World leaders have been gathered in Paris from 1st-12th December to construct a global agreement on climate change. There has been a long build up to this, and much expectation. On December the 12th, the Paris agreement was officially adopted.
So what's in the agreement?
A few highlights...
The agreement aims to pursue emission reductions from 2020 that would be in line with limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. Civil society groups have been campaigning hard to get 1.5 degrees in the text. For many countries, such as the Marshall Islands in the Pacific and Bangladesh, any rise above 1.5 degrees could see their communities completely submerged by sea level rise. However, the text falls desperately short of recognising and revering the lives of these communities considering the lack of mechanism or strategy to achieve a target well below 2 degrees. Countries have only committed to voluntary declarations of carbon emission reductions outlined in their INDCs (individual countries plans for decarbonisation). Considering the commitments of the INDC’s add up to a 2.7-3.5 degree of warming, this is really not good enough. James Henson, the famous NASA scientist, who has been deemed as an important kickstarter of the UN climate negotiations, said “It’s just b******t for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises.” This is based on the method in which these emission reductions are set to be monitored, through “facilitative, non-intrusive and non-punitive” follow up every 5 years from 2023. Considering the immense lobbying power of the fossil fuel industry, and the world organisations that are profiting from fossil fuel infrastructure over renewables, the incentive to decarbonise based on voluntary commitments is slim.
“As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.” continues James Henson.
It also states the responsibility of richer nations to help the world's poorest nations to adapt to the effects of climate change and leapfrog unhealthy fossil fuel development, towards sustainable clean renewable alternatives. This is in the form of $100 billion pledged each year by 2020. However, this is an arbitrary figure, and the specification of where this money is to go is left vague. That means that it could go towards making coal powered plants more “efficient” and “green” as much as it could go towards funding community owned renewable energy. This puts us in conflict yet again with the fossil fuel lobby who will do everything they can to try and persuade us that fossil fuels are good for us (remember this attempt to undermine the divestment campaign?)
...So the outcome of the Paris climate agreement may seem bleak in terms of achieving the level and pace of decarbonisation needed to prevent climate chaos, however in the words of Jess Worth and Danny Chivers, from the New Internationalist, “To say that this is a bad deal is not giving in to despair. It is opening the door to a different kind of hope ... We need to take our dreams away from politicians and invest them in ourselves. Through our own actions, we can make fossil fuels politically, economically, physically impossible to extract.”
What have the health community been up to?
The health community had a much more prominent platform at COP21 then they ever have, with the genesis of the Global Climate and Health Alliance, working alongside the WHO, IFMSA, HEAL, and others creating significant avenues for the health community to take action and provide essential mitigation and adaptation strategies that will also provide solutions to current public health crisis.
The 5th December saw an alliance representing 1700 health organisations, 8200 hospitals and health facilities and 13 million health professionals bringing a global medical consensus to action on climate change.
“Climate change, and all of its dire consequences for health, should be at centre-stage, right now, whenever talk turns to the future of human civilizations. After all, that’s what’s at stake.” Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General, World Health Organization
They gave the damning evidence that failure to act on climate change would lead to a reversal of the last 50 years of gains in public health. This outlines the importance of the health community to be at the forefront of climate resilience, adaptation and mitigation, as well as taking the lead in ensuring health systems are able to withstand the impacts of climate change. There was also an event put together in coalition with the Lancet, The Rockefeller foundation and Wellcome Trust which gave an overview of “Healthy Lives on a Healthy Planet” and saw the presentation of a wealth of research that provides a substantial platform to build stronger and effective policy on climate change and health. It is clear that we need to be taking the lead on the benefits of kicking our societal addiction to fossil fuels and recreating an economic, social and political system that provides the health benefits we so urgently need.
