COP 21: This Climate Conference Will Affect Canadians Too, Eh?

What is COP 21? Well, you probably didn’t ask, but it’s a climate change conference being held in Paris by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFC3?) from November 30 to December 11. Have I already lost your attention?

Conferences are boring (unless you’re stealing food and taking home all the free swag), but this annual meeting is a big deal for everyone this year, including you. Approximately 50,000 people are attending—half of whom are official delegates—and they’ll be using CO2-emitting planes to get there. Oh, the irony…Our current international commitments run out in 2020, so it’s time to get to work and hash out another set of commitments.

The main goal of these negotiations is to create a legally binding carbon emission reduction agreement. If it gets too hot (more than a 2°C increase from pre-industrial levels), the systems we depend on to support life will probably reach their ‘tipping’ points, yadda yadda yadda… you’ve probably heard all about the consequences.

Since February, important people have been negotiating and trying to agree on 50 pages of the draft agreement. At COP 21, even more important people will arrive to add their political pomp to the process. Enter JT. (Remember when JT referred to Justin Timberlake?). Enter also, if they so choose, Elizabeth May, Thomas Mulcair, and…who’s that new interim leader of the Conservative Party? Was Rona Ambrose invited? After that, negotiators take over again and try to reach a deal in the following days.

Why is it such a big deal?

There’s a stronger sense of urgency in this round of negotiations than there has been before. (Remember Hurricane Sandy? The red haze of forest fires in BC?). Climate change is starting to be felt more acutely, even in Canada. In ‘developing’ countries, the effects of climate change are much greater and more immediate due to geography and history. We outsource pretty much everything, which means we also outsource our fair share of emissions. It all boils down to the fact that our climate doesn’t respect national borders. (If only the problem was so tidy).

Basically, no single country can tackle these issues alone. Hence, COP 21.

The major push is to de-carbonize the economy and move towards cleaner energy sources over the next 50ish years. Some countries like this idea; others aren’t so keen. Priorities are just different. Some countries have small, insatiable populations (say aye if you’re Canadian!), and others have large numbers of people without access to basic needs. Some major debates at COP 21 will deal with these differences, trying to determine how much wealthier countries should be investing in emission reductions for countries without the financial means. (Recall the history of colonialism if you’re confused about why). And so you can imagine the range of conflicts and tensions in the negotiation process.

In case you were wondering, here’s the historical timeline:

  • 1992: UNFC3 is established
  • 1997: Kyoto Protocol agrees to reduce emissions by 5% from 1990 levels by 2012 (only for ‘developed’ countries); it requires ratification by countries representing at least 55% of global emissions
  • 1997-2004: US Congress won’t ratify Kyoto, stalling the agreement
  • 2004: Kyoto finally becomes legally binding because Russia ratifies it
  • 2009: COP 15 is held in Copenhagen; there is some consensus to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the conference is basically a #fail
  • 2010: In Cancun, new targets are formally put into UN documents, but they still aren’t legally binding
  • 2011: Canada withdraws from Kyoto (embarrassing)
  • 2012: Kyoto Protocol does not meet its targets

Why is it such a big deal for Canadians?

COP 21 may be a big moment for Canadians. Basically, we have been the worst when it comes to climate negotiations for the past 10 years. We pulled out of Kyoto, which was ‘legally binding.’ How does that even work?! If we broke any rules of the World Trade Organization, s*** would get real. Break a climate agreement? No worries, we’ll just give you the Fossil Award, which means we think you suck.

But times are a-changin’.

JT promises that he will meet with the provinces within 90 days of COP 21 to come up with an emission reduction strategy that suits everyone’s needs. The reasoning here is that one size does not fit all; Canada is a big place. Currently, BC has a carbon tax while Ontario and Quebec have a cap and trade program.

The idea here is that carbon does cost us (refer to any fear-mongering article about costs of climate change if you don’t believe me), and these costs need to be taken into account. Many provinces also have strategies to improve energy efficiency and shift towards renewables. These existing strategies combined with an international target could be a real force for change in the Canadian economy.

Why is it such a big deal for you?

Chances are you already care about climate change if you live in California, because your neighbour has turned their lawn into a wetland for migrating birds since everything else has dried up. But here in the True North, it’s harder to understand what climate change means for us. So my question is: how do we motivate people who don’t care about climate change?

We’re all bored of the fear tactics, so I’ll rule that one out. It doesn’t really work. (Remember Al Gore?). So I’m left with two options. I could appeal to your self-interest, or your altruism. Most of you are probably motivated by some mix of the two.

You care about climate change because of self-interest!

Your well-being matters. Here are some practical reasons you should care about COP 21:

  • You hate killer Southern Ontario summers and your grandma’s asthma is becoming a real problem
  • You tried to snowboard in Whistler last winter and it rained all weekend
  • You want your partner to move home from Fort McMurray
  • Flooding from coast to coast to coast will threaten your favourite bars in St. John’s, Hali, Gastown, etc.
  • Your money is invested in the fossil fuel industry (unless you hide your tips under the floorboard of your room) and we will eventually run out of fossil fuels
  • Zebra mussels (and other invasive species) could settle in for the long run and stepping on a zebra mussel hurts like a mother
  • Whether or not you realize it, your favourite food often comes from other countries (Ecuadorian bananas, anyone?)

You care about climate change because you care about other beings!

Your obligation to fellow beings is not a matter of charity, but a matter of social justice. Here are some reasons you should care about COP 21:

  • People in other countries are facing the reality of climate change that has not (yet) reached most of Canada
  • The food and water situation is precarious in many places and people in these areas have to deal with shortages
  • Climate change will disproportionally affect First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples
  • Your children and their children will have to deal with the consequences of your actions
  • We are seeing a refugee crisis due to conflict, which will worsen with climate refugees from small island and drought-susceptible locations
  • Your favourite animals (including your pets) will have to deal with climate change, too

To sum it all up…

We tend to focus on the negative aspects of climate change, but we should see COP 21 as an opportunity. It is an opportunity for innovation, new technologies, different systems, and international collaboration. Even the economy is on our side, as renewable energy prices are low and technological efficiency is improving. For you, it’s an opportunity to pressure your government to do what you elected it (and pay it) to do: work on your behalf. Let’s be hopeful and engaged so that COP 21 can be a success.


This piece was written by Irene Brueckner-Irwin,
MES candidate, University of Waterloo.

<< This blog post was originally written for The Path Report >>


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