The COP21 climate talks in Paris reached their halfway point on Saturday, but a deal that experts and global justice campaigners would consider acceptable remains a long way off as the fossil fuel industry and wealthy nations maintain their powerful grip on the direction of the international summit.
Given the troubled history of the UN-sponsored talks, most members of civil society headed to Paris acknowledging the two-week gathering was unlikely to yield the kind of agreement that either the science of global warming, or the movement for climate justice, would find acceptable.
"At the core of this failure are the obstinate negotiating positions of the US and other Global North governments who are bent on deregulating the global rules applying to them and advancing the financial needs of big business over the survival needs of people." —Tamar Lawrence-Samuel, Corporate Accountability International
However, in the wake of released draft texts by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the body governing the talks, environmental campaigners and rights groups are expressing contempt for the negative influence that powerful corporations and the fossil fuel industry—backed by the world's wealthiest and most polluting nations—are having on the progress towards reaching an ambitious and transformative deal.
“The enemies of a decent deal know they have one week to kill words in the text that commit the world to ‘full decarbonization,'" said Martin Kaiser, head of the international climate negotiations for Greenpeace. "They know that would set us on a path towards 100% renewables by the middle of the century. Those regressive forces will fight instead for words that call for a 'low emission transformation,' knowing that such a watered down phrase will do almost nothing to keep fossil fuels in the ground."
At speech inside the conference hall on Saturday, Tony de Brum, the Foreign Minister for the Marshall Islands, gave what was described as a "rousing speech," touching on the vulnerability of low-lying nations and the world's poor as he vowed to press for ambitious emissions targets as well as adequate levels of financial assistance to pay for the damage already triggered by greenhouse gases.
"We cannot leave Paris with a minimalist agreement, we must build a coalition of high ambition," declared de Brum. "I refuse to go home without an agreement that I can look my grandchildren in the eye and be proud of my contribution."
Also on Saturday morning, the UNFCCC released the latest draft text (pdf) of the chapter focused on national financial commitments designed to deal with the impacts of global warming in the decades to come. As Fiona Harvey reports for the Guardian:
The world’s least developed countries face the greatest threat from climate change as they lack the technology to cut greenhouse gas emissions and their infrastructure is too fragile to cope with extreme weather. Under the proposed wording, developing countries with rapidly growing economies, such as China, would be included alongside established developed nations in being regarded as potential donors to poorer nations.
Rich countries argue that the wording merely reflects current reality, as at least eight governments classed as developing have already made “climate finance” contributions that will aid those poorer than them. China pledged $3bn (£2bn) to the Green Climate Fund in September, and has made further pledges to help Africa.
But some developing countries see the attempt to bracket them with the rich as a threat. They think it could be used in the future to force them to become donors alongside countries such as the US and the EU.
Tamar Lawrence-Samuel, associate research director for the U.S.-based Corporate Accountability International, responded to the latest draft by describing it as an affront to the "historical responsibility of the Global North" and said it offers only more proof that rich nations remain the key blockers of the urgently needed transition away from dirty energy.
"Not only are we seeing an ambition deficit, but we are seeing a fundamental lack of justice." —Asad Rehman, Friends of the Earth International
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Speaking on behalf of Friends of the Earth International, spokesperson Asad Rehman, said: "Rich, developed countries, led by the United States are negotiating in bad faith here in Paris – they are refusing to even discuss proposals brought by developing countries. The poorest, most vulnerable nations are being bullied behind closed doors and their issues are being railroaded out of this process. It is simply unacceptable that the USA won’t live up to its legal and moral responsibilities. At the same time civil society observers, the eyes and ears of global citizens, are being shut out of negotiating rooms. Not only are we seeing an ambition deficit, but we are seeing a fundamental lack of justice."
"While the draft outcome released this morning for negotiation next week will likely be met with applause by Global North governments and their corporate board room backers," explained Lawrence-Samuel, "it fails to deliver meaningfully toward the systemic transition climate change requires. At the core of this failure are the obstinate negotiating positions of the US and other Global North governments who are bent on deregulating the global rules applying to them and advancing the financial needs of big business over the survival needs of people."
She continued by saying that even as the U.S. delegation and President Obama, who spent two days in Paris talking about climate earlier in the week, are framing their commitments at COP21 as grand and far-reaching, the contents of this latest draft betray such claims.
"The chasm between rhetoric and action continues to grow," she said. "Whether it’s finance or technology, loss and damage or differentiation, the positions reflected in this text are heavily biased towards the US, Japan, EU and other Global North countries, and the emissions-intensive industries they represent."
Highlighting the widely-held sentiment that corporations and the individually powerful continue to have an outsized and negative influence when it comes to the UN-sponsored climate talks, activist filmmakers debuted a short film in Paris on Friday night, entitled "La Fête est Finie (The Party is Over)." The black-and-white short depicts a private gathering of powerful members of industry and government officials in shadow of the Eiffel Tower as they indulge and celebrate. Watch:
In a statement released alongside the film, Mark Donne, one of the co-directors, said: "As with any party, the skill is in knowing when to leave. For decades fossil fuel extracting trans-nationals and western governments have continued to dance and partake long after the bright lights of climate science evidence were switched on and the deafening music of denial had its plug pulled."
"The lack of progress in the halls is in complete contrast with the vibrancy and creativity of people on the streets and in alternative gatherings throughout Paris." —Lucy Cadena, Friends of the Earth International
Meanwhile, and despite evidence showing the deal reached in Paris will ultimately prove inadequate, Kaiser said Greenpeace remains "optimistic about the process" though "less so about the content," though indicated room remains for negotiators to prove campaigners wrong. "At this point in Copenhagen we were dealing with a 300 page text and a pervasive sense of despair," he said. "In Paris we’re down to a slim 21 pages and the atmosphere remains constructive. But that doesn’t guarantee a decent deal. Right now the oil-producing nations and the fossil fuel industry will be plotting how to crash these talks when ministers arrive next week."
And according to Lucy Cadena, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth International, it remains important to remember that what happens outside of the halls of power—whether in Paris or around the world—is ultimately more important than what happens inside conference centers and meeting rooms.
"It is still unclear whether the warm words and half promises we’ve heard this week will yet lead to firm commitments," Cadena said. "Will we really see a commitment to a more ambitious temperature threshold? There have been piecemeal pledges for finance for vulnerable countries to adapt, but nothing consistent or in line with rich nations’ fairshare of effort. Nor is there clarity on support to enable the poorest to recover from unavoidable impacts of climate change. Those who grew rich through a dirty climate-changing system and addiction to carbon pollution are leaving poorer countries to foot the bill as if they carry equal responsibility."
She concluded, "The lack of progress in the halls is in complete contrast with the vibrancy and creativity of people on the streets and in alternative gatherings throughout Paris."