The Paris Climate Talks: Politics, Policies and Principles

Edinburgh, 20 November 2015

Recently we attended a symposium addressing the UN climate change Conference of the Parties in Paris, due to begin at the end of November. The symposium started with a challenge from Sandra Boyack, MSP, for attendees to engage with civil society groups, raise awareness about climate change and climate justice, and disseminate our research through new and unconventional channels. This set the tone for a wide-ranging discussion, with panels covering domestic French politics and climate change, climate politics and justice, and the civil society response to climate change negotiations.

All of the panels considered the circumstances of the Paris conference, both in terms of the political moment, and the local and global reaction to the recent terrorist attacks. This would become a key theme of the day.

Speakers in the first panel, about French politics, went beyond political parties’ positions and discussed how the Paris conference is an important event in President Hollande’s term of office, since the outcome will inevitably provide political capital to either him or his opponents. This significance is only heightened by the terrorist attacks, which have placed a spotlight on the president and his handling of the aftermath. Dr Carl Death took a broader perspective in the second panel, describing Paris as a moment of political theatre where all participants are on show and need to be seen performing their respective roles.

Civil society panellists discussed the effect of restrictions recently placed on public protests and advocacy in Paris. While an important obstacle to the impact civil society groups hoped to have on the delegates and the media, panellists made clear that the restrictions have stimulated new and imaginative methods of communicating with the public and making their messages visible to conference delegates.

The significance of civil society was a second theme that ran through the symposium, and was specifically addressed in the third panel. Adrian Shaw, from the Church of Scotland, picked up on Sandra Boyack’s point that faith groups offer a substantial and potentially influential cohort to engage and motivate about climate change. Mary Church provided an insight into Friends of the Earth activities and priorities in Paris, and Louisa Casson, from E3G, brought a wider perspective on civil society activists and campaigners. These contributions made clear that national and transnational groups are gearing up to provide the vocal and insightful pressure from the outside of the Paris conference that is so vital to robust governance.

The second panel, covering climate politics and expectations for Paris, emphasised the role of civil society in providing visible activity but also the need for their in-depth analysis and information more quietly behind the scenes. This echoed Sandra Boyack’s insight into the important contribution civil society groups made to Scottish climate change legislation, by providing authoritative suggestions that fed directly into wording, targets and principles.

While nowhere near as dynamic as civil society, numerous panellists commented that climate change governance does show signs of evolution; this was a third core theme of the day. Central to this is the model of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), where individual countries design their own voluntary commitments. Dr Paul Tobin described these changes as ‘politically promising’, but translating them into a robust treaty remains a significant challenge. The idea of ratcheting up expectations and commitments was raised by several speakers. This would involve scheduled checkpoints every few years to review progress and new technology, and agree more stringent measures. Ratcheting up is emerging as a potential means to turn the INDCs, which have fallen short of what is necessary to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees, into scientifically adequate action.

Dr Tobin described the potential for more bottom-up, individualised contributions to secure ongoing engagement from states within the UNFCCC and underpin the changing governance process. Dr Sherilyn Macgregor pointed out that behind this promise lies the actual and potential inequality of INDCs. A lack of consultation and representation in the creation process has generated concerns that vulnerable groups within national societies will be disproportionately affected by climate change policies or simply neglected.

Dr Death reminded us that even if climate governance is evolving, some debates, such as a 1.5 or 2 degree temperature limit, seem to have been lost by vulnerable groups. Revisions to the negotiating text in advance of Paris have been portrayed by developing countries as embodying US interests, suggesting that established political themes and controversies remain important in climate governance, and will undoubtedly play a role in Paris.

The symposium ended with small group discussions, which proved lively and fruitful. In our group, talk turned to how differentiation between states, with reference to the Common but Differentiated Responsibility principle built into the UNFCCC, can develop alongside INDCs. There was optimism that the combative focus on burden sharing and geopolitical manoeuvring that was so damaging in Copenhagen may be exorcised through the voluntary contributions approach. Nevertheless, the discussion mirrored the panellists in concluding that Paris will be, in the words of Dr Tobin, ‘environmentally insufficient’.

Despite the challenges, the symposium was a reminder that a huge amount of effort is being poured into the future of climate governance by the academic and civil society communities. While the challenge to disseminate our research and engage with policymakers should remain with us in the months and years ahead, as the moment of truth draws near we must pressure and encourage our representatives, and hope they emerge in three weeks’ time with the beginning of a new and promising chapter in climate governance.

By Philip Coventry (PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Environmental Science) and Josh Wells (Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar)