The Paris Agreement: a year later

The Paris Agreement: a year later

Has the Paris Agreement been a success?

I recently went to UCL’s annual lancet commission for climate and global health, this year marking the launch of their 2030 countdown. In 2008, the Lancet, along with the support of 16 major institutions, set in motion a new initiative to provide a ‘rallying cry for action’ on climate change and subsequently its effects on global health. The 2030 countdown is planned to run in parallel with the UN’s strategy for climate action following the historic Paris agreement. The aim is to keep a firm spotlight on big businesses, organisations and governments in order to drive forward the action that was promised.

Previous lectures have seen a wealth of impressive speakers, including 3 Nobel laureates- and this year was no exception. The stage was taken by Christiana Figueres, the former Executive Secretary for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and a key architect in the record breaking Paris agreement at COP21.

Figueres recalls beginning her work with the UN at a tumultuous time. She began the same year that the COP15 conference was held in Copenhagen, a meeting that was seen as a major step back in the UN’s negotiations for climate change action. Many nations, fueled by isolationism and hostility against renewable investments, walked away from this meeting without making any binding commitments. For Figueres, this was the starting point from which she could reshape the way global superpowers viewed movement towards a clean future. If she could demonstrate that this action was in each nation’s own interest, and disprove the fallacy that investing in renewable energy was an economic handicap, then a diplomatic agreement could finally be established.

Why was Paris such a milestone?

The world’s eyes were focused on Paris to achieve what Copenhagen had ultimately failed to. By negotiating global targets, Paris set a baseline of action from which individual countries could form their own framework for change. As well as setting a 2°C limit on temperature rise, it put into place a stock take mechanism on a five year basis to ensure nations were keeping to promises made. Although significant, arguably the most important implication of the agreement was not these binding aspects. Paris had, for the first time, forged new a landscape in which nations were working toward a unified goal. This sent a strong message to international business and economies that if they could not adapt in innovative ways they would be left behind on the path towards decarbonised world.

How will this impact global health?

In the run up to Paris there was critical support from the health community, and the mobilisation of health organisations and professionals gave momentum to strive for an ambitious negotiation. Figueres emphasised the unquestionable links between global temperature rise and health- climate change is not often the sole cause of issues, but it definitely magnifies prevailing problems. Natural disasters, malnutrition, communicable diseases (the list goes on) are all on the rise, with inevitable devastating consequences. Only this month we saw such effects hit New Delhi. Huge smogs suffocated the capital where pollution levels exceeded World Health Organisation guidelines by 40 times! Air pollution alone is currently attributed to over 7 million deaths each year and there is no individual that will remain unaffected by threats to global health. It’s because of this universality that Christiana believes we can use health as a vector to bring the global issue of climate change to the forefront of public dialogue. Forget the big facts and figures about temperature rise and carbon emissions, the message is simple; a healthy planet breeds for healthy people, the benefits are unequivocal.

Was it a success?

With a year’s hindsight, we can begin to look back and review the triumphs, and failures of this agreement. Although 140 of the 190 countries that pledged action have ratified their goals, scepticism about the ‘bottom up’ nature of the deal have since plagued news reports. By allowing countries to set their own targets, there was always a risk that action may not be as forceful as necessary. Christiana answers this; Paris was not the solution to all our problems, but it was a much needed beginning.

And her answer to the huge, seemingly orange, elephant in the room? With the president elect of the world’s greatest superpower a self-proclaimed climate change denialist, how can we progress? Figueres responds to trump’s presidency with an anecdote; We are on a road away from the Paris agreement. The direction of travel towards a decarbonised world is set by science, economics and morality. 190 cars are travelling on this road and we mustn’t let ourselves be distracted if a single car stops and turns on its hazard lights. The movement is happening, with or without America’s hand in play and we have every reason to remain ambitious. Momentum comes from the ground up; Christiana singles us out as individuals. To progress down this road, we must continue to do three things:

  • Translate  information about climate change from an abstract idea to a tangible problem- in order to ensure global populations see this as a health crisis
  • Strengthen the evidence base and rigorously fight denialists
  • Hold our governments and leaders accountable for commitments made

If the Paris agreement has taught us anything, it is that big change births from small beginnings. There was a great sense of optimism leaving the lecture theatre as 700 people filed out, yet this feeling was somewhat tinged by the hypocrisy of UCL’s current stance on climate change. It is no secret that UCL continues to invest in the fossil fuel industry whilst publicly endorsing climate action, a point brought forward by a student when the floor was opened to questions.

As Figueres states, it is the responsibility of individuals to continue to push this movement, and this is what we should take home from the conference. As long as we continue to be tolerant of the contradictions our leading powers make, those who promise change but deliver nothing, we continue to be just another car at the side of the road. Students have unquestionable power as a collective force and we can harness this to hold UCL to account. We must make noise, however inconvenient. This is our fight and by maintaining pressure, it may be at next year’s lecture that the divestment of UCL from fossil fuels is finally announced.


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Katy Shearer