The SDGs and COP21 raise more questions than they answer — 2016 will need to shift the debate to wider system change.
The current policy landscape
“Woo mercy, mercy me, mercy father
Ah things ain’t what they used to be, no no
Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas
Fish full of mercury”
I was struck by the poignancy of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 poetry as I listened to broadway star and member of Hip Hop Hope for Divestment Antonique Smith singing Mercy, mercy me at an event at COP21 ten days ago.
The lyrics reminds us just how long it has taken us to wake up to the need for an end to the fossil-fool age and how, though 2015 was a good year in some ways, in others we have only just begun the real journey.
2015 saw at least three seismic shifts in the sustainable development world. For starters in September the Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by governments, setting a new developmental pathway towards 2030.
Next, by November over $3.4 trillion of assets had committed to divest out of fossil-fuels and invest in a new economy, supported by a diversity of voices from Christiana Figueres, HRH Prince of Wales, Leonardo Di Caprio, Desmond Tutu, Mark Carney and the Hip Hop Hope Caucus. And finally at the eleventh hour COP21 culminated in a global agreement to set us on the pathway to a new low carbon economy.
Not a bad year then? But the devil is in the detail. For many people both the SDGs and COP21 raise just many more questions then they answer.
Opinion is widely split between those activists and scientists who see COP21 as a sham and others hailing it as the greatest victory for civilisation. George Monbiot sums up much of the consensus on the outcomes from the talks, saying: “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.” Likewise the SDGs have been both lauded as a huge step forward and derided as fatally flawed.
My own feeling is that Paris was a success. Inside the negotiating halls I saw unusual alliances of policy makers, unions, progressive business leaders and NGOs finding common case in a way I have not seen before. The sight of the B Team’s Richard Branson holding a joint press conference with Kumi Naidoo was a welcome change from the old days of endless antagonism.
And outside around Paris I saw an ever stronger and more united civil society world emboldened to demand and bring about ever greater change. And the SDGs, though not perfect, at least represented a new, more consensus-based process of dialogue.
But wherever one stands on the details of the SDGs and the COP21 agreement, it seems to me that the biggest challenges we now face involve clarity on the ‘how’ behind the ‘what’. And, in my view is that clarity on those ‘hows’ will only come from a much wider and deeper examination of the need for paradigm-shifting system change.
Why the current landscape is not sufficient — shifting from ‘what’ to ‘how’
In principle COP21 has moved things on. At least the ‘what’ of the IPCC process, the shape of things to come, is now clearer. It rhetorically sets collective sights on 1.5 degrees, we can be sure that governments will be held to their INDCs by civil society, and $100bn of new money has in principle been committed to deliver on the agreement.
But many questions remain on the ‘how’ to achieve this. The COP outcome is still voluntary, its not negotiated with wider society, the INDCs arguably currently could lock us into at least 3degrees, the agreement’s mechanisms are weighted to ‘market solutions’ like trading rather than other solutions civil society favours and there is precious little clarity on where the $100bn will actually come from and in what form.
Perhaps that’s partly where the divestment movement comes in. As the divestment movement starts to shift its campaigning to focus on the ‘invest’ piece in 2016, it has already become clear even to the head of the coal industry lobby, that the fossil-fool economy is dying and that perhaps the world’s carbon traders are becoming the new slave traders.
But despite $trillions committing to some form of divestment, the DivestInvest movement has a long way to go to plug the investment gap and to integrate a wider equity and justice frame to its work.
The disjunction between the SDG narrative and Paris is stark, with COP21 failing to integrate key social issues into the text or sentiment of the talks despite these being central to the SDG vision. The framing of a Just Transition to a new economy was largely lost over the two weeks of haggling in Paris. Likewise fundamental pillars of sustainable development such as Climate Justice and equity were sidestepped as too uncomfortable.
Issues like consumerism are also largely absent from the SDG and climate agreements and Paris saw no confrontation of prickly questions such as what Professor Kevin Anderson says about the limits to economic growth relating to combating climate change.
Ignoring the views of civil society in this way is a mistake. As Naomi Klein said in her COP21 rally speech, the true leaders of system change are in the streets not in the negotiating halls.
These thorny issues won’t go away. The Divestment movement has been emboldened to go further and become more radical post Paris. And, as can be seen from the Too weak, too late opinion compendium, the failures of COP to include justice issues has strengthened the resolve and momentum of the climate justice movement.
This is part one of a two-part blog
Originally published in The Huffington Post