RUW abroad: The COP21 climate conference in Paris

Our junior coordinator, Erik-Jan van Oosten, is currently visiting the climate conference as a delegate. This is his impression of what took place during the COP21 in Paris on the first week.

EJfotoThe conference started this Monday with a lot of excitement and hope for many of the delegates. The world leaders made their opening speeches and it felt like change was in the air! During the next couple of days it became increasingly clear that everybody means something different with the term “ambitious climate goal”. Not only is there still disagreement on what such a goal should aim for (2 degrees of warming or 1.5 degrees) but mostly the debate is on how to realise these goals. Strangely enough this question is supposed to be answered by economists and corporations, not climate scientists and NGO’s (non-governmental organisations). Methods such as carbon pricing, green growth, absolute decoupling of the economy from the environment and a clean-tech funding effort so big that it can be regarded a form of quantitative easing for the energy sector are all economic methods universally accepted by negotiators as desirable and necessary. It looks as if they believe that throwing large sums of money at it will make the problem go away. Also the NGO’s are mostly talking in economic terms now.


It might be because of the sustainable development goals, or because of the huge success by authors such as Thomas Piketty and Naomi Klein, but the issue of climate justice and inequality has grown from being an activist fringe-concept into an essential ingredient of almost every solution I’ve come across at the conference. I heard several times in the delegates area that “We cannot address climate change without addressing inequality”. There is a finite amount of the Earth’s resources, and a way to share these resources in a fair and equitable way is seen as essential by most of the NGO’s.

While writing this I article realised that the strong focus on economics by all parties involved is not so surprising when we look at the roots of economic thinking. The ancient Greeks first used the term for the management of our household, our oikos. If there is one thing this conference is about, it is about how we manage our collective household. Not only the liveability of the planet but also purpose of our economy is at stake here in Paris. Let’s explore the challenge of the COP21 conference in the language of household economics.

From a household management perspective it is quite clear what we need to agree upon collectively here at the conference: today we are way over our heads in “ecological debt”. The only way to sustain our collective household is to reduce our amount of debt to a sustainable level, in this case being the regenerative capacity of our planet. Thanks to climate science we know that our current global household has a footprint of 1.5 planet per year, so at least a reduction by one third needs to be realised. There are two ways in which the ecological budget can be balanced: either we cut our spending (less aviation, less industry, less consumption, less GWP, in short: less environmental destruction) and/or by increasing our ecological income (restoration of ecosystems, creating sustainable livelihoods, restoring the relation between human and nature).


From this perspective it also becomes clear what we shouldn’t do: take out more new loans and go further into (ecological) debt. Yet that is exactly what we are doing by extracting fossil fuels and through the destruction of ecosystems. It might give us some spending power in the short term but we can’t afford it in the medium and long term. So far I didn’t see any signs of an economic re-evaluation of our relationship with nature on the conference. I am afraid that we will not see that either as I just got the official booklet of the UNFCCC with advice for policy makers. The main message I got from it: “Only a further distancing from nature through technology and free trade can save us. There is no plan B. We need to keep doing what we are already doing but far more efficiently.”

This approach does spark many interesting debates: is the UNFCCC being pragmatic or naive? Or just economically illiterate? To what extent do we need to change to become truly sustainable?

When back in Wageningen I will organise an event to discuss with you the outcomes of the conference and its implications. What do you think about the increased emphasis on economics by NGO’s, companies and delegations? Is climate change an economic problem?

Let me know what you think on twitter: @Mbr_EvO



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