Ryan Mearns: Opinion: 'To Paris with Hope'

This post originally appeared at the NZ Herald in Element Magazine.

Environmental advocate Ryan Mearns is currently on the ground for the UN climate talks in Paris, and suggests there's a sense of optimism around them - hope for real progress.

One year ago not many people would claim to be hopeful about the world's capacity to address climate change. This would be justified looking back at successive Governments around the world failing to take any decisive action to reduce their carbon emissions. But that’s exactly how I feel heading towards Paris for the 21st conference of the parties on climate change. It’s not a blind hope in the capacity of mankind to avert one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century, but it is a hope built on the changes we are seeing in the political and economic reality of the world's approach to climate change.

In a year we've seen the social license of climate polluting industries slowly withering away. This has come off the back of major global climate wins. Oil companies have pulled out of the arctic. The movement to stop keystone XL has won. One of the worst prime ministers on climate change has been voted out out of office. On top of all of this there was the US deal with China where they committed to a reduction target and committed to peaking their emissions respectively. As the leaders of Governments, businesses and civil society descend on Paris, this will hopefully be playing strongly on their minds as the negotiations creep closer to some sort of Paris Agreement.

Over the past year, while wins are being made and the story is changing, the narrative might just be out of step with where a likely Paris Agreement will land. As one New Zealand negotiator explained when addressing a question from Sir Bob Harvey at the recent briefing on the climate negotiations to stakeholder groups in Auckland there was concern the political narrative isn't in line with the reality of the draft agreement. The meeting in Bonn, Germany where the negotiators from each country meet to discuss and refine the agreement saw the document nearly double in size. In the United Nations process brackets are used in the text to indicate when agreement has not been reached on a specific issue. In typical fashion the whole document is bracketed with a huge amount to be settled. This simply reiterates the notion that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

Significant progress has been made on the deal though as parties go to Paris. Over the year countries have been required to submit Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC’s). In plain speak, this is the target a country says it will reduce its emissions by. New Zealand has tabled a climate target to reduce its emissions 11% by 2030 based off a 1990 base year. This is considered to not be a very ambitious target with NGO’s and the public pushing for a target of 40% by 2030. Other countries have tabled much stronger commitments.

As Kelly Levin from the World Resources Institute points out; “collectively studies make it clear that the INDCs make a substantial contribution to bending the global emissions trajectory below our current path. However, the studies also show that without additional action, the INDCs are insufficient to limit warming to below 2°C and avoid some of the worst climate impacts”. The studies show the world would be on track to a 2.7-3.7 degrees C of warming. This means our pacific neighbors will be under water and tipping points hit. This leaves a large question looming over the negotiations surrounding whether or not there is any sort of ratcheting up mechanism for country’s climate targets when they are reviewed over the next 10 years to limit warming to below 2 degrees.

The foundations for a climate deal are likely in Paris but huge questions remain as big players have differing views of how legally binding the agreement will be, the type of long term goal countries should be aiming for such as decarbonisation or zero emissions, and how adaptation and loss and damage will be financed. In the grand scheme of the agreement no one will be looking at these details though, and the only mark of success for global leaders will be that an agreement is reached.

It’s this commitment that gives me hope that Paris will be a major stepping stone towards addressing climate change. But to voice 350.org founder Bill Mckibben the story is ‘the road through Paris’, not ‘the road to Paris’. This agreement will need to be seen as a step in the right direction, but real climate action will be taken in individual countries, so any commitments need to be translated into plans for reducing fossil fuel use and increasing renewable energy.

This is especially relevant for New Zealand which currently doesn’t have any sort of plan to meet its climate targets. It’s not New Zealand’s role in the negotiations that give me hope though, it’s the tens of thousands of people around the world marching in the People’s Climate March. They are the ones that will continue the momentum of this climate agreement going into Paris and for the years to come. They are the ones that will continue to change the political and economic reality of the world's approach to climate change and address this problem.

Ryan Mearns is a Campaign Director for ActionStation, a member of Generation Zero and is a delegate at Paris during the negotiations with the Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute. You can follow him during the negotiations: @ryanmearns.


All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.

Posted on November 30, 2015 and filed under UN Climate Talks 2015, Institute Updates.