Dr. Tomaso Ferrando
This is the second post of the online symposium on the Paris Climate Agreement co-hosted by Law and Global Justice at Durham and Human Rights in Ireland. The first contribution by Julia Dehm can be found here: http://humanrights.ie/economic-rights/reflections-on-climate-action-in-the-aftermath-of-paris/ .
December 12, 2015 will be remembered as the date when the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the Agreement) was adopted. However, the fact of identifying the Agreement with one date and of attributing it to one specific city are processes of intellectual simplification that overlook two of the most relevant aspects of COP21. On the one side, they divert the attention both from the ten days of diplomacy and blackmails that preceded the final euphoria and from the months of corporate and civil society lobbying governments on the draft text. On the other side, the idea of the Paris Agreement hides the territorial fragmentation of what could be called the Climate Change Complex (CCC) into multiple spaces across the metropolitan area, spanning from the entrenched pavilion of the negotiations to the open air gatherings that occurred in the streets and squares of the French capital.
Among the most interesting pieces of this multi-territorial complex there was the “Espaces Generation Climat” (Climate Generation Areas -CGA), a 27,000m² collection of conference rooms, exhibitions areas, restaurants and relax areas that the UN erected in the immediate proximity to the United Nations conference center in Le Bourget. In the words of the UN, the CGA represented the first institutionalized attempt in the history of climate conference organization to provide an area for public gatherings, discussions and education.1 Moreover, its program and content were defined taking into consideration the comments and requests advanced by the 117 organizations that responded to a public consultation launched by the UN General Secretariat in December 2014 and closed on January 2015. Finally, the CGA was widely publicized as “an international space for debates and exchanges linked to the ecological transition on the one hand and the discovery of solutions to address climate disruptions, provided by civil society, on the other.”2
This short comment is a reaction to my experience in the CGA and to my perceiving it as a moment of false inclusion that, like the final agreement concluded in Paris, noticed the existence of alternative paradigms but was fully embedded in and constructed around the reproduction of the dominant rhetoric about climate change.
A space (nominally) open to all
“Since they investigate the commitment of all generations,” it was claimed by the presentation of the CGA, “these areas will be the part of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference site that is open to all. They seek to encourage debate on solutions to climate change.”3 However, anyone who tried to reach the venue would have immediately noticed the “open to all” slogan being inaccurate.
First of all, it appears paradoxical to consider the space as “open to all” interested in discussing climate change, if this space is located in the heart of the Global North, thousands of kilometers away from most of the people who are engage in a daily fight against climate change and whose participation would have been – to say the least – essential. And this is also true for the whole negotiations. I am sure the whole process would have looked very different, if the COP had been organized on the Kiribati Island, in Darfur or Chennai. Moreover, it is even harder to define ‘open’ a pavilion that was built within a closed and patrolled gated area, secured by fully geared military police and with x-ray and access gates controlled by airport security.4
Secondly, even those privileged ones who had the opportunity to be in Paris would have questioned openness and accessibility of the space, in particular if they did not have a car (and you would not believe how many people drove a car to reach a climate change forum) and had to spend more than one hour to reach the city of Le Bourget. As a consequence, the gas-alimented shuttle buses from the metro to the conference center (in some cases a hybrid bus in some cases not even so) were mainly filled with European and American climate change habitués, that is representatives of corporations and NGOs, journalists and a small niche of interested individuals who had the time and money to attend the events.
Finally, it would have been hard to meet inside the CGA the most committed environmental activists. In the days before the COP, in fact, the extension of the state of emergency and the assimilation of some environmental movements to terrorist groups – at least in the way in which the police acted and the authority that it retained – had led to the issuance of numerous measures that reduced the freedom of movement of those individuals who had been most involved in the organization of grass-roots movements and bottom-up realities in Paris and surroundings.5
However, the most troublesome problem with the CGA as a first historical attempt to open climate negotiations to the community was not represented by its being geographically and logistically distant from the most affected and the local citizenship. What was really interesting – as I discuss in the next section- was to see how the form and content of the “space for international debates and exchanges” reflected the final agreement in its being almost entirely co-opted by the interests of capital and powerful states, funded on the paradigm of technological solution and carbon sequestration, and open to some expressions of alternative visions only to the extent they did not exaggerate and could be easily silenced.
