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13 January 2015

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, IIED director Camilla Toulmin looks at the promises and challenges for the year ahead.

Paris, January 2015: More than one million people march against terrorism (Photo: Olivier Ortelpa, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

Some years give you a bit of breathing space at the start, allowing you to work your way back into the day job, and have time to reflect on the prospect ahead. A gentle and easy birth. But 2015 has started with violence and disruption, bursting its way into the world with a shocking scream, and brutal re-awakening from the warm cocoon of family and friends together at Christmas.

The Paris assassinations have shocked us all deeply for their cold-blooded brutality, and the subsequent carnage for those caught up by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It is too early to judge the fall-out from these terrible events, but it is hugely encouraging to see the solidarity of people in their millions across France, coming together to show their strength and outrage, but also their support for people of all faiths.

The line-up of leaders from across all religious communities gave a sense of the positive bridge building that can come from such terrible brutality, as did the vision of the French President François Hollande arm-in arm with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, and many other leaders. 

This solidarity has been echoed across the world, as people in squares, piazzas, and plazas stand up to affirm "we are Charlie" and to exhibit a collective intent to push back on such horrific behaviour.

Nevertheless, it recalls the days after 9/11, when people from across the globe shouted "we are all New Yorkers" in the face of the horror attack on the twin towers. Then the mood shifted to the "war on terror" and illegal invasion of Iraq, ill-judged actions stupidly designed and ineptly carried through, and from which we all are bearing awful long-lasting consequences, most of all people in West Asia and the Middle East for whom peace in 2015 seems a too distant hope.

Such acts of wanton violence risk playing into the hands of right-wing, nationalist political forces, keen to kick out foreigners, or those with different cultural values. It is beholden on political leaders to prevent this assassination from forcing people apart into separate camps, and allowing simplistic solutions – such as chuck out all the foreigners – from taking root.

This new year is also heralding a big story about energy, with the extraordinary slide in oil and natural gas prices over the last few months, which has brought oil below US$50 per barrel from $110 six months ago. No one is clear where this particular chapter on global energy and climate change will end, but the role of Saudi Arabia as a central character in this story is not in doubt. 

Are they seeking to bankrupt those governments heavily reliant on oil revenues for their financial and political stability such as Iran and Russia? Are they doing their best to put the US shale gas revolution on hold? Are they driving out renewable energy? No one is predicting when prices will bottom out, but such a fall in prices does provide significant space for introducing a carbon tax.  

This year is also key for several major global agreements – Finance for Development in Ethiopia in July, the UN Sustainable Development Goal summit in New York in September, and the 21st Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention (COP21) due to take place in Paris at the end of this year.

It will be a roller-coaster ride of negotiations, lobbying, political pushes and backsliding, during which civil society needs to maintain a strong, articulate, noisy presence if successful conclusions are to be reached by the end of 2015.

We've just heard that 2014 was the UK's warmest year on record, as well as being one of the wettest. And there is growing evidence of tens of thousands of homes at risk from sea-level rise. So both domestically and globally, we must make the case that no action spells disaster.

It is also the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the landmark document drawn up and agreed between King John of England and the powerful barons who wanted less royal interference, and fewer taxes.

The Magna Carta has acquired iconic status since 1215, constituting one of the first written documents seeking to limit the power of the crown and stem its arbitrary authority. As such, it deserves celebration as an early example of "good governance".

But while the barons were keen to sort out a more balanced relationship with the King, they had no interest in the rights of the common people. Equally, while its agreement provided a brief respite from civil war, neither side fully trusted the deal, and fighting started again after a few months. A range of documents over subsequent years sought to bring peace but showed the limits of a written document when it comes to addressing the shifting interests of crown and land-owners.

Ultimately, politics and interests determine how much weight is given to any treaty or written agreement, as we will no doubt see when we meet in Paris for COP21.

Camilla Toulmin (camilla.toulmin@iied.org) is the director of IIED

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