Post Paris – where next?

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Paris no plan bIt’s a fraud really, a fake”. Veteran climate scientist James Hansen’s verdict on the Paris agreement. On one level, he is of course correct. The aspirational language on limiting warming to 1.5°C cannot make up for emission reduction pledges woefully short of what’s required, no legally binding framework of enforcement, and a long-term goal whose vagueness in definition and timing is such that it will do precious little to shape short-term action.

That said this is a messy and imperfect human process. There are numerous and powerful vested interests to be fought against. Getting so many nations to agree by consensus on anything is no mean feat. And a deal, however inadequate, is surely better than none. The question is, with so much more progress needed, where do we go from here?

A key goal now has to be popularising the vision of where we are headed. The 1.5°C goal is a stick of their making with which to beat governments and hold them to account. But we must ensure that “our vision” for limiting warming to 1.5°C – a rapid transition to a 100% clean energy system, a lower-carbon and more sustainable food system, and an increased protection and nurturing of natural ecosystems – gets into the popular consciousness as the direction of travel. We must emphasise the many co-benefits of this transition, from health, clean air, and better living environments, to good jobs, peace and security. And we must build broad coalitions working towards this shared vision.

Our vision must win out against an approach that will be pushed hard by mainstream forces and vested interests – one of political and economic business-as-usual and several more decades of substantial fossil fuel use. As the Tyndall Centre’s Kevin Anderson has powerfully highlighted (here & here), this insufficient response will be kept “compatible” with the 1.5°C goal by assuming the speculative future use of negative emissions technology – namely bioenergy with carbon capture and storage – on a colossal scale (think capturing and burying more than the world’s current total CO2 emissions from transport every year). This herculean task is to be dutifully carried out by the lucky inhabitants of Earth in the 21st century’s latter decades, as they also grapple with climate instability dwarfing that which we must deal with. This vision must be exposed as practically absurd, economically iniquitous, and morally bankrupt.

If we can genuinely popularise our vision – of a rapid transition beyond fossil fuels to a 100% clean energy future – as the direction of travel, it then becomes a matter of speed and urgency. The watchwords are creating momentum, overcoming inertia and triggering tipping-points as the system switches from one state to another. Each act, at every level, of detaching and divesting from the fossil-fuelled past and engaging with the zero carbon future, will have a role. As more and more people, communities, businesses, and even governments begin to shear away from the herd and head in a new direction this has the potential to create the dynamics in our human systems to deliver the rapid transition we need.

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Phil James, Zero Carbon Britain Researcher

  • Good article – thank you – but I feel much more emphasis has to be put on energy conservation and individual action. I meet so many environmentalist who feel powerless, who don’t realise the power they have as consumers. By switching to green energy suppliers, by personally divesting from fossil fuels, by buying organic and by positively investing in renewables and supporting charities such as Solar Aid, we can make a difference. Most of all, by cutting our own consumption and turning gadgets down/off. We will never reach our goals if we don’t cut consumption – ‘stuff’ is the biggest part of our carbon footprint as individuals, transport is second. Looking at gas investment is a good example of how weak demand can influence outcomes. Europe’s demand is declining and many major gas investments are on hold. We are at the heart of the world’s economy and we need to realise the power this gives us. Fossil fuel investors are looking for secure markets 20 years forward. Paris tells us that we cannot wait for government to act – we all must do whatever we can now.