Islands of diversity in a sea of “business as usual”
Since its adoption, the ‘Paris’ agreement has been the object of several critiques. People living on the islands and coasts that are mostly affected by climate change, indigenous communities who are in the at the forefront of climate devastation, and progressive civil society have underlined the non-binding nature of the text, the insufficiency of the intended nationally determined contributions, its pro-corporate orientation and its blind commitment to the false solutions of carbon trading and technological innovation. According to them, negotiators should have been more ambitious, respond to the needs of the most marginalized and vulnerable people, tackle the systemic roots of climate change and introduce a new global paradigm based on the needs of people (rather than those of countries) and on the idea of climate justice.
However, the shortcomings of the agreement should not come as a surprise. It would have been enough to spend few hours inside the Espaces Generation Climat and to skim through the almost three-hundred conferences and the names of their organizers to understand that the UN Climate Change Complex was not structured around the needs of the weakest and most affected. In particular, the way in which the public space of the CGA was organized and its intellectual content clearly revealed that the objective was to utilize the rhetoric of inclusion to legitimize the reproduction of the status quo. Some islands of paradigmatic diversity were allowed, but they were surrounded by a sea of intellectual homogeneity and market-based trajectories.
“Climate justice” appeared in the title of four conferences; the role of workers and just transition were discussed in five panels; two panels touched upon the link between meat production and greenhouse gases; indigenous people could be spot walking across the alleys in their traditional dresses and had two permanent gazebos; moreover, some NGOs organized pro-people and anti-corporate interests protests almost every day in ways that were visible to the press but never disruptive of whole Climate Change Complex. Around these few pockets of alternative, the ten days of CGA were occupied by the vision of transnational corporate groups (like Veolia and Suez talking about the future of water), the privatizing dreams of the International Chamber of Commerce (engaging with ’emerging solutions to drive private investments in climate resilience’), and the homogenizing vision of corporate social responsibility (Rainforest Alliance, Global Compact, and Marine Stewardship Council), reforestation, carbon sequestration, green growth and financialization of the environment (EcoVadis, OroVerde, Climate Economics, Proyecto GuateCarbon, Brazilian Institute of Research and Carbon Management, Carbon Tracker Initiative).
As if this was a “climate change fair”, hostesses and stewards welcomed the visitors with fliers, articles on sale and gadgets, including a corporate-branded notebook made with 91% renewable paper (i.e. 9% not renewable and who knows how energy-intensive), the Paris COP21 Michelin guide (where the tires producer underlines the link between mobility and human development and indicates a €36 euro meal a good value opportunity) and bars of “The change chocolate”, a “sweet reminder to support Climate Neutral Now and the biggest afforestation project ever” (as climate change had nothing to do with worldwide shipping and value chains – including of cocoa -, reforestation was not infringing upon the rights of local communities, and planting trees was by its nature a good action). And for those who felt a little hungry or thirsty (but not environmentally concerned) non-certified and non-geographically identified meat-based meals were available in the Place de La Republique restaurant or at the hamburgers truck, together with Coca Cola cans and bottled water. A little worried about the negative implications of livestock production and commodified water, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo would be there to get rid of your guilty feelings, while you eat fish and chips right next to a stand that is denouncing the depletion of seas and of marine resources,6 and it would only cost you one Euro to borrow a COP21 cup and drink from the few public fountains disseminated in the pavilion. “The first institutionalized attempt in the history of climate conference organization to provide an area for public gatherings, discussions and education” was, therefore, an attempt to impose and legitimize the same paradigmatic framework that would characterize the final agreement.
