Articles

Reflections on COP 21

by Brent Kopperson

Right after the COP 21 Climate Change agreement was reached in Paris this past December I tweeted, Today’s COP21 agreement is definitely a turning point that marks the end of the Fossil Fuel Age. It was not a euphoric statement as much as a grudging acknowledgement that out of the grinding multi-threaded UN process that winds up and unravels almost simultaneously there came just enough clarity of vision among 195 countries to stumble into a new era of determined decarbonisation.

The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was the 9th such global negotiation I have attended. The first one as a curious eco-tourist needing to see the plan. As John Lennon quipped in his Revolution song lyrics:

You say you got a real solution
Well you know
We'd all love to see the plan

We do have real solutions, but as I learned during my initiation at COP 8 in Delhi India in 2002, getting planetary agreement on an action plan is quite another matter.

Back then I was initially mesmerised and bewildered by the arcane process and language of the COP but soon fell in with a badass global network of brainy climate change campaigners (Climate Action Network) that knew the science and the process and were determined to offer solutions and call out national governments on issues of fact, equity, transparency, and the morality of continuing down a path of predictable destruction.

A few days of orientation in Delhi and I found myself standing on a podium, cameras flashing, awarding the Fossil of the Day to Canada. Members of the Climate Action Network vote to award the Fossil to countries judged to have done their best to block progress in the negotiations. I don’t recall exactly what the Fossil Award that day was for but it likely had something to do with Canada’s demanding special dispensation for its Clean Energy Exports. No, not wind energy. At the time clean energy was Canada’s code name for natural gas, a fossil fuel. It is somewhat ironic that a few years later Canada would seek special dispensation for its dirty energy exports from the Tar Sands.

In the ensuing years I participated in many more COP and intersessional climate negotiations variously as a member of Canada’s Delegation or representing Windfall Ecology Centre, which has official observer status with the UNFCCC.

When the Harper government was first elected it quickly ended the practice of inviting representatives from environmental organizations to contribute expertise on Canada’s Delegation, a practice that was started by former PM, Brian Mulroney. Just as quickly the Harper government cancelled or hobbled the few climate change mitigation programs the federal government was operating and ushered in a long period of obstructive behaviour with all things climate related, including international negotiations.

That ended at COP 21 in Paris with the newly elected Liberal government committed to sunnier ways. Canada’s escape from the dark side was a welcome breath of fresh air to the international community and Canadians performed admirably with renewed vigour during the climate negotiation. We didn’t sway the day but we were on the right side of a pervasive sense of historic moment leading up to COP 21 and finally proclaimed with the Paris Agreement.

The Paris agreement doesn’t save the planet but it does recognise the level of ambition needed to sidestep catastrophic human misery on an unimaginable scale. It contains both binding and non-binding elements which give leave to individual countries to decide their own nationally determined contributions. So far those commitments fall far short of the Paris Agreement’s long winded long-term GHG mitigation goal which essentially translates as reaching net zero emissions sometime after 2050. Depending on when global emission finally peak the time frame will likely need to be compressed in order to achieve the Agreement’s goal to hold the global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to strive for 1.5 degrees.

Fortunately, the Paris Agreement contains language to compel countries to update their commitments every 5 years beginning in 2020 and to monitor and report on progress in a transparent manner according to standards that will be developed in upcoming sessions. There will also be a process or facilitative dialogue, in UN Speak, to assess the adequacy of collective efforts in relation to achieving the long term goals.

There remains much to be done through the UNFCCC process and negotiations will grind along, hopefully increasing mitigation and adaptation ambition over time, and solving a host of contentious issues, including the financing obligation of developed countries to provide climate finance to developing countries and how to equitably manage loss and damage miseries resulting from climate change induced events…rising sea levels, storms, flooding, drought, food shortages, migration, pestilence, war, and other big messes that science, economic analysis, and common sense tell us we are better off avoiding by mobilising for a 100% renewable energy economy now.

Brent Kopperson is the Founder and Executive Director of Windfall Ecology Centre