Good COP, bad COP

5 min read
Image: WaterAid/Andrew McConnell

COP21 has finished, and the world has at last set an ambitious goal for limiting climate change. Miriam Denis Le Seve, WaterAid’s Policy Officer for Climate Change, draws out the strengths and weaknesses of the global agreement reached.

Finally, an agreement. After four years of talks, nearly 200 countries this weekend formally agreed to an international deal on limiting climate change. Described as “the world’s greatest diplomatic success”, “a major leap for mankind” and “a victory for the planet”, it’s been hailed by global leaders as a turning point in the fight against climate change. Other voices, however, have dubbed it a ”fraud” and a “disaster”. 

For developing countries, like the 27 WaterAid works in, the agreement contains both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ news. See the image above where villagers in Imbina, Burkina Faso struggle to find a place where a hand-dug well yields water, often digging up to four metres deep.

The good

The Paris agreement goes further than similar agreements have gone before. For the first time, it includes reference to limiting warming to 1.5°C – a key advocacy call of WaterAid – which, although ambitious, is a significantly safer defence line against the worst impacts of a changing climate than is 2°C.

The agreement also includes loss and damage, which refers to the impacts of climate change that we cannot prevent through mitigation and adaptation. This inclusion is a first sense of climate justice for developing countries and small island developing states, which are among the most vulnerable nations to the impacts of climate change.

We’ve seen advances too on areas such as adaptation. The Kyoto Protocol in 1992 was once described as a ‘mitigation’ agreement, but now adaptation too is regarded as a central pillar necessary to support the poorest and most vulnerable countries in adapting to a changing climate. The agreement establishes a goal to significantly strengthen adaptation to climate change through support and international cooperation. It outlines that all countries will be expected to submit their adaptation priorities, needs and plans, which will thereby receive ongoing support from international climate funds. The establishment of this goal motivates us to accelerate action on the role of WASH in building adaptation and resilience to climate change.

Funding for adaptation has lagged behind finance for mitigation. However, at COP21, countries seemed to converge around the need to improve the funding balance between the two. The text resolves to significantly increase adaptation finance between now and 2020.

In fact, climate pledges continue to grow. Developing countries recently pledged US$248 million to the Least Developed Countries Fund, and last week new pledges to the Adaptation Fund reached $75 million. On 9 December the USA announced a plan to commit $800 million a year to financing climate adaptation efforts in developing countries, up from a 2014 commitment of $400 million per year.

In addition to increased funds, the agreement recognizes that developing countries need support to spend the money from climate funds effectively and where it is most needed. Developed countries have been asked to provide financial and technological support for capacity building in developing countries. This is crucial for the WASH sector, where resilience to climate change depends on effective leadership from the government, at the national, regional and local levels, and on the building of strong and effective institutions. 

Alongside these points, beginning in 2023, there will be “global stock-takes” every five years to initiate action on areas falling short , including adaptation, finance and support for developing countries. Further emissions cuts are also promised.

The not-so-good

The climate agreement is far from perfect, and the extent to which the deal gives poorer countries the attention they need is contested.

First, not all of the agreement is legally binding, so future governments of the signatory countries could break the commitments. The emissions targets set by nations through their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) will not be legally binding. The INDCs form the basis of the Paris agreement, but, if implemented, would currently only limit the global temperature rise to 2.7°C, bringing devastating consequences for developing countries.

Additionally, because there is still no legally binding provision that holds developed countries to the pledge for adaptation funds, these pledges could remain promises and not become actions. The obligation of these funds to be ‘new and additional’ to existing Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) is still lacking clarity.

Solutions and commitments to reach the targets are also vague. For example, developed countries have been asked to provide a “concrete roadmap” to achieve the US$100 billion goal for climate finance, but the timeframe for this goal is not specified.

Fundamentally, water is not in the agreement, despite the fact that climate change manifests through water – through droughts, floods, extreme weather shocks and rising seas – and that sustainable WASH is essential for building resilience to the impacts of climate change. In addition, there is no commonly adopted approach to integrating water into strategic planning for climate change adaption. WaterAid will therefore be engaging with these plans to ensure that water, sanitation and hygiene are given priority as a vital adaptation mechanism. 

A beginning, not an end

The agreement is a huge step towards a cohesive and collective global response to tackle climate change, but it has limitations. COP21 is over, but the fight against climate change and for climate justice for developing nations has now begun. We must all hold our governments to account on the pledges they have made, and ensure the poorest and most vulnerable are prioritised and adaptation finance goes where it’s most needed.

Last, but not least, the links between climate change and water, sanitation and hygiene must continue to be made, because, put simply, climate change is water change.