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Mariama Williams: The Paris agreement: from rhetoric to reality

Published:Sunday | December 20, 2015 | 12:00 AMMariama Williams

The Caribbean governments and climate negotiators are happily celebrating that 1.5 degrees Celsius 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 degrees Celsius stay alive' to see what the reality.

Reality check 1: There is no legal commitment to 1.5 degrees Celsius; it is an aspirational goal. The main commitment remains the 'well below two degrees Celsius' temperature guard rail adopted in Cancun 2010, which was reaffirmed 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 degrees Celsius, much less 1.5 degrees Celsius. Rather, the Paris agreement sets us on a trajectory for a 2.7-3.7 degrees Celsius warming world.

So is 1.5 degrees 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 European Union 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 two degrees Celsius and ultimately 1.5 degrees Celsius, if still feasible at this juncture (but that is another story), either are not in the agreement 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 US, 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, economywide emissions reduction 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.

Yes, 1.5 degrees 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 degrees Celsius 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 Dominica and Grenada, there is the both the reality and future threats of lost gross domestic product. Sea level rise threatens lives, our airports, hotels and other coastal industries.

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. Yet these countries, whose pledges and actions are far away from leading us anywhere towards two degrees Celsius  and definitely not 1.5 degrees Celsius, have been leading us like the children and the pied piper over the proverbial cliff.

Hence, we cannot rest on our laurels. We need to regird 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.

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 climate-resilient infrastructure, build sea walls, shore up reefs, installing early warning system and provide evacuation facilities.

- Mariama Williams, PhD, is senior fellow, South Centre, Geneva, Switzerland. Email feedback to