Reflections on COP 21
by Brent Kopperson
Right after the COP 21 Climate Change agreement was reached in Paris last 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 decarbonization.
The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was the 9th global negotiation I attended. The first one was 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 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 an entirely different matter.
Back then, I was initially mesmerized and bewildered by the arcane process and language of the COP until I joined a badass global network of highly intellectual climate change campaigners (Climate Action Network) that had a good grasp of the science and the process. This group of visionaries were determined to offer solutions and call out national governments on factual issues, equity, transparency, and the morality of continuing down a path of predictable destruction.
A few days of orientation in Delhi, and there I was, standing on a podium, with cameras flashing, awarding the 'Fossil of the Day' honour to Canada. This award is presented to countries recognized for their immense effort in blocking progress in the negotiations. The recipient of the award emerges through the votes of members of the Climate Action Network. I don't exactly recall 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 Canada would seek special dispensation for its dirty energy exports from the Tar Sands a few years later.
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 initiated by former PM, Brian Mulroney. Subsequently, 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 climate-related issues, including international negotiations.
Thankfully, 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 the Paris Agreement.
The Paris agreement doesn't save the planet, but it does recognize the level of ambition needed to sidestep catastrophic human misery on an unimaginable scale. It contains binding and non-binding elements that give individual countries the liberty 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 peaked, the time frame will likely need to be compressed to achieve the Agreement's goal to hold the global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius and strive for 1.5 degrees.
Fortunately, the Paris Agreement contains language to compel countries to update their commitments every five years, beginning in 2020. The agreement also provides a guide for countries to monitor and report on progress transparently according to standards that would 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.
Nevertheless, there is still much to be done through the UNFCCC process. Negotiations are expected to 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. In addition, the negotiations could produce strategies on how to equitably manage losses and miseries resulting from climate change induced events like sea levels, storms, flooding, drought, food shortages, migration and other big messes that science, economic analysis, and common sense tell us we are better off avoiding if we mobilise for a 100% renewable energy economy now.
Brent Kopperson is the Founder and Executive Director of Windfall Ecology Centre