1.5 To Stay Alive: From Rhetoric to Reality, by Mariama Williams

Well, they’ve all packed up their laptops and gone home. The long-awaited UN Conference on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris is now over. But now the dust has started to settle a little after all the hustle and bustle and expected drama and excitement…how do developing countries assess the results? Initial reactions have been very mixed. Here is one perspective, from Senior Fellow and Senior Programme Officer, Global Governance for Development Programme at the South Centre Dr. Mariama Williams. Dr. Williams is a Jamaican and part of a team of Caribbean women that has been working extremely hard in Paris. Kudos to them all!

Dr. Mariama Williams speaking at COP16 in Mexico City, 2010.
Dr. Mariama Williams speaking at COP16 in Cancun, Mexico in 2010.

Caribbean governments and climate negotiators are happily celebrating that 1.5° C is in the text of the new agreement on climate change, the Paris Agreement, to be ratified next April and which would enter into force in 2020. It is good to celebrate this apparent victory and they should be allowed do so. But after that, let us do a reality check of what we really achieved in Paris. Let us move beyond the rhetoric of 1.5° C to stay alive to see the reality.

Reality check 1: There is no legal commitment to 1.5° C, it is an aspirational goal. The main commitment to long term goal remains the “well below 2° C” temperature guard rail adopted in Cancun 2010, which was re-affirmed in the Paris agreement.

Reality check 2: There is nothing in place in the agreement to set us on a trajectory to keep global average temperature limits to 2° C much less 1.5° C. Rather, the Paris agreement sets us on a trajectory for a 2.7° – 3.7° C warming world.

So is 1.5° simply a political rhetoric? Is it simply a soothing balm to our governments and negotiators, who have over the years, through a variety of strategic and tactical moves, let go of the only really legal quantified emissions reduction commitment, the Kyoto Protocol, and aggressively pushed with the EU for a new legally binding treaty or protocol?

Yes, we have that; but it is only a legal framework. Many of the important provisions that would help to move towards 2° C and ultimately 1.5° C, if still feasible at this juncture (but that is another story), either, are not in the agreement (there is no mandatory emissions reduction scheme or compliance/enforcement mechanism), or, are not legally enforceable (such as financial commitments). Ultimately, the Paris agreement is weaker than the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol. This is not unsurprisingly so. For it was never, ever, the goal of developed countries, such as the U.S., Canada and Japan, to go from a legally binding environment to something more binding and stronger.


The ultimate goal of the so-called Umbrella Group and Europe always was to escape from the legal obligations and commitments they made under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. These commitments include to provide finance and technology development transfer to developing countries for adaptation and mitigation actions and to implement, in their own national context, economy-wide emissions reductions so as to fulfil the objective of the Convention. Now they have seemingly achieved that goal and escaped their commitments. We have legitimised what civil society have termed a “pledge and review” system that has been part of the developed countries’ “great escape” playbook since, at least, the disastrous Copenhagen meeting of 2009. This is what Paris has enshrined upon us. And, expectedly there are some positive gains in the agreement that need to be further explored.

Yes, 1.5° would be ideal for protecting and safeguard lives, livelihoods and economies of island states like Jamaica, Tuvalu, Seychelles and St Lucia and even big countries’ cities such as Miami, New York and Shanghai. But we are not heading there. Undeniably, with growing global warming beyond our present .08° – 1°C state, the Caribbean, other island states and other particularly vulnerable countries face the threat of rising sea level, drought and the devastating impacts from more frequent and intense extreme events such as hurricanes, cyclones and tsunamis. For Caribbean countries such as Dominica and Grenada, there are the both the reality and future threats of lost Gross Domestic Product. Sea level rise threatens lives, our airports, hotels and other coastal industries.

But let us not pretend that having 1.5° C as an aspirational part of Paris Agreement will prevent any of this from happening. What is in the Paris agreement instead is setting us on a trajectory for, at least, a 3° C world and there is nothing in the accompanying decisions agreed at Paris that will change this trajectory.

There was no legally binding commitment on emissions reduction, not in the pre-2020 decision, nor in the Paris Agreement.

Jamaica's INDC can be found on the UNFCCC website at: http://www4.unfccc.int/submissions/INDC/Published%20Documents/Jamaica/1/Jamaica's%20INDC_2015-11-25.pdf
Jamaica’s INDC can be found on the UNFCCC website. Please find the link at the end of this article.

