COP 21 is over… So that’s it, we did it, right?
We have, for the first time, a global agreement on climate change, binding in some respects, not in others, but with an ambitious target of keeping warming to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels.
We have the agreement, yes, but there’s so much more to do. The real challenge – implementation, enforcement, monitoring (a worry when studying planning, too!) – is only just beginning.
We thought at first to give a summary of everything the agreement tells us – the good, the bad and the ugly – but there are SO many amazing summaries already out there (here, here, here and here – oh and here, too – check them out!), we’re going to try something a little different.
Below you will find the personal perspectives from members of our “Paris Team” and “Kiribati Team” which attended COP 21, as well as the two leads from our “Home Team”, who worked tirelessly to keep the campus engaged. We hope this summary adds to the dialogue already underway – our highlights, from our perspective – enjoy!
Paris Team Week 1!
How was COP21? I can only characterize this landmark conference as a whirlwind of excitement – and lack of sleep!. For me, it involved representing the University of Waterloo and the Youth Arctic Coalition, while also conducting research for work and being a member on the negotiating team for the Seychelles delegation. Because of these various ‘hats’, my week 1 and 2 were distinctly different. In week 1 I attended the Conference of Youth (COY11), attended as many side-events and meetings as possible, and explored the beautiful city of Paris with wonderful new friends! I especially loved strategizing with other young people from around the world and being interviewed by various media outlets on my perspective as a young academic.
Week 2 painted a completely different picture as I began working as the finance lead for the Seychelles negotiating team. As you can imagine, week 2 of negotiations meant that things were heating up (no pun intended…). As a representative of a very small delegation, I was able to enter the restricted meetings, such as the Indaba sessions and other Ministerial-level discussions. The highlights? Sitting beside U.S Secretary of State John Kerry; meeting my climate idols Claudia Salerno and Elizabeth May; and being IN the plenary session when all 196 countries to the UNFCCC achieved the globally-binding agreement that COP21 was set out to accomplish. All in all an unbelievable experience!
I was honoured to be able to witness this historic moment in Paris. This moment represents a significant milestone in our journey to limit the devastating impacts of climate change. The hard work starts now; we need to rapidly speed up our transition. As a member of the week one Paris team, it was exciting and relieving to hear Heads of State and key political leaders speak with a sense of urgency. In one of the opening speeches, Prince Charles stated, “in damaging our climate we become the architects of our own destruction.” He pointed out that governments spend over a trillion dollars each year subsidizing fossil fuels, deforestation, and over-exploitation of the seas in the interest of energy, agriculture, and fishing. What if we subsidized sustainable energy and agriculture, instead?
While the first week focused on the impacts of climate change, and gave a platform for vulnerable countries like Tuvalu and Madagascar, there was equal or greater energy being focused on tangible solutions and new green energy investments! As Al Gore pointed out to a packed audience, we have the science and the solutions; what we lack now is the political will – and political will is a renewable resource!
How to describe COP21? It was a beautiful moment for climate action – it was emotional, it was diverse and, best of all, it was a genuine effort to bring all parties to the table. COP21 gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to truly connect with the most important issue to me and our generation on a global stage, with a seemingly endless array of panels, side events and conferences! The team we assembled, at home and in Paris, was truly an unforgettable group that brought joy, diverse knowledge and support to each of us, whenever we needed it. The support from the university, too, was invaluable in making this journey possible, allowing us to have a voice at the negotiations.
Seeing the momentum towards tackling climate change, while learning from stories of hardship and triumph, actions of protest and research from the front lines has given me a powerful drive to become a teacher and researcher. I am excited and humbled by the knowledge shared and partnerships formed across traditionally isolated/opposing groups. Local action is truly having a global impact, and our role – as volunteers, scientists, voters, youth or simply citizens – is a powerful force for change. Education is key. We must “keep it in the ground”, bring human rights, traditional knowledge, and best practices from all nations to the fore. From a quote I’ll never forget, “it’s too late to be a pessimist”. We must be hopeful, bold, educated and active in this movement towards sustainability. COP21 has laid the foundation, now let’s build our future!
In the days since returning from COP, I have measured its success with a simple benchmark… when I mention in conversation that I’ve just been to the COP21 United Nations climate conference in Paris, do people know what I’m talking about? The overwhelming finding is “yes” and carries true for almost all of those I’ve crossed paths with, including colleagues, close friends, my massage therapist, a grocery store clerk, a fellow bus passenger, my broomball teammates, etc. Beyond the universal recognition, I’ve also observed a subtle yet remarkable shift in what comes next in the conversation. Instead of a dismissive remark or joke about my treehugger ways (especially from those in the latter part of the list), there are nodding heads and questions about “what does this agreement mean for us?”
