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The climates, they are a-changing

At the end of last year the COP21 climate conference happened in Paris - Prof Daniella Tilbury, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Gibraltar, was there.

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As I watched the French foreign minister, and COP21 President, Laurent Fabius announce the global climate deal, I knew the future was being re-written. I have little doubt that the 12th of December 2015 will be remembered as the day the international community made some hard and serious decisions in favour of social justice and planetary health. Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General, spelled it out for us: ‘we have entered a new era of global cooperation as the world comes together under unprecedented circumstances’.

It was an historic day, and an emotional one, as those present shed tears and embraced following a lengthy two-week negotiation process. Fabius, struck the gavel to signal the adoption of the ambitious deal and the delegates rose to their feet cheering applauding for several minutes with a level of emotion and conviction not seen before in UN circles.

This reaction is not surprising given that the world has agreed to binding and ambitious targets that require cutting our dependence on the fossil fuels that create dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. The Paris deal provides a legally bidding framework to limit the rise in global temperatures to less than 2C by 2020 and commits all countries to work towards defined targets to limit the impacts of climate change to 1.5C. Underpinning the agreement are commitments to achieving a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century. An initial investment of $100 billion has been committed for developing countries to assist them in achieving the 2020 targets. Indeed, the detail in the deal gives confidence that this is no loosely framed document and that significant steps in the right direction are being taken - despite the agreement not being perfect.

One crucial question, that at times delayed progress, was on how the implementation of the agreement would be measured. It was here where I would have wanted tighter language around articles that are most relevant to China and India – the largest emergent economies and increasing consumers of fossil fuels. However, the commitment to monitor and verify emission cuts was made by all countries. Having witnessed the road to Paris, and engaged with the negotiations first hand, I believe that the 2015 deal sets the best and most realistic outcome we could have hoped for.

So what led to this historic agreement? Why now, why Paris? After all, this was COP21, why had Copenhagen’s COP 15 or Lima’s COP 20 not delivered?   The perception is that recent events have inspired a sense of solidarity. 195 countries turned up at the negotiating table, meeting in a city that was deeply saddened and shaken by the terror attacks. Political leaders, lawyers and senior civil servants came ready to engage. In the background, strong and unprecedented leadership from the UN agencies, helped to bring boundaries and milestones to the negotiating table. Civil society representatives that were well armed with facts and figures supported these UN agencies. They reminded us of the rather bleak scenarios faced if our dependency on carbon was not tackled head-on. They shared life stories of those already being affected by climate change – the evidence was tangible. Investors and innovators also proved to be critical players as shared new ‘affordable’ technologies that could support the transition to a low carbon economy.

As an official delegate, I was engaged in advising negotiators on specific articles associated with social change, capacity building and (higher) education. The quality of the questions at breakfast delegation meetings and depth of conversations over meals alerted me to the fact that Paris was different. It would not be like Copenhagen were a handful of countries objected (at the last minute) to a deal that had the approval of most of the world. The choice of language proved crucial but diplomats were not working to weaken the agreement but instead to make the framing more acceptable  — using the word “shall” versus “should,” for example — made a significant difference.

I could never have imagined, at the start of the process, that the world would agree to work towards a 1.5 degree target – this ambitious goal overcame all odds in Paris to form part of the global action plan for a new future. The champion of the agreement was Christiana Figueres, the UNFCCC Executive Secretary, who brokered this irreversible transition to a low carbon economy. Seven billion people in 195 countries will be affected by this agreement that promises cleaner cities, safer environments and climate justice.

Prof Daniella Tilbury is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Gibraltar. She participated in COP21 as an official UN delegate. Daniella facilitated an IUCN, UNESCO and UNFCCC event at the COP on the 10th December. Her role also involved supporting Gibraltar’s Chief Scientist, Dr Liesl Torres in highlighting, to the international community, how Gibraltar can be a leader in the formation and delivery of environmental governance.

This article first appeared in the Gibraltar Chronicle and is reproduced with kind permission.