There was also significant success in bringing air pollution to the forefront of climate mitigation strategies. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) – a partnership of governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other organizations managed to accelerate action to reduce short lived climate pollutants (SLCPs). SLCP’s, which include greenhouse gas methane and particles from combustion called black carbon or PM2.3 (particulate matter smaller than 2.4 micrometers) are important for reducing air pollution and climate change. An increase in these pollutants have been significant in the rise in smog, most visibly seen in parts of China where a red alert was issued in Beijing last week. Thus, putting air pollution at the forefront of climate action is an important step.
“As doctors, it is our role to protect health by drawing political leaders’ attention to the impacts of climate change and to promote health by advocating for local solutions such as cycle-friendly cities and clean, renewable energy. Millions of physicians around the world demand that the global community leave Paris with a strong agreement that protects global health.” Dr Xavier Deau, Immediate Past President, World Medical Association
The red lines that cannot be crossed
The work of the health community at COP21 only signals the beginning, with the challenge now being to turn these declarations into action, and creating tangible and visible climate and health action in our communities. So whilst politicians from these 195 countries tried to sort out a deal inside the walls of the summit, it was the people outside of the two-week long summit, in the streets of Paris, who were the loudest voices. 'D12', held on the 12th of December, the final day of COP21, Healthy Planet joined Medact, the Global Climate and Health and Climate Alliance and more than 15,000 people from across the world in gathering between l'arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower to represent the voice of the communities most affected by our changing climate.
The tragic terrorist attacks which occurred near Place de la Republique in Paris last week meant the French government had understandably declared a state of emergency in Paris. However, COP has never just been about what goes on inside the conference, and due to the lack of accessibility of civil society and the global climate movement to make their voices heard inside the conference, millions had intended to take to the streets during the last day of talks. This seemed even more pertinent after the terrorist attacks, given the interconnections of climate change with conflict, migration and the need to build a future away from oil driven war and towards climate justice. Many see the the new climate deal as an essential step in peace-building, and thus the demonstration on Saturday were finally approved by the government to go ahead. Although the original more radical plans for civil disobedience were overted, we still joined over 15,000 people on the streets in an act of defiance and a signal for system change not climate change, holding up long red banners symbolising the red lines that COP’s inaction on climate change had already crossed.
We also attended an action led by indigenous peoples as part of the Indigenous Environmental Network who held a healing ceremony in the morning, lifting up the voices of their communities - whose bodies are already red lines that have been crossed. Every time someone gets displaced, is poisoned near an extraction site, loses access to their land and water, has fracking imposed on their community, and experiences the dismissal of Indigenous voices and struggles, our Red Lines are crossed. For many keeping fossil fuels in the ground is a decision of life and death.“It's worth pausing to know this: we do negotiate the right of entire countries to exist” says Naomi Klein, environmental journalist and author.
So where next?
The science is clear that if we have any chance of staying below 2 degrees we need to leave 80-90% of current fossil fuels held in fossil fuel companies reserves underground. However,‘Fossil fuels’, ‘oil’, ‘gas’ or ‘coal’ are not even mentioned in the agreement. All countries have to do is be transparent about their country's actions in reducing emissions - it really is now up to us to organise, mobilise and take action to keep fossil fuels in the ground!
2016 holds many exciting plans for Healthy Planet and our allies in the climate and health movement. Starting with Go Green Week from the 8th-13th February, where Healthy Planet will be working with fossil free groups from around the UK to draw our red lines - calling out health institutions ties with the fossil fuel industry and the health impact this has on communities around the world, and on their doorstep. To start preparing download an action pack here. This will then lead into a weekend of community building, skill sharing and strategizing at the Healthy Planet training weekend taking place in the Peak District on 5-6th March. Join the event page for more details here. We will be continuing to pressurise health institutions to take the lead with divestment, as well as building resilience and mitigation strategies for decarbonisation in our communities, ensuring that health is at the heart of climate action and used as a motivator for a just transition towards a fossil free future.
“Time will reveal the true nature of the Paris Agreement. From epic turning point, to naïve expression of hope, it is the real-world actions that follow that will decide,” said Professor Chris Rapley, a leading climate scientist from University College London.