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Island Activist Responds to Climate Agreement

December 22, 2015

Less than two weeks have passed since the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC/COP21) led to an adoption of a global agreement to fight climate change. But is the agreement enough for those most vulnerable to its effects? We asked Andrew Simmons (1994, Islands and Island Nations) who was in the thick of the negotiations as an adviser to the delegation representing St. Vincent and the Grenadines:

What were your expectations before the negotiations?

As an environmental activist, born and living in a Small Island Developing State (SIDS), and having experienced the destructive impact of climate change on people living in small island communities, I went to the Conference with the following expectations:

  1. The meeting will secure a binding and legal agreement signed by all parties which will focus on mitigation and adaptation.
  2. Global warming will be contained at below 1.5 °C in temperature rise.
  3. For the agreement to be effective, each country must publish its national Green House Gas emission and its efforts to curb its emissions before the negotiations. Such efforts must take into consideration the needs and capacities of each country to effectively reduce emissions.
  4. The mobilization of $100 billion in new funds per year from developed countries to assist developing countries. This will be used to adapt and mitigate the impact of climate change whilst promoting sustainable and fair development.
  5. For the negotiations to direct the business community to invest in a transition towards a low-carbon economy.
  6. That developing countries ravaged by hurricanes and other natural disasters exacerbated by climate change will be compensated by the countries that are responsible for producing the vast majority of global emissions.

Are you satisfied with the outcome of the negotiations?

From a small island perspective, there were some very contentious issues to be resolved:

Firstly, capping global temperatures below 2 degree C: while SIDS have advocated for a 1.5 °C cap on the rise of global temperatures, the agreement includes a commitment to keeping temperatures “well below 2 °C and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature to increase to 1.5 °C”. Although this is not ideal, moving to zero net emissions by 2050-60 is a positive step in the right direction.

Island Activist Responds to Climate Agreement
Andrew Simmons updates the Goldman Prize recipient attendees about proceedings during the climate negotiations. Standing to his right is David Gordon, Executive Director of the Goldman Prize. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

Secondly, adaption and compensation: the agreement provides an opportunity for vulnerable and at-risk countries to secure the funding needed to deal with impact of climate change, and places vulnerability and risk management at the center of the UNFCCC development process. Although liability for loss and damages incurred as a result of climate change was one of the recommendations put forward by SIDS, it was unfortunately not addressed in the final agreement.

Lastly, green investment: the agreement lists clear objectives for low carbon investments in developing countries. It also supports the creation of new financial plans beyond the current levels of $100 billion per year to be set in place by 2016. One of the major victories of the agreement is that it secures greater predictability, clarity and transparency of the financial commitments by developed countries.

While the agreement is impressive, the plan to increase funding from 2025 is unresolved and lacks specific details regarding the identification of donors that are willing to provide the resources to fund these initiatives.

Why do you think it’s important for environmental activists such as yourself to be present at these summits?

Environmental activists are ones who are working at the forefront of the fight against climate change. They are closer to the people who are severely impacted by climate change and are working with those vulnerable to its effects to create innovative solutions when their crops and livestock fail as a result of drought, hurricanes or sea level rise. While all these problems are taking place, politicians and senior civil servants are living in protected areas, yet these are the people who were invited to participate in the climate negotiations and other high level conferences. There, they will make decisions that affect the lives of millions of marginalized and vulnerable people whose day-to-day lives they know very little about. I was fortunate to be supported by the Goldman Environmental Prize, and to have been invited as an adviser on the national delegation of St Vincent and the Grenadines. This gave me access to all the high level meetings and negotiations.

Were you concerned at any point that a deal would not be reached?

Over 40,000 people participated in the COP21 in Paris. The negotiations were very fierce and sometimes very tense.

On many occasions, we were pressured by developed countries and other groups to give way on our positions regarding a) loss and damage (i.e. compensation for developing countries suffering from the effects of climate change) and a b) 1.5 °C cap on global temperature. We held our ground and negotiated fiercely not only for the survival of the people living on small island states, but everyone on planet Earth. On December 5, tensions during the negotiations were so severe and intense that delegates and organizers alike were beginning to doubt that meeting will result in a binding agreement on December 11 and they would have to wait until COP22 for an agreement to be reached. It was at that stage that all parties supported by the French president began to organize bilateral meetings to push the negotiations forward. However, despite all the uncertainties, I was optimistic about a positive outcome.

From the perspective of SIDS I am not fully satisfied with the agreement due to the devastating effects that any rise in temperature above 1 °C would have on the weather, the economy and people’s health. However, I believe that the agreement reached in Paris on December 12 is a positive start in the right direction.

NGO community advocating for a limit on global emissions to below 1.5 degrees C.
Members of the NGO community advocating for a limit on global emissions to below 1.5 degrees C. (Photo: Andrew Simmons)

A former teacher, Simmons is the founder of the JEMS Progressive Community Organization and the Caribbean Youth Environment Network (CYEN); both grassroots community development and environmental management organizations that educate and motivate young people to protect the natural resources of the Caribbean. Aside from his work with youth, Simmons is also pursuing a PhD in Island Communities and Climate Change at De Montfort University in the United Kingdom. 


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