February 2016

Building up the Paris momentum for climate action

Last year’s much-anticipated UN Climate Change Conference in Paris did not deliver all that was needed. It did not even deliver all that was hoped for, but it did deliver more than most expected, says Jill Finnane.

BY Jill Finnane

Paris, late Friday afternoon, December 11, 2015, at the UN Climate Conference, negotiators were hammering out the final details of the climate change agreement. I followed a crowd of journalists into a hastily convened media conference in one of the large media halls. Tony de Brum, the Marshall Islands’ Foreign Minister and key negotiator, had called the conference for a group he had secretly convened six months earlier, the “Coalition for Ambition”.

There was standing room only as de Brum marched down the side aisle and up onto the stage followed by a lineup of important looking people. Different from the usual media conference where three or four would sit at the table, there were seven sitting and more standing behind.

“We are the Coalition for Ambition,” de Brum declared, “and we want you to know that we will keep negotiating until there is ambition in the Paris Agreement”. Mexico, he then announced to great cheering, had just decided to join.

“We want strong recognition of the below 1.5-degree temperature goal, a clear pathway for a low-carbon future, five-yearly updates and a strong package of support for developing countries, including delivery of $100 billion per annum,” he said.

China and India were welcome he said, but only if they brought ambition with them. Later, after the conference, he made a similar comment about Australia.

Someone asked him, “Why hasn’t the European Union joined?” Up rose the European Union President from the end of the table. “We have!” she said.

I learnt later this coalition aims to connect voices, big and small, rich and poor for forging a joint effort to fight together on climate change. It recognises that when it comes to action on climate change we have to be all in it together and that it is a long-term struggle.

I was registered to attend COP21 as part of the Pacific Calling Partnership’s (PCP) delegation which had brought together people from a big polluting nation – Phil Glendenning and myself from Australia – with people from two climate vulnerable Pacific atoll nations – Maina Talia and Pulafagu Toafa from Tuvalu, and Tinaai Teaua, Rae Bainteiti and Maria Tiimon Chi-Fang representing Kiribati.

We aimed to strengthen the presence of the Island governments by engaging with the media, networking with Australian and other delegations, and taking part in side events (forums for exploration and discussion alongside the formal negotiations).

Bitter experience had taught the Pacific Islands, and PCP, the need to be clear-eyed and strategic. Back in 2009, with hopes high, I attended my first UN climate conference in Copenhagen as part of a similar PCP delegation, led by Good Samaritan Sister Geraldine Kearney. Pacific Island leaders there were confident of the outcome, as powerful nations had promised them that they would not be forgotten. Their hopes were dashed when donor nations pressured them to go quiet and the weak Copenhagen Accord was all that resulted.

Subsequent COPs have built on the Copenhagen accord but have still been disappointing in their refusal to deliver the kind of agreement needed. This time the Pacific Islands were prepared to play hard at the negotiating table, in their lead-up networking and in their use of the media and side event opportunities to help get a satisfactory agreement and build up momentum for more action. So the “Coalition for Ambition” was just one of many examples of shrewd, targeted strategies that the Pacific Islands took to the Paris COP.

In 2014, Kiribati President Anote Tong had persuaded atoll nations to come together to form a coalition – the “Coalition of Atoll Nations for Climate Change” (CANCC). It was publicly active throughout the conference, pushing home the urgent messages they were bringing from their own people and demanding that they be able to return home with hope for the future of their children and grandchildren. Tong himself, having been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his outstanding leadership, was looked to by negotiators and media alike.

In describing the final Paris Agreement, Pacific Island leaders used hopeful phrases like “a major achievement”, “very, very significant”, “an acknowledgement of the special circumstances of vulnerable countries”, “best we could have hoped for”, “paved a way for us to move forward”, and more sobering ones like “the real work starts now”, “sets the bottom line and a basis for the future”.

The Paris Agreement will put international pressure on nations like Australia to increase its pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to seriously translate them into concrete actions, to contribute more to climate finance and to phase out coal mining.

But the UN Conference wasn’t only about the agreement. What we experienced alongside it was what I would call the “Paris Momentum for Action”. I saw no sign of climate deniers. The science was not in question, just numerous discussions about all the possible ways forward. Big and small NGOs, businesses, international agencies, governments and people from many, many nations were talking and planning creatively and strategically.

I also saw movement on concerns important to vulnerable nations. They first raised “loss and damage”, for example, a few years ago only to find that countries like Australia urged them not to waste their time and assured them there was no way it would ever be recognised. In the Paris Accord, “loss and damage” received a stand-alone mention and it was the subject of many serious discussions, negotiations and side events.

The Paris Climate Conference did not deliver all that was needed. It did not even deliver all that was hoped for, but it did deliver more than most expected. This was in no small part due to the determined, clever leadership from tiny, low-lying and far-flung atoll nations who were fighting for their very existence. Now it remains to us to help them ensure there is follow through in building up the momentum needed.

As Pope Francis said in Laudato Si, to do that we first need to attend to our own spiritual growth in whatever way works for us. That will give us the inspiration to make the personal life changes we know we need to make. Neither prayer nor individual action is enough though! We also need to use our powers of persuasion, of letter-writing, of influence and of lobbying. And we need to take opportunities to join with others who are leading the way in building up the “Paris Momentum for Climate Action”.

Download a summary report prepared by the Pacific Calling Partnership delegation.

Jill Finnane

Jill Finnane works at the Edmund Rice Centre where she co-ordinates the Pacific Calling Partnership which aims to build networks working in partnership with Pacific Island countries to help them raise awareness about the impacts of climate change and build coalitions for advocacy and action nationally and internationally. She has been part of delegations to the UN Climate Change Conferences in Copenhagen and Cancun, and to the Small Islands Developing States Conference in Samoa in 2014.

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