $100 billion a year in climate finance from 2020 to help poor countries transition their economies to clean energy and adapt to the impacts of climate change. This has now been extended up to 2025, from which point the international community will set a new goal for finance with $100 billion as a minimum “floor”. However, developed nations are currently still a very long way from doing this in reality and pressure will have to be kept up to ensure they truly deliver up to 2025 and continue to do their share beyond.
So the Paris Agreement is not perfect. It doesn’t give us everything we need to keep global average temperature rise below 1.5 degrees and provide all the financial support the poorest communities around the world need. However, it does give us a strong start we can build on and scale up in the years ahead until we do get there.
The challenge now for all the people of the world is to bring the Paris Agreement home and transform commitments on paper into actions in reality in every nation, and to scale up that ambition in the years ahead.
The role of Christians
The Paris Agreement was only possible because of the tremendous pressure and momentum for action that has built over the last few years. Businesses, world leaders, scientists, mayors and local authorities, ordinary people and not least faith groups all took action and spoke out. Christians and other people of faith have been a central part of that movement. Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’ on Care for our Common Home, the Prayer and Fast for the Climate movement which saw thousands of Christians around the world praying and fasting for a breakthrough at the negotiations and the Pilgrimage to Paris where hundreds walked and cycled to Paris from countries across Eurasia, are all examples of this. As the talks began millions of people, many of them Christians, took part in over 2000 climate marches across the world, 50,000 in London alone, the largest ever global mass mobilisation for climate action.
At the talks themselves senior church leaders from across the Christian traditions joined other faith leaders to call for action and the strong moral dimension of climate change to be recognised. The global evangelical Christian community was represented by Bishop Efraim Tendero, General Secretary of the World Evangelical Alliance, representing over 600 million evangelicals from 129 countries, who himself is from the Philippines, one of the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, where he has long worked first-hand with poor communities impacted by climate related disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the most powerful and devastating tropical storm to ever make landfall.
Christians and churches around the world have been central to this. They have prayed, fasted and spoken up for action on climate change. We must continue to work with ordinary Christians, churches and in coalition with organisations and individuals of all faiths and none to continue to bring pressure on governments to implement, rapidly build on and improve the Paris Agreement in the years ahead. Then the world truly can have a hope of staying below 1.5 degrees of warming. That really would be good news for the communities Ramesh works with.