Red Lines demonstration in Paris at the COP21

I watched the twitter feed and followed the news early last December filled with a mixture of excitement at what unfolded in Paris and mild envy of companions who were immersed in the ebb and flow of events around COP 21, the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC. As the reports of the signing of the agreement sank in, I was slowly filled with a great sense of excitement at the significance of what has happened.

I am not versed in the detail of the Paris Agreement. I have no doubt that it’s filled with lines that reek of injustice, that so many must be outraged by the substance of the text or disappointed by the things that felt so nearly within grasp. But the months since do not feel like those after COP 15 in Copenhagen, where the constant mantra was of failure – that the negotiators had failed to reach agreement, that the governments had failed to live up to the demands of the people, that the Movement had failed to force the Parties to ratify an accord worthy of that name.

Six years after the crushing disappointment of COP 15 something different is unfolding. Out of the slough of melancholy, in which so many said ‘the COP process is broken’, that ‘there’s no point in doing anything around Paris 2015’, has arisen a Movement that has show determination and will. I have so much admiration for those that drove that spirit of optimism and imagination in the lead up to Paris. First to my mind comes the Lab of Insurrectionary Imagination who planned the Climate Games for the better part of two years. Behind the Lab lies the extraordinary energy of Isa Fremeaux and John Jordan (Perhaps I’m a little biased here as they are long term allies of Platform – John was a co-director for ten years). Then come the forces behind actions such as Ende Gelande that inspired many hearts to engage in the COP. Then comes, which methodically built towards the Paris days. Then groups like Global Justice Now that kept structures of organisation in place despite the shock of the Paris killings on Friday 13th November. And running like a fire throughout these hopes, was the inspiration of the First Nations and Indigenous Rights activists. I’m enraptured by this Movement across the world that was determined to hold the negotiators to account, that against extraordinary odds persisted in showing that action by the Parties was demanded and would take place.

UNEP Sustainable Finance Inquiry panel

Many of the newspapers talked of the agreement signalling the end of the Fossil Fuel Age. On reading this I needed to shake myself. Nick Robins, a former trustee of Platform who worked on the Homeland project and who now heads the UNEP Inquiry into the Design of a Sustainable Finance System, explained to me why he felt such an idea is being floated. He was closely involved in the processes around both the Copenhagen and Paris COPs. At the former, despite its failure, there was a widespread recognition that climate change was happening, that it was driven by fossil fuel burning and that actions needed to be taken to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The actions being proposed were greater energy efficiency and massive investment in renewable energy systems. However at Paris, the action that was touted as being necessary was a move to progressively reduce the use of fossil fuels and to leave much of them in the ground. The evolution of this new common sense is a profound shift.

Only twenty years ago Platform began a project that focused our attention on oil and its impact on the climate, on human rights and local ecosystems. We debated hard as to what to call this initiative. We settled on 90% Crude – referencing the idea articulated by Mayer Hillman that the Global North needed to reduce its CO2 emissions by ninety per cent. At the time this seemed a provocative and cheeky demand. Now its almost government policy. Some of us had wanted to use a strap line of ‘FFFF’ – ‘Fossil Fuel Free Future’. But this was deemed to be just too outrageous. Now the imminence of this ‘future’ is widely described as inevitable and debate is merely around when it will arrive.

Of course it will not arrive without a persistent struggle. Without actions in all spheres that force coal, oil and gas to be ‘kept in the ground’. One of the most powerful ideas of the Paris days is that of the Red Line. This concept, which bubbled out of the imagination of several Climate Camp activists, including the Lab of ii and climate scientists, was pushed through the processes of the ngo COP21 coalition in the lead up to Paris and has now become a global meme. (It was also in this coalition that another important marker was passed when 130 organisations, ranging from faith groups to trades unions and ngos, agreed to take civil disobedience in Paris in order to enforce the demands of Climate Justice. Sadly this victory of negotiation was drowned out in the aftermath of the attacks on November 13th and the subsequent state of emergency.)

Red Lines demonstration at COP21 in Paris

The Red Lines signified by the meme are the lines beyond which we cannot go if we are to prevent the climate from warming beyond 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The lines that we have to stop well short of if we are to meet the desirable target of 1.5 degrees of warming. The lines drawn in front of open cast coal mines, in front of offshore oil wells, in front of gas fields, in front of airports. Drawn because we cannot allow the forces of capital to continue to operate in these spaces, and continue to turn carbon in the lithosphere into carbon in the atmosphere, merely in order to generate short-term profit. These lines need to be drawn in a myriad of places around the world – not just in the spaces of existing or potential fossil fuel extraction, buy also in all those places that facilitate that process of extraction, from oil sponsored art galleries to coal invested pension funds, and indeed within the bureaucratic machines that are the oil & gas corporations.

Mae Hank of REDOIL – central to the campaign that stopped Shell’s Arctic drilling

These Red Lines are being drawn and being fought over. And battles are being won. There was effectively a Red Line drawn in front of Shell’s plans to drill in the US Arctic. Another in front of the plans to build the Keystone XL pipeline that would have carried tar sands derived crude from Alberta to Texas. Another in front of BP’s desire to renew its sponsorship contracts with Tate and the Edinburgh Festival. And another in front of RBS’s plans to generate profit through loans to tar sands extraction companies. In all these cases, after a massive civil society struggle, the Red Lines have not been crossed.

Now the moment has come to draw further Red Lines. This May there will be actions against fossil fuel extraction sites in 12 countries across the world. The international mobilisation, coming under the banner of Break Free From Fossil Fuels includes a wide range of groups. although is playing a key role. In Germany there will be a second Ende Gelande action, this time at the lignite fields in Lusatia east of Berlin. Meanwhile in Nigeria there are three planned actions in Nigeria led by our close friends in the Health of Mother Earth Foundation. 

Ffos-y-fran open cast coal mine in South Wales

In the UK  a Red Line will be drawn in front of the largest open cast coal pit – Ffos-y-fran at Merthyr Tydfill in South Wales. The Reclaim the Power mass action camp – End Coal Now – will run from Saturday 30th April to Wednesday 4th May. It will protest against the mine, owned by Miller Argent, and the plans to open an extension of the pit on common land at Nant Llesg – despite this being rejected by the local council last year. The existing pit exports its coal to the Aberthaw power station on the coast near Barry, where its burning drives carbon into the atmosphere. (Coincidentally, Aberthaw was the power station that played a significant part in Platform’s Homeland project in 1993).

The actions at Ffos-y-fran are an important milestone in the long retreat from fossil fuels – and we’ll be there to take part.

We salute the drawing of Red Lines around the world!