‘This hope is real’: how COP21 frames the future

Who would have bet any meaningful amount of money, a month ago, that most of the world would sign up to 1.5 degrees at COP21?

Of course there were celebrations on Saturday when Laurent Fabius banged his little green gavel down to mark the agreement. Most of those in the room had toiled for long hours in Paris, following years of preparation, intently watching as each bracket was removed from the text. For others, the agreement itself is a dud, or not binding enough. Few would deny that there’s a big gap between the intention of keeping to 1.5 degrees, and the implications of current policy in much of the world. In other words, there’s a long way to go, even on the most optimistic reading.


An artificial tree with messages from members of the public at COP21

The conference is important because it is part of a long conversation stretching back, and forward, for decades. The text is important because it provides a framework for further action. That’s why now is the time to be most vigilant.

What kind of spaces will open up?

If COP21 opens up spaces for further exploration of what to do – about energy access, responding to uncertainty and sea level rise, new low-carbon technologies and the systems for realising them – what kind of spaces will they be? What voices will they include? Who will be the winners and losers? How freely and under what assumptions will decisions on a low carbon future be debated, negotiated, made, implemented and critiqued?

Sadly, not everyone will have the time or stamina to look closely over time as these spaces open up and close down. But they are there if you want to see them. In the UK in November a parliamentary debate on preparing for COP21 attracted 54 MPs – a 10% turn-out. The British government announced an eyebrow-raising series of energy policy decisions: the Hinkley Point nuclear deal involving China, cancelling a £1bn Carbon Capture and Storage competition at the last minute, cutting subsidies to wind power, and supporting more fracking.

These decisions, and equivalent ones taking place around the world, will anger some and comfort others. Many more political and public debates will come and go in the future.

But warm words were spoken at COP21, including by the UK’s representatives, and public attention briefly flickered to Paris. The event drew attention to the many things that are already underway in pursuit of low-carbon futures. More to the point, the conference may have boosted people’s desire and resolve to work harder.

Hope and the climate

COP21 can be seen as a major milestone in how climate change is framed. There is a move – in the framing – from resignation to hope, from 2 degrees to 1.5 degrees, from division to agreement. This hope is real and it will change the material world. It can be used and abused. Within this framing, the view of climate conferences as a waste of time no longer dominates – even if this one didn’t please everyone. Zoom in a little and there are still major debates to be had about how to recognise historical responsibility for climate change, what technologies to use and why, and the role of states in driving green investment.

Zoom out a little, and look at development as a whole. Climate change may seem all encompassing – maybe that’s the fault of all those diagrams of the greenhouse effect. But it’s not the only lens through which to see development. A narrow focus on ‘grabbing the controls of the Earth’s thermostat’ (PDF) could be disastrous. The echoes of Fabius’ gavel had barely died down before headlines on ‘negative emissions technology’ start to appear. And the weight given to certain responses to climate change – and the assumptions made about it – are bound to affect the paths we trace towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

The spaces opened up by COP21 will begin to close. Other spaces for debate and action will no doubt appear too, sparked by human events, forces of nature or a mixture of the two. The frameworks, assumptions and alliances that were made or reinforced in Paris will have a big role to play in how human beings react.

This article is part of our coverage of the COP21 climate change conference.

Image: Tree of desires at COP21, by stepscentre / Instagram