Towards Paris 2015: the climate deal we need

10 November Nov 2015 1547 10 November 2015
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World leaders will gather in Paris this December for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which could mark the make or break for international efforts to curb global warming. But what is really at stake in Paris? Here is why a new international agreement on climate could be key to fighting inequality, bridging the gap between food insecurity and food waste and tackling the migration emergency

When delegates from nearly 200 countries gather in Paris this December for COP21, the 21st Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, people around the world will be watching for a deal to be struck to stem the flow of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It has been a long time since so many groups placed so much emphasis on a single meeting. Will there really be some kind of global showdown in Paris?

If there is, it will be about more than just reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and plugging in renewable energy. At stake are issues of equity and inequality, the future of food, and the trajectory of livelihoods everywhere in the century ahead. A potential climate deal is no less than an agreement over “the essentials of life on this planet,” in the words of Camilla Toulmin, outgoing director of the International Institute for Environment and Development.

Toulmin was one of many voices at the EFC General Assembly in Milan in May arguing that the ties between climate and life itself are no longer theoretical, but are pulling hard at the edges of global society. She was joined by Greenpeace Director Kumi Naidoo, who promised that a rising chorus “will push our political leaders and our business leaders to actually break the cognitive dissonance they’re suffering from, where they are in denial about how close we are to the cliff.”

The basic challenge in December will be to agree on a new climate deal that can keep temperature increases by the end of this century to below 2°C, hopefully averting more catastrophic effects. The figure of 2°C is a loose target of convenience that dates back decades, but for most commentators it represents the cliff of which Naidoo warns. (The world currently sits at around 0.8°C of warming.)

In 2009, countries tried to reach such an agreement in Copenhagen. Those negotiations ended in failure, recrimination and six years of hard work to rebuild the foundations of an effective convention. It is fervently hoped that the Paris conference will be the culmination of that fresh start and proof that a truly global solution is possible.

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Getty Images

Events leading up to Paris have not made the task look easy. Countries’ promised national climate plans have trickled in slowly so far, and lead-up meetings to refine the negotiating text have not been able to trim it down below 80 pages. But there is one significant difference from 2009: the near universal urgency of the feeling that something must be done.

The collapse of the Copenhagen conference came down to a deep split between developed and developing countries over the equity of responsibilities that each was asked to take on. Conventional wisdom held that developed countries pump out most of the greenhouse gases, while developing countries soak up most of the impacts. But as economies such as India, Brazil and China – now the world’s largest emitter – have taken off, that distinction has failed to hold. Many negotiators will arrive in Paris with the demand that all countries do their share.

However, a promise of US$100 billion a year from the international community to fund actions by poor countries has only produced $5.8 billion so far. This so-called Green Climate Fund could get off to a real start in Paris, or it could cede to yet another plan. For Naidoo, this is more than a side deal.

“Without significant increases in support for the people and nations most vulnerable to catastrophic climate change there will be no climate agreement in Paris,” he says. “At a minimum, the roadmap to achieving the $100 billion in support that was promised six years ago needs to be guaranteed.”

For decades, the politics of climate negotiation have been shaped and constrained by a logic of rich countries and poor countries, but the real story of climate change is about people, today and tomorrow.

“Fairness is an issue which covers all time spans and geographies and peoples,” says Liz Gallagher, who leads the Climate Diplomacy programme at Third Generation Environmentalism. And residents of rich countries are becoming less confident that they will ride out the storm.

Last year’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) advised that “climate change impacts are expected to exacerbate poverty in most developing countries and create new poverty pockets in countries with increasing inequality, in both developed and developing countries.” This was a warning that even rich countries could not ignore.

“People are starting to understand that climate change is an impact on future growth, not just an issue for the poorest in society now,” says Gallagher. “This doesn’t take focus away from the poorest, but helps amplify what’s happening to them in a new lens.”

This lens of inequality is growing in power. In 2015, the Ford Foundation became the largest donor yet to reorient its activities wholly towards the problem of inequality and its drivers. But how does climate change make the unequal more unequal? In a great many ways, as it turns out.

Extreme weather and drought batter poor households, which are often based in vulnerable places such as floodplains and make a living off the land or water. Facing these risks, poor households invest in safe assets, with little potential for a better future. Diseases such as malaria and diarrhoea proliferate, impairing the cognitive and physical development of the next generation. Increasing food prices, and an influx of new arrivals from the countryside, trap urban wage labourers in poverty. While higher income households can lobby authorities for better policies to protect them, the poor can seldom draw such attention. All the while, discrimination pushes certain groups – such as women, the young and old, ethnic minorities and the disabled – into even more exposed positions.

It is these billions of individual vulnerabilities that will keep the distinction between rich countries and poor countries alive, says economist Ingmar Schumacher.

“There is evidence showing that most rich countries have been growing, poor countries have been either getting poorer or stayed at a similar income level, while middle income countries have either converged into the rich or the poor group of countries,” he says. “Climate change, as it most strongly affects poorer countries, has the potential to make middle income countries converge into the poverty trap.” His research has also shown evidence that climate-related inequality is leading to migration, and he predicts roughly 12 million environmental migrants will leave their homes in sub-Saharan Africa every year by the end of this century.

The arena in which these socio-economic disasters play out more than in any other will be in the fields of the world’s farmers. Here, the effects of a changing climate will make themselves felt from all directions. In coastal and island regions, rising sea levels are snatching away agricultural land. Everywhere else, drought, heat, disappearing groundwater, floods, storms, insect attacks and disease outbreaks can all result from climate chaos.


The effects are already being recorded in major farming regions, such as Russia, where wheat yields have fallen 14 per cent, and China, where maize production has dropped by 7 per cent.

Warming temperatures will make some colder regions more suitable for farming, but for the planet as a whole there is not much good news, and researchers predict declines in yield for nearly every major crop. The effects are already being recorded in major farming regions, such as Russia, where wheat yields have fallen 14 per cent, and China, where maize production has dropped by 7 per cent.

A source of early optimism in climate science was the CO2 fertilisation effect: more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere makes many plants grow faster. Yet the hoped for world of supersized plants and lush harvests is fading as other climate impacts take their toll. Worryingly, recent studies are showing that crops grown in a high CO2 atmosphere build up diminished stores of protein, iron and zinc, even when fertiliser is applied, raising the possibility that tomorrow’s food could be less nutritious than today’s.

Malnutrition, hunger and food insecurity are what climate change feels like for many of the world’s people. Along with these comes the pain of spending more money on less food. In countries like Malawi, where the poor spend nearly 78 per cent of their income on food, price shocks are as devastating as a flash flood.

Global agricultural production grew 2.1 per cent per year in the last decade, but is expected to slow to 1.5 per cent in the next one. This will not feed the world. The solution could be to farm more land – but ploughing up more forests and grasslands will only diminish carbon stores and accelerate climate change even more. Real solutions must allow farmers to grow more food, sustainably, on the same land. This strategy, known as yield improvement, has prevailed since the 1960s, and without it total human carbon emissions would have been 34 per cent higher. It has to be sustained.

It is not enough to ask whether farmers can adapt: they already are. Farmers are growing different kinds of crops, changing planting dates, adopting more conservative water and soil management practices, sharing resources and accessing new information networks. The tools exist to keep food on the table. But all farmers need the resources to adopt and perfect these tools. For example, in developing countries only 10-20 per cent of landholders are women, even though more and more agricultural work is being done by women on other people’s land. If women had the same resource access as men, estimates suggest that they could increase their yields by 20-30 per cent and reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12-17 per cent.

As the connections between climate, equity and food security grow clearer, foundations are teaming up to address all three together. Fondation Charles Leopold Mayer is targeting this nexus while preparing to welcome partners to its native Paris in December. On food security, says Director Matthieu Calame: “We are supporting policy advocacy at the European level in order to obtain a sustainable food policy and not only an agricultural policy; sustainable local food systems implemented by municipalities; and participatory breeding as the best way to maintain and improve the resilience of agriculture.” Meanwhile, the foundation is pushing directly for an equitable climate deal in Paris. It co-founded the COP21 Funders Initiative to support civil society activities surrounding the event, and is planning a conference on food and climate change alongside the negotiations.

Another partnership making a difference at COP21 will be the International Politics and Policies Initiative (IPPI), created by the European Climate Foundation and other partners in 2013. “IPPI is focused on using the ‘Paris moment’ to increase the scale and pace of change,” says Jennifer Morgan of the World Resource Institute. “We have focused particularly on ensuring that Southern voices are well represented.” After the conference, “there will be an immediate need to maintain the momentum to keep governments and non-state actors engaged and ensure that they honour and follow up on their commitments,” says Morgan. “Civil society has a very important role to play here.” Commitment, more than hope, is the favoured outlook for the coming talks.

“Of course, everybody in Paris has in mind the 2009 Copenhagen failure,” says Calame. “Hence it might be wiser not to put all our hopes, energies – and money – in the intergovernmental negotiations. Other stakeholders are worth watching and supporting.” Calame has as much faith in networks of local authorities and civil society groups, which are gaining huge momentum. “COP21 could be a tipping point for a climate justice trans-local movement,” he predicts.

Paris, then, is not going to be the end of the search for equitable answers to climate change – but it might be a real beginning. Kumi Naidoo stresses that non-government actors have led every step of the way.

“Civil society and foundations have played a central role in opposing dirty energy and building momentum for the shift to clean energy. Likewise in the fight against deforestation,” he says. “European foundations, I believe, have a particular moral responsibility to show moral courage at this moment and recognise that what is needed now is not simply the question of system maintenance, system protection and system recovery... what is needed is system innovation, system redesign and system transformation.”

This will be true long after 2015 goes into the history books. In Camilla Toulmin’s words to the EFC General Assembly: “When we wake up on January 1, 2016, there will be plenty to keep us busy, including dealing with all the climate impacts already built into the atmosphere.” Success in Paris will be by degrees – but for climate impacts, every degree matters.

“I am confident that we can achieve a deal on climate in Paris in December,” said Toulmin. “It won’t be as good as it needs to be ... but we need that deal.”

This article was originally published in Effect the magazine of the European Foundation Centre.