The Paris deal doesn’t offer much comfort to those hit by climate change… yet

Tuesday, 15 December 2015 12:44 GMT

A boy holds onto a stair railing as he walks in floodwaters flowing from the swollen Bagmati River brought on by heavy rainfall in Kathmandu, Nepal August 17, 2015. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

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Have vulnerable countries allowed their ship to be sunk in exchange for a dodgy life jacket?

The Paris deal is being celebrated as a major political achievement. The celebrations were a little more muted for the millions of people who are affected by climate change. If Paris is to have any significance to their lives, we must keep telling our governments that we want them to do far more. 

ActionAid is a development organisation, working to empower women and girls, lift people out of poverty, challenge inequality and change lives for good. Unlike our green brethren, with whom we often join hands, we don’t talk much about fossil fuels or polar bears.

Nevertheless, we had a strong stake in the global climate negotiations in Paris. We were there because the farmers and communities we work with in countries from Brazil to Bangladesh are already feeling the impacts of climate change on their crops, homes and livelihoods.

Working on the ground with farmers, particularly women, who are struggling to cope with with rising sea levels, failing crops and destructive cyclones has shown us clearly that governments urgently need to invest in adaptation, so that they can help their citizens.

The problems that they are dealing with are increasingly complex, and governments need to make serious financial investments to be able to cope. For example, with rainfall patterns becoming ever-more unpredictable in many parts of the world, many countries need to update their outmoded weather forecasting technologies so that farmers can receive essential advice on when to plant and harvest their crops. Government outreach programmes need to train many thousands of extension workers on agro-ecological techniques that can help their crops to cope better with low rainfall. And many communities from Nepal to Senegal would benefit from the building of dykes to protect their low-lying fields from glacial floods or rising sea levels.

Thus in addition to strong climate action, dealing with climate change requires finance on a scale that poorer countries simply don’t have. It was our hope that in Paris, wealthier countries would embrace their responsibility to clean up after the decades of pollution they have caused, by scaling up their targets for climate finance.

And for those people for whom climate impacts are so severe that they can’t even adapt – for example the Bangladeshi farmers whose lands have disappeared permanently beneath the seas – what can the Paris deal do to help them address loss and damage?

Well, we got our answer in Paris on Saturday. And it was non-committal at best, and actively harmful at worst.

Two weeks earlier, the negotiations had started with stirring speeches from Heads of State. President Obama’s speech in particular hinted that the US was finally ready to recognise that vulnerable countries need a way to address loss and damage.

But the price the US extracted in return for their nod of recognition was far too high. The final deal, while recognising that loss and damage is an issue, explicitly prevents affected countries from ever seeking financial compensation to cope. Many were left wondering at the point of the exercise.

Although we did achieve some good wording on adaptation, developed countries’ refusal to back this with solid assurances of finance means that fine words may never become real action. In fact, all the financial commitments outlined in the Paris Agreement were quietly weakened in an accompanying document of decisions, with slippery language that countries only “intend” to continue towards their current finance goal.

Many more of the wins that have been celebrated in the Paris deal have actually been carefully undone in the small print. The notional target of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C, for example, is unrealistic without the rules and tools to make sure we don’t go over that target. There is much work to be done to ensure that mitigation action driven by the long-term goal on greenhouse gas emissions does not drive massive land grabs for bioenergy while allowing countries to continue polluting business-as-usual. In fact, under the Paris Agreement, historically polluting countries can pledge to do as little as they like, instead of being legally obliged to take action as they are currently under the Kyoto Protocol. With current climate pledges heading us on a path for nearly 3°C, they need to do far, far more.

In agreeing to minimal climate action in return for a weak deal on loss and damage, vulnerable countries have allowed their ship to be sunk in return for a dodgy life jacket. One can only imagine the behind-the-scenes pressure they must have faced to make such a deathly deal.

What this means is that the Paris deal gives little reassurance to the millions of people whose fragile existence is threatened by climate change. We are going to have to take those nods, those hints, those tiny hooks given in this deal and keep up the pressure on our governments to do so much more. When we say that Paris is only the beginning, we really do mean it.

Teresa Anderson is a policy officer on climate and resilience at ActionAid International.