The so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (now Nationally Determined Contributions), yes reflect the universal participation of over 185 countries and yes cover much of the contribution to global warming. But as analyses by European and American think tanks and civil society organization (CSO) reviews show, the total potential impacts of the INDCs does not add up enough to make up for the emissions gaps that exist and which must be filled to keep us on the pathway to the 2° C guardrail.

Even worse, the period from now to 2020 is still governed by the arrangement of the inadequate Cancun pledges and the (as yet unimplemented) second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. The Doha Amendment agreed in 2012,which would put the second commitment period in action, has not yet been ratified by some of the very countries leading the so-called “high ambition” coalition that that coalesced around getting 1.5° C into the Paris Agreement, including the EU, Canada, and Australia. (The U.S. did not ratify the Protocol. Canada abandoned it and both the EU and Australia have made very weak commitments for the second period.) Yet these countries, whose pledges and actions are far away from leading us anywhere towards 2° C and definitely not 1.5° C, have been leading us like the children and the pied piper over the proverbial cliff.

It is clear that the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) of developing countries will not do the job – some of them are insignificant contributors to global warming – but more importantly, of the over 100 developing countries’ INDCs, about three-quarters of them are conditional on receiving international support such as finance. Most developing countries are willing to do more, with climate finance, as required under the Convention.

But does the Paris agreement provide that needed support? Not really. There is no quantified support mentioned anywhere in the text. Yes, developed countries have affirmed that they will continue their promise to a  “goal” of mobilising $100 billion per year by 2020 (from Copenhagen and Cancun) now extended to 2025. But as all negotiators know, accounting for and delivering of this climate finance flow has been a longstanding and on-going bone of contention. “Mobilising” means everything, including developing countries contributing, by taking on direct government debt, export credits, and loan guarantee to the private sector—international and domestic. The future meetings of the Conference of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement and the Conference of the Parties will witness numerous struggles in seeking to scale-up from the $100 billion post 2025.

Representatives at the Summit of the Group of 77 plus China, meeting in Santa Clara, Bolivia, on June 14, 2014.
Representatives at the Summit of the Group of 77 plus China, meeting in Santa Clara, Bolivia, on June 14, 2014.

Hence, we cannot rest on our laurels with a false self-sense of confidence. We need to re-gird our negotiations strategies to push solidly with other developing countries in the Group of 77 and China for ambitious mitigation targets from all the so-called champions of high ambition. Let them put actions to their words. Let them work now to build the process by ratcheting up their Kyoto and Cancun pledges and ratifying the Doha Amendment so that the second commitment period can come into force. This will compel the urgent actions needed from now to 2020, which scientists say are so crucial for setting the pathway to move us towards 2° C and the 1.5° C aspiration. Let these developed countries also work to improve their INDCs contribution in light of findings by a variety of assessments that show that, while developing countries are doing their fair share plus, many developed countries’, including the EU’s pledges do not go anywhere near approaching their fair share (based on historical responsibility for climate change and capability) of the global effort.

The governments and people of Jamaica and the region must begin now to prepare for addressing climate change by working closely with other developing countries to push for and to ensure the adequate and predictable flow of finance and technology that would allow us to build national and regional capacity to invest in the climate resilient infrastructure, build sea walls, shore up reefs, installing early warning system and provide evacuation facilities. Many of our countries, including Jamaica, like the Seychelles, as notes a recent Guardian article, “are already heavily in debt – and the costs of shoring up reefs as natural storm barriers, installing early storm warning systems and building evacuation shelters and sea walls would run into many billions.” Given this reality and the egregious concession made by small island states delegations (to the U.S.) to agree to exclusion language giving up the legal rights to compensation and liability arising from losses and damages due to climate change in the decision (linked to article 8 of the Paris Agreement), we will need all the support that is possible to deal with future climate impacts.

Jamaica’s Intended National Determined Contribution (INDC) – now NDC – is posted on the UNFCCC website at: http://www4.unfccc.int/submissions/INDC/Published%20Documents/Jamaica/1/Jamaica’s%20INDC_2015-11-25.pdf

A 2013 advertisement campaign funded under the Government of Jamaica/European Union (EU)/United Nations Environment Programme Climate Change Adaptation Disaster Risk Reduction Project, as part of its public education initiative. I hope Jamaicans are getting the message. (Photo: Gleaner)
A 2013 advertisement campaign funded under the Government of Jamaica/European Union (EU)/United Nations Environment Programme Climate Change Adaptation Disaster Risk Reduction Project, as part of its public education initiative. I hope Jamaicans are getting the message. (Photo: Gleaner)

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