Reading the 131 pages of the draft decision, preamble and text adopted by the COP21, the term climate justice is mentioned only once, and towards the end of the preamble. There, the 196 countries agreed to notice “the importance for some of the concept of “climate justice.”7 A couple of paragraphs later, the preamble concludes with the recognition “that sustainable lifestyles and sustainable patterns of consumption and production, with developed country Parties taking the lead, play an important role in addressing climate change.”8
The negotiators that concluded the “world’s greatest diplomatic success” – according to The Guardian-9 acknowledged the anti-redistributive implications of climate change, the intrinsic connection between global capitalism and global warming and the need for a radical change of the worldwide economic structure, but considered them irrelevant in defining the way forward. Similarly, the ‘open to all’ space of the CGA recognized the existence of promoters and supporters of climate justice and alternative visions, but embedded them in a context that was based on opposite premises and objectives. Dissent and alternative visions were not ignored, but noticed and absorbed, both in the text adopted by 196 countries and in the space provided for public engagement with the roots and solutions for climate change.
However, the lack of ambition and the impasse that characterized both the COP21 and the Espaces Generation Climat were transformed into energy and motivation by the thousands of people who crowded the streets and squares of Paris. In particular on December 12th, the day when the agreement was concluded, peasants, indigenous communities, anti-colonial movements, large NGOs and common citizens defied the state of emergency to manifest their dissent and claim for respect, dignity and a binding commitment to the 1.5 degrees threshold. They recognized the urgency and the irreversible pattern of climate change and challenged governments to keep fossil fuels in the ground, decarbonize, abandon nuclear energy, support agroecology, assume responsibilities for the loss and damages of the past and do everything possible to undertake a just transition and create a better future.
Both the agreement and the Espaces Generation Climate reveal the monolithic, inadequate, and homogenizing nature of institutionalized spaces of engagement with climate change. However, their limits and shortcomings provided the energy and the disillusion required to build new spaces for dialog, alternative platforms for participation, and think of more effective forms of resistance. The hope is that, from now on, global action for climate change will not be defined by the voices coming from above, but by those coming from below. As a matter of fact, a systemic and real transformation will only happen when justice, dignity, equality and the lives of marginalized and excluded will not be treated as trivialized tokens anymore, but the founding pillars of the new global agenda.
Dr Tomaso Ferrando , Warwick Law School
1 UN Conference on Climate Change ‘Climate Generations Areas’, available at <http://www.cop21.gouv.fr/en/les-espaces-generations-climat/>.
4 The attacks that took place in Paris on November 13th, 2015 may explain part of the security measures adopted. However, the decision to hold the meeting outside the city center and within a gated perimeter was taken long before those events.
5 See e.g. Aurelien Bouayad, L’écologisme est-il un terrorisme?, Le Huffington Post, January 12, 2015, available at <http://www.huffingtonpost.fr/aurelien-bouayad/lecologisme-estil-un-terrorisme_b_8824742.html>; Umberto Bacchi, COP21: France uses Paris attacks’ state of emergency to detain environmental protesters, International Business Time,
6MSC was funded in 1996 by the WWF and Unilever and became independent in 1999. In the last years, the program has been widely criticized by Greenpeace and other environmental groups for its low standards, its governance structure and the certification criteria. See Greenpeace, Assessment of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Fisheries Certification Programme , available at http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/planet-2/report/2009/6/marine-stewardship-council-MSC.pdf
7See the preamble of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (United Nations, Conference of the Parties, Twenty-first session, Adoption of the Agreement, Annex I, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Preamble, FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1, Paris, November 30 to 11 December 2015).
9Fiona Harvey, Paris climate change agreement: the world’s greatest diplomatic success, The Guardian, December 14, 2015, available at http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/13/paris-climate-deal-cop-diplomacy-developing-united-nations (last visited 19 December 2015).