While there are certainly more critical ways we can evaluate the success of COP21, for me this benchmark tells a story of the widespread awareness that can result from a critical mass of media attention, political energy, business interest, and grassroots momentum. So, my highlight of COP21 is seeing the sum of it as one pivotal moment in time… I believe we’re witnessing a deeply entrenched set of societal norms began to hinge on their axes and creep – slowly but surely – in another direction towards a low-carbon, sustainable future. And as we move together in this direction, the experience of meeting people from around the world who share similar visions and also of working closely with this group of brilliant and passionate UW students leaves me filled with hope that we have the collective ingenuity, tenacity and human spirit needed to get us there!
Paris Team Week 2!
If I could choose one word to describe the second week at COP21 it would be… OVERWHELMING! In the absolute best way, COP was everything I had hoped it would be and more. From attending sessions held by some of my life-long role models, to participating in peaceful youth actions, I was able to learn more about how climate change is affecting people from all over the world. As the conference began to wrap up, the importance of the agreement to these people grew stronger and stronger. Because of Waterloo’s geographic location, it can be easy to “hide” from the effects of climate change. However, for people living in Northern communities or on small Pacific islands, there is nowhere to run. Climate change is happening, and affecting them dramatically, right now. As we patiently awaited the outcome on Saturday afternoon, these were the people I was most excited for. For the first time in 21 years, an agreement has been signed and the road to a fossil-free world begins!
Witnessing the international business community play a stellar role at COP21 from the start was inspiring. Watching Sir. Richard Branson on stage and having Chennai receive the Sustainia Award from him was sublime considering the recent floods that have wreaked havoc in that city. COP21 provided me with an invaluable platform to network and exchange ideas with influential business and thought leaders from aviation, real estate, engineering and the energy sector, to name a few. I had meaningful discussions with government and business leaders from India, and look forward to where those conversations take me. I enjoyed interacting with civil society at the Climate Generations Areas and was energized to see one and all committed in co-creating a green planet for all. I’m confident that the relationships I made here will add strategic value to my academic and career ambitions.
I have to say, while attending the second week of COP21 it felt like non-stop action. I think all of us would agree that even if you attended all the presentations and events you were able to – there were so many others happening simultaneously that you always felt there were twice as many you missed out on! I particularly enjoyed attending a side event at COP21 about sustainable food production, with a focus on the importance of reducing meat consumption in the face of demand rising for this carbon intensive food source as a luxury item, especially in developing economies. Another highlight was when Rahul and I attended a tour of green parks and communities in Paris, run by the “green zone” of COP21, called the Climate Generations Areas. We learned about how green-spaces have been integrated (or the lack of) into the city, and the history of the ‘garden city movement’ seen in developments within Paris.
COP21 was a wonderful experience! I appreciated – and thoroughly enjoyed – the opportunity to lead the UW delegation with Sarah Brown; it was great to work with so many passionate, engaged and informed students, in both Waterloo and Paris. There are many highlights for me. The potential that COP21 could come to be seen as a real ‘turning point’ in the world’s response to the challenges posed by, and opportunities offered by, global climate change is one; I certainly got numerous ideas and much inspiration regarding a low-carbon future, and I am excited about the work going forward. Moreover, the conversations I had with people – former contacts, old friends and folks I just met – is another highlight. Collaboration, coordination and cooperation are three words that have to be central to the climate change response, and all kinds of perspectives and talents are needed. We need to learn from each other and to work together.
The Paris Agreement is particularly noteworthy because it lays out an ambitious commitment — a commitment that is ultimately universal. As part of this global commitment, Canadian greenhouse gas emissions need to fall dramatically – by 60, 70, 80% over the coming decades. With the Prime Minister’s 90-day post-Paris timeline already underway, it is clear that the coming weeks will be pivotal as our country begins to plot a course for a low-carbon future.
Thoughts from the Home Team:
It was incredible to see such passion about climate action from both our Paris team and all those who participated in our #COP21 Home Team initiatives led by Masters of Climate Change student, Jordan Blake. We were overwhelmed with the positive engagement in our events and discussions about this historic global milestone. During the conference, we held two “Skype and Pizza” sessions, where we chatted with our delegation team overseas and got the inside scoop on COP21 news as it was happening! We had 