COP21 Initial Reflections on Week 2

What a wonderful three days it has been at COP21! … I am so fortunate to be here in Paris, representing the Faculty of Environment and the University of Waterloo, and so pleased that I am attending COP21 alongside such engaged and wonderful students!   I have now had one day ‘off-site’ (at the World Climate Summit) and two days ‘on-site’ (at the Le Bourget site). It is interesting to see what themes have emerged during my first few days here. Let me highlight three in particular.

Before, however, I get to them, let me first note the important ‘content issues’ associated with COP21. There are critical priority issues that are the focus of the continuing negotiations; for more about them, see the great, up-to-date analyses that are offered by organizations like the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the Pembina Institute, and Clean Energy Canada. Here, however, I look at three broader themes that have caught my personal interest

1)‘Canada is back.’

I hear – and read – in multiple locations the sentiment that ‘Canada is back’. I am also told by veterans of the ENV-UW-COP19 delegation that things are certainly different this time around. In Poland, Canada won multiple fossils of the day, and the daily gatherings of Canadians could – in the worst instance – have attendance recorded by single-digit numbers!

Well, what a difference two years (and, of course, ‘an election’) makes! As is often articulated, #CanadaIsBack. There is a large Canadian contingent here in Paris, and it is diverse across multiple axes (sector, ‘level’ of activity, age, experience, etc.). Diversity is, of course, a Canadian strength, and it is a characteristic that will be needed if we are to respond to climate change successfully.

For now, however, let me simply say that there is an excitement about Canadian participation in these discussions – as seen from outside, as seen in the daily Canadian briefings, and as seen in Canadian carousing here in Paris.

2) ‘Location, location, location’

In preparation for this blog posting – and at a time when the author thought this blog posting would examine the details of the negotiations – I reviewed some ‘week one summaries’ in the international press. One theme that jumped out at me – in, for instance, commentaries in respected media outlets like The New York Times and the BBC – was the importance of the activities of the host country. Who the host is in climate change negotiations matters, both because the host does so much to establish the foundation (through months of prior ‘leg-work’) and because the host chairs/directs the discussions during the two weeks of the conference. Reports, to date, suggest that the French have been more than ‘up to the task’.

Numerous observers note the long history and deep ‘bench-strength’ of the ‘machine of French diplomacy’. The skills of foreign minister Laurent Fabius have also been highlighted by many; participants with access here note that the French have the gravitas and je ne sais quoi to allow them to move agendas forward. Personally, I saw this ‘expertise’ in two ways today.

This morning – at 8:15am – as we got on the crowded train at the peak of rush-hour and then emerged to a long line-up waiting for the shuttle buses at the ‘drop-off train station’ (Le Bourget), I moaned to myself, ‘This is going to take a long time!’. Well, in short, it did not: buses were loaded promptly and once we arrived at the conference site, the multitude of metal detectors/security stations – lined up on three sides – allowed us all relatively quick passage. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised.

And the second example appeared to me just before 6pm, as I was walking towards a wonderful ‘tribute gathering’ for Maurice Strong. Not once, but twice during the five minute walk to my meeting room, I ran across conference staff hauling cases of France’s ‘best beverages’ (think tall bottles, … often with a cork, or at least a ‘pop’ sound of some kind) – presumably delivering them to rooms full of negotiators. The ‘care and feeding’ of all diplomats is an issue that French hosts have not overlooked.

And, as much as it pains me, many compare these positive experiences in Paris to the ‘problems’ associated with the Danish hosting of COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. This hurts, because I have a strong affinity for Denmark – my wonderful ‘Roskilde Rocket’ was born there 18 years ago! But various commentators suggest that the Danes were out of their depth six years ago; the disappointing result there was not one that anyone wants to repeat. However, here in Paris – this wonderful, global and sophisticated city – the country’s diplomats appear to be giving it their all, delivering ‘in spades’ and thus hoping for a different outcome.

3) ‘Something is going on’

I admit, I have been here in Paris for 60 hours now, and perhaps I have been fully engulfed by the ‘COP21-bubble’. (I have ‘drank the koolaid’, as some colleagues would phrase it.) In any case, what I do know is that there is a fantastic energy level here in Paris: that is powered not only by an incredible sense of urgency, in light of the critical problem that is global climate change, but accompanying it is a fantastic feeling that this challenge can be met with a transition to a low-carbon society that can advance multiple community goals. That is not meant to suggest that there is overconfidence that a ‘meaningful agreement’ will easily be reached later this week – it is widely accepted that much hard work remains to be done. Moreover, even if a ‘strong document’ emerges on Friday, then there will still be much more work to be done ‘at home’ in the coming months (and I hope to return to this theme in a Thursday-blog posting). Nevertheless, there is certainly the feeling here that we may have actually passed a ‘tipping point’ – perhaps subsequent debates will no longer be about ‘first principle issues’ (e.g., should we pursue a low-carbon economy), but instead about ‘how “best” we can do it’. That is worth noting!

ian rowlands

This piece was written by Ian Rowlands

Ian is a Professor and Associate Dean, Strategic Initiatives in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo

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