Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

Representing Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers, Maryknoll Sisters, and Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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COP20: Struggle for climate justice

The following article appeared in the January-February 2015 NewsNotes.

The much anticipated 20th UN Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP20) in Lima, Peru, closed on December 14 with less-than-hoped-for outcomes. Over 190 countries met and came to what has been called a watered-down agreement to combat climate change on a global scale. While the firm commitments that Maryknoll and many environmental justice activists hoped for were elusive, some agreement on global guidelines for compliance with goals to reduce climate disruption was reached. It is clear that 2015 will be a key year in determining whether there is truly global momentum to act against the disastrous consequences of climate change. At best, the gathering in Lima will be seen as successful if it paved the "Road to Paris" when the next and decisive climate change meeting, the COP21, will be held in December.

By going overtime 33 hours in desperate negotiations, the 195 countries meeting in Lima finally agreed to adopt a four page document that explains the types of national climate targets they will need to deliver in the next six months. By June they will have to show how they’ll reduce carbon emissions on a voluntary basis without having to submit to a rigorous assessment process. The UN will then deliver its own analysis of the "aggregate effect" of all the pledges by November 1, a month before the COP21 in Paris.

These "Intended Nationally Determined Contributions" were a key accomplishment of the Lima conference, as weak as it was. Another major issue that was addressed inconclusively was the "Common but Differentiated Determined Contributions" or how emissions reductions would be distributed differently between developed and developing countries. The issue of whether poorer countries of the global South which have contributed least to climate change and therefore should bear less of the burden of carbon reductions was left for the COP21 in Paris to resolve.

A third significant outcome of COP20 was that, unlike previous UN climate conferences such as the Kyoto Protocol or the COP17 in Durban, this agreement was globally inclusive and applies to all countries. Also, the first "Multilateral Assessment" of emission reduction goals by developing countries was held in Lima, and a new framework for "Measurement, Reporting and Verification" was established. Finally, funding for the Green Climate Fund that will assist developing countries in combatting climate change, reached $10.2 billion in pledges, slightly exceeding the target.

As inconclusive as the conference was in achieving real progress, it was the first time a global agreement on tackling climate change was accomplished. Maryknoll was there along with hundreds of faith-based and environmental NGOs pushing the national delegations to do more. Outside in the streets of Lima, the "People’s Summit" held an alternative grassroots mobilization that called for world governments to "change the system not the climate." Giving a forum for "voices from below," the Peoples’ Summit highlighted the role of transnational corporations and the extractive model of production and consumption in contributing to climate disruption and abusing the earth as well as the rights of indigenous communities.

The grassroots movement in Lima highlighted two aspects of the destructive role of transnational corporations in climate change: 1) The environmental degradation and threat to peoples’ sovereignty that free trade agreements such as the TransPacific Partnership (TPP) represent to indigenous communities in Latin America and 2) the negative impact of industrial agriculture promoted by these corporations on the food sovereignty of the small farmers and indigenous peoples who produce 70 percent of the world’s food.

Catholic bishops from around the world came together in Lima as well, and in a statement to the delegates of COP20 echoed some of voices in the streets. They placed the responsibility for damaging climate change on "the global economic system…based on the primacy of the market and profit, which has failed to put the human being and the common good at the heart of the economy." They denounced this system’s "‘one-size-fits-all’ modern technological-industrial approaches" and called for "an end to the fossil fuel era." Echoing Pope Francis, the bishops identified climate change as primarily a moral issue that Catholics must confront on behalf of vulnerable and marginalized communities.

This challenge to Catholics to act on climate change was also raised by Argentinian Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Social Sciences, and a close friend of Pope Francis. In a lecture to the to the British Catholic development group CAFOD in November, Bishop Sorondo predicted that the pope’s much-anticipated first encyclical would offer moral guidance to Catholics on this issue, in his "unique role as a religious leader."

"The problem of climate change has become a major social and moral problem, and mentalities can only be changed on moral and religious grounds," he said.

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