Terrorist attacks, climate lawsuits and the inclusion of 1.5C in the Paris Agreement were among the unforeseen events of 2015
By Megan Darby
Around this time last December, I flagged 2015 as a year for carbon pricing, peer pressure and Paris.
That was the headline, anyway. Fossil fuel divestment promised to be another theme of the twelvemonth.
Lo, it came to pass. Ok, so carbon pricing is still bigger in theory than practice. Peer pressure proved a remarkably successful way of getting climate pledges, from 187 out of 195 countries – although as predicted it did not add up to 2C worth of ambition. And it all culminated in the Paris climate summit, where negotiators secured a historic deal.
But it would have been boring if everything went as predicted. Here were five surprises.
1. 1.5 to stay alive
It’s more of an aspirational goal than a hard target, but countries agreed in Paris to “pursue efforts” to limit global warming to 1.5C.
That overturned decades of seemingly unshakable political consensus that 2C was the “safe” threshold for temperature rise.
Small islanders had been arguing for years stricter curbs on greenhouse gas emissions were needed to ensure their survival. At 2C, low-lying atolls would be swallowed by rising seas.
But they were easily ignored by major economies concerned they would struggle to achieve the emissions cuts needed for 2C, let alone 1.5C.
In 2015, vulnerable countries got organised. From a handful of island states, the coalition expanded into an unstoppable force.
Bangladesh and Philippines were joined by Morocco and Yemen, all shouting loudly about the threats to the world’s poorest from flood, drought and intensifying storms.
The remarkable twist came in Paris when even big polluters like the US, Australia and Canada paid lip service to 1.5C.
Is it achievable? Well, it’s a tall order. National climate plans submitted to date imply warming of at least 2.7C this century. It certainly gives scientists, analysts and policymakers something to chew on, though.
2. Paris attacks
It goes without saying nobody foresaw terrorists killing 130 people in the French capital on 13 December, or they would have prevented it.
While the horror was still raw, people were questioning whether the UN climate summit scheduled two weeks later could go ahead.
With some 150 world leaders showing up for day one, could the authorities guarantee their safety?
The answer swiftly came back: yes, the show must go on. After all, for many around the world, climate action is a matter of life or death.
It affected the mood of the event. A planned climate march on 29 November was banned, to the frustration of demonstrators. Many left shoes in a peaceful show of support for a climate deal. A minority turned on police, reportedly throwing candles left as memorials to the attack victims.
By and large, however, diplomats succeeded in harnessing the sense of solidarity against terrorism for cooperation on climate. And once intense negotiations got underway in Le Bourget, the outside world faded into the background.
3. Hottest year ever
This time last year, there was a weak El Nino brewing. Characterised by warmer waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, the weather phenomenon brings higher average air temperatures globally.
It was too soon to say whether the effects would die away or intensify, or to call 2015 as another record-breakingly warm year.
By May, forecasters were confident things were turning for the hotter. The latest data showed the mercury significantly up on previous years – and crowned 2011-15 the warmest five-year period on record.
It contributed to environmental catastrophe in Indonesia, where the worst seasonal peat fires ever triggered toxic smog across southeast Asia.
Did it influence negotiators in Paris, where mild conditions contrasted with the snows of Copenhagen six years earlier? Perhaps – and perhaps it should have.
While El Nino heightens the effect, the UK’s Met Office attributes three-quarters of the excess heat to human-forced climate change.
And as daffodils bloom in Britain, mistaking winter for spring, meteorologists are already predicting 2016 will be at least as warm.
4. India: solar champion
After 2014’s groundbreaking pact with the US showed China was firmly on board with the climate agenda, attention turned to the world’s fourth largest emitter: India.
At an earlier stage in its development, India was under pressure to chart a cleaner path to prosperity. Awkwardly but not unreasonably, Delhi had tended to insist rich countries – the historic polluters – were responsible for cleaning up the mess.
While that rhetoric continued to play well at home, in 2015 prime minister Narendra Modi developed a less confrontational narrative abroad.
Having set a target to install 100GW of solar power by 2022, in November he reached out to African leaders to cooperate on clean energy.
Beyond the practicalities, his solar alliance was a signal Delhi was prepared to be a constructive player at Paris talks – and a deal couldn’t have been reached without it.
5. Courtroom drama
It had been three years in the making, but outside the Netherlands a lawsuit against the Dutch government got little coverage.
When campaign group Urgenda won their case in June to force deeper greenhouse gas emissions cuts, then, it caused quite a stir. The government is appealing the decision, but meanwhile must start acting on the order to cut emissions 25% by 2020.
In Pakistan, a farmer took the authorities to court for failing to protect him from the impact of climate change – and won.
And in the US, oil giant Exxon Mobil is under investigation over allegations it lied about climate change. Based on reporting from Inside Climate News and the LA Times, the case has been seized on by campaigners.
For those victims of the worst climate impacts hoping to sue polluters, the Paris deal appeared to deliver a blow, ruling out compensation. But experts told Climate Home there was still some wriggle room.
The trend even came to the attention of the Bank of England. Governor Mark Carney warned investors litigation was one of the top three risks to financial stability associated with climate change.
And with 195 countries signed up to the Paris Agreement, don’t be surprised if more people take to the courts to enforce it.