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The Paris Project: COP21 concludes with historic climate treaty and a future full of questions

Ethan Stewart  /  December 18, 2015  /  10 Min Read  /  Activism


This is the second installment from our man on the ground in Paris for the UN Conference on Climate Change, Santa Barbara Independent Editor-at-Large, Ethan Stewart. Catch up with part 1 if you missed it. Above: founder, Bill McKibben (glasses and Red Sox hat), joins an impromptu protest in Le Bourget towards the end of the two-week climate conference. Photo: Kodiak Greenwood

Patagonia in Paris

One of the loudest and most critical messages to come out of Paris during the COP21 was that the international business world is finally getting on board with the benefits of putting Mother Earth before profit margins. As evidenced by testimony provided during countless side panels and spin-off talks between CEOs and various insiders and watchdog groups during the two-week conference, private industry has awoken to the bottom-line benefits of having smaller carbon footprints, planet-pleasing corporate policies and a brand identity that is markedly pro-Earth. Simply put, it is no longer just a moral compass that guides a company to a more eco-savy way of doing business, it is just plain and simple sound financial policy.

Arguably the biggest of these talks was a two-day affair hosted by the New York Times at the Potoki Hotel in Parisʼ financial district. Officially dubbed the Energy for Tomorrow Conference, this two-day, uber-swanky affair saw energy sector big wigs from around the world as well as Heads of State and business world players like Ikea CEO Peter Agnefjall and Patagoniaʼs own Rose Marcario discussing the topics at hand.

Marcario, traveling with Patagoniaʼs Vice President of Environmental Activism, Lisa Pike Sheehy, made the trip to Paris not only to talk at the New York Times event but also to participate in a meeting of the minds for 1% for the Planet and witness firsthand the developments at Le Bourget. After all, as Marcario put it while speaking with media after her NYT panel, “This is a really critical time. In my mind, this is pretty much it for us. If we donʼt come out of here with a deal, we are kind of hosed, to put it lightly.”

On stage at the Potoki, Marcario, who was paired with Ikeaʼs Agnefjall for a discussion about how companies can better steer their consumers toward more environmentally savvy decision making, painted an intimate picture of how Patagonia has been able do just that without sacrificing profits. Highlighting things like Worn Wear and The Footprint Chronicles and Patagoniaʼs self-imposed Earth Tax, Rose demonstrated how intimate and clear eco-minded messaging with a customer base now stimulates growth in this day and age of ever increasing consumer awareness. “In everything we do, we are trying to elevate the conversation about our environmental impacts,” explained Marcario. “There is a tension between profit and people and the environment and I feel businesses have to recognize that. We have a responsibility to future generations.”

From there, using the Black Friday “Donʼt Buy This Jacket” campaign as an example, the discussion turned to consumption and the seemingly backwards model of growing a business by reminding people of the effects of reckless consuming. “Donʼt buy more than you need,” said Rose. “Because, if you do, you are going to consume way more than the resources of our planet can bear.” More to the point, she added, this approach works better today than ever before. “I think people are more aware of what they are buying. They are buying into a value system.”

Duhigg, Marcario, Agnefjäll 2_2
Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario joined IKEA CEO Peter Agnefjäll on a COP21-approved panel entitled “The Consumer Pickle,” moderated by Charles Duhigg, Senior Editor for Conferences and Live Journalism at The New York Times. Photo courtesy of The New York Times

Patagonia in Paris: Vice President of Environmental Activism, Lisa Pike Sheehy; CEO, Rose Marcario; Director of Global PR & Communications, Adam Fetcher. Photo: Kodiak Greenwood

Video: The New York Times Conferences

The Paris Agreement

Sometime last Saturday night, the sky long since faded into dark, COP21 President and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius swung his gavel in a converted old airport hangar just a few minutes north of Paris and history was made. The fateful knocking kicked off a robust and jubilant round of applause throughout Plenary Room #1 at Le Bourget, Fabius’ negotiating team, dozens of U.N. officials, and several Foreign Ministers in attendance leaping to their feet in celebration of the freshly-minted Paris Agreement, the most significant and sweeping bit of earth-minded international legislation in the history of the world. Just moments later, in a passionate speech to the assembled delegates, French President François Hollande offered, to even more applause, “France has seen a lot of revolutions. But today, we have seen the most beautiful and most peaceful of revolutions.”

But what type of revolution do we actually have here? When Foreign Ministers and Secretaries of State from nearly 200 nations memorialized their hard-fought compromises with the ratification of the 39-page Paris Agreement, what was truly accomplished? Or, more to the point, is it enough? Will this treaty provide the framework for saving the natural world as we know it from the steady and certain degradation of our assorted fossil fuel addictions?

Unfortunately, as in all matters of such far reaching and multi-generational import, the simple answer is only time will tell. But, with such reductive forecasting set aside, there are definite takeaways from this treaty that can be digested in the here and now. Real and tangible things that, when taken in their proper context, warrant both hope-inspiring celebration and hand-wringing consternation—often at the same time. Like all good and proper compromises, the Paris Agreement leads the open-minded reader into a state of mental dissonance as it is full of both positives and pain.

COP21 President Laurent Fabius and team preside over late-night negotiations. Photo: Kodiak Greenwood

Activists hold hands during the “100% Renewable” action. Photo: Kodiak Greenwood

First off, and perhaps most importantly if you prefer the glass-is-half-full world view, is the indisputable fact that this accord marks a turning point in our modern history. For the first time ever, nearly every nation on the planet has pledged to cut carbon emissions in hopes of ushering in a fossil fuel free tomorrow sometime in the coming century. In and of itself, this promise is historic for a global population so plainly addicted to oil and gas and coal. More to the point, this overarching goal of the Agreement is embodied by a stated mandate of keeping global temperature rise, by the end of 2100, to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius with the added bonus of trying to “endeavor to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.” The latter target especially marks a major victory for many in the negotiating process as that is the number science widely supports as being the maximum post-Industrial Revolution temperature increase that our planet can withstand without setting off a potentially cataclysmic surge of sea level rise that would most likely swallow up entire low-lying island nations and ocean-front cities. There is additional language that promises a “carbon neutral” planet—i.e. the amount of emissions being produced on a global scale is no greater than the natural worldʼs ability to process them—by the middle of this century.

Secondly, the Agreement outlines a world order in which developed countries like the United States and those in the European Union are on the hook to help fund the worldʼs collective transition into a fossil fuel-free future. Further, the developing nations and those most impacted by climate chaos will receive financial support as they work to mitigate the damages of climate change, implement carbon reduction goals and adapt to a changing world. This funding, at least in part, will come through a $100 billion dollar per year Global Climate Fund that is staked to various degrees via contributions from nations big and small. Additionally, there is language in the text that clearly explains that this $100 billion annual fund is to be the “floor” for the Agreement’s ambition, not the “ceiling.”

Thirdly, the Paris Agreement mandates that individual national plans for how exactly each country will meet greenhouse gas reduction goals be reviewed on a five-year basis starting in 2018 as well as investigated for their accuracy and effectiveness in being achieved. When you take these three basic elements of the document into account it becomes hard to argue with the historical significance of it all, especially when set against the backdrop of a world that, not too long ago, refused to admit that climate change was even real. As United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon summed up Saturday evening, “For the first time in history, every country in the world has pledged to curb emissions, strengthen resilience, and join in the common cause to take climate action. What once was unthinkable has now become unstoppable.”

On the move from arc de triumph to Eiffel_2
The Red Line protest moves from Arc de Triomphe to the Eiffel Tower. Activists wore red to symbolize the red lines they didn’t want negotiators to cross. Photo: Kodiak Greenwood

15,000 strong. The French government banned public assembly at the beginning of the conference due to security concerns making this gathering all the more poignant. Photo: Kodiak Greenwood

Signs of the times. Photo: Kodiak Greenwood

Of course, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details and, in this case, those details, or lack thereof, are most devilish indeed. In fact, even as the final draft of the Paris Agreement was being digested and translated for potential approval on Saturday, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 climate justice activists took to the streets of Paris to express their concerns that the deal simply would not be enough. Chief among these is the fact that the individual greenhouse gas reduction plans presented by the 186 some odd countries as part of the lead-up to COP21 simply will not be able to achieve the temperature increase targets. Not even close said the assorted science folk crunching the numbers during the two-week conference. If all the pledges currently on the books are followed to the letter in the years ahead then global temperature rise would end up somewhere between 2.5 degrees Celsius and 3 degrees Celsius, a far and dangerous distance from the 1.5 degree hopes.

Additionally, the treaty is, by and large, not a legally binding one. At least not where it counts most. Many countries, especially the lesser developed ones and those from the European Union, had hoped that the specific above-mentioned national plans for carbon emission cuts would be legally enforceable and that there would be some real teeth to the deal that would force nations to comply with their promises in the years ahead or else face some stiff penalties However, thanks to a strong U.S.-led lobby against such language, no binding stipulation exists in relation to these promises and thus the fear remains that these pledges will never become a reality. It should be noted, though, that binding language does exist requiring countries to make the aforementioned reduction plans as well as provide detailed roadmaps for how exactly these cuts will be achieved. Nations simply wonʼt face any real punishment should they fail to deliver on these targets.

Red Line protest rolls down the Champs-Élysées. Photo: Kodiak Greenwood

At the Arc de Triomphe. Photo: Kodiak Greenwood

Now that an Agreement is in place, the real work begins. Photo: Kodiak Greenwood

Other less than ideal elements of the treaty include its failure to tackle the subject of shipping- and aviation-related emissions, no real language defining the specific terms of carbon capping, valuation and related future trading activity between countries, and a lack of specificity about how exactly funding will be provided for and dispersed to countries that need it as they work to phase out fossil fuels and/or adapt to a changing climate reality. To be clear, the Agreement requires that such funding be in place, ballparks that figure at $100 billion annually starting in 2020, and makes it clear that developed and historically high-volume polluting nations like the United States are more responsible for picking up the tab than other, lesser-developed and fiscally flush places like the Marshall Islands or Bangladesh. It just doesnʼt flesh out how exactly that process will happen. Instead, the agreement punts the decision on these details until the next COP in Morocco next November.

And so, when taking in concert both the positive and the negative side of the ledger, the Paris Agreement becomes something certainly worthy of celebration but equally demanding of measured realism. For the deal to truly have historic reverberations through generations to come, the nations that brokered the deal will have to trend toward the ambitious end of the language they helped craft rather than hide out in the soggy-noodle loopholes they created for themselves as part and parcel to the compromise process. The real work of this accord will have to happen on the national and local level if it is to achieve what it so clearly and passionately sets out to do in its preamble. As the European Unionʼs chief negotiator and climate commissioner Miguel Canete summed up Saturday night, “We must enjoy this historic moment. But the hard work has only just begun. What has been promised must now be delivered.”

Ethan Stewart (left) is Editor-at-Large for the Santa Barbara Independent. Catch him on Instagram at @thelast3daysKodiak Greenwood (right) is a photographer from Big Sur, California. Follow him on Instagram at @kodiakgreenwoodPhoto: Robin Howson

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