COP 21: the Global Challenge of Climate Change

Lauren Donnelly is reading for an LLM in Human Rights at Edinburgh Law School. In her role as a Global Justice Academy Student Ambassador, Lauren reflects on discussions raised from the Paris talks on climate change, including what Scotland can do.

On Saturday the 19th of March, the UN House Scotland held, “Climate Change: Global Challenges, Local Solutions Conference” to explore the impact of the much publicised 2015 Paris Climate Change agreement. The event consisted of two panel discussions, the first which examined from an international perspective and the second which explored the Scottish response, to the various challenges faced in achieving the goals set out in this agreement.

COP 21The opening address of conference was delivered by Tom Ballantine, the Chair of Stop Climate Change Scotland. The opening address paved the way for what was to be an inspiring and enlightened discussion throughout the afternoon. The presentation outlined briefly why climate change matters, the broader effects of climate change and climate change after the Paris agreement. It highlighted that climate change has been discussed since the nineteenth century, stressing that despite the fact that the developing world is contributing the least to climate change, these countries are most likely to suffer the impact of global warming. Expanding on this point, the presentation outlined that if we do not act urgently we can expect to see: coastal flooding and displaced people due to land loss; reduced yields of major crops; human insecurity; and mass poverty.

The presentation reflected on the benefits of the agreement, while acknowledging its limitations. Mr Ballantine noted that this agreement signifies the power of the people, a historic recognition to stop ignoring science and much welcomed commitment from world leaders to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees. However, the emission cuts contained in the agreement are based on voluntary pledges called, “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” that governments drew up individually before the talks based on “what they were prepared to deliver and not what science demands.” There are also no sanctions offered to people who do not commit to voluntary contributions, which raise serious concerns over the enforceability of the commitments set out in the agreement.

Mr Ballantine ended on a positive note, suggesting there is an alternative future if we change our behaviour. Noting that we all need to walk more, drive less, consumer less and invest differently for our health, happiness and prosperity. While acknowledging that the Paris Agreement is a positive step, it is only beneficial if action follows as Mr Ballantine put it, “We need our leaders to be brave and their choices to be bold.”

The panel for session one comprised Professor Navraj Singh Ghaleigh, Senior Lecturer in Climate Law here at the University of Edinburgh; Peter Dauenhauer, Electronic and Electrical Engineering Researcher at the University of Strathclyde and Tessa Tennant, President of The Ice Organisation and Non-Executive Director of UK Green Bank. Professor Ghaleigh emphasised that confronting climate change successfully is dependent on states cooperation and ability to work together as a collective, as fulfilling the objectives set out in the Paris Agreement cannot be achieved by states in isolation. This then provided Professor Ghaleigh the opportunity to examine the legal text of the agreement and its ability to impose legal obligations on State Parties to this agreement.

In Professor Ghaleigh’s opinion the text of the agreement itself is too vague and broad to ever be considered a binding norm in International Law. Although the presentation explained the significance of the process and that in many respects the Paris Agreement was a “diplomatic triumph,” the agreement itself is described as deeply unsatisfactory in certain respects-in particular, the way in which the compensation procedure for developing countries was discarded altogether. The fact that 196 countries have endorsed the concept of what the agreement aims to achieve is however a good starting point. Tessa Tennant focussed on the ways in which finance is at the core of implementing the agreement, explaining the need to push for large scale investors to move away from fossil fuels, operate responsibility and for businesses with their considerable marketing spend, to get behind the changes that need to happen to fulfil the commitments made in Paris.

Session two comprised Claire Gibson a Climate Challenge Fund Development Officer from Keep Scotland Beautiful; Fiona Macleod, Corporate Policy & Strategy Officer, Edinburgh City Council and Malcolm Spaven, Chairperson of the Scottish Opencast Communities Alliance. The purpose of session two was to examine the different ways in which at a local level, organisations in Scotland are making valuable contributions to combat climate change problems. Claire Gibson starts the presentation by explaining that “Keep Scotland Beautiful” is a charity that deals with a range of local environmental issues that affect individual’s quality of life. The charity is a Scottish Government initiative that was set up in 2008 and to date has funded over 746 projects across Scotland. The charity has given 66.3 million pounds to community projects, 13 of which have been led by young people, such as; low carbon projects, community and social impact training, encouraging locally grown food produce and tackling food waste.

Claire Gibson also notes that 83% of young people surveyed thought that climate change is something that should be tackled urgently, which draws on earlier remarks of the ways in which diplomacy has changed to quite a degree, particularly how involved young people have become and as a result, positively influenced the climate chance debate. Fiona Macleod, highlighted the ways in which climate change is an issue that will impact on every city across the world and there is real potential for building infrastructure around Edinburgh to be affected, transport disrupted frequently, flooding along with food supply change if action is not taken now. The presentation was a particularly excellent way to emphasise that global economic impact will have serious local effects and the need for civil society involvement.

Overall, the conference successfully explored the progress that has been made by the conclusion of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement. The agreement establishes a commitment from States, that developed and developing countries alike are required to limit their emissions to relatively safe levels, of 2C with an aspiration of 1.5C, that finance will be provided to poor nations to help them cut emissions and cope with the consequences of extreme weather and that countries affected by climate-related disasters will receive aid. However, as the Agreement fails to create binding legal obligations or accountability measures for States that waver in their commitments, the implementation of the Agreement itself will largely depend on sustained pressure and a collective effort from governments, businesses, civil society organisations and charities such as “Keep Scotland Beautiful” to ensure the momentum gained from The 2015 Paris Agreement continues and that discussion turns into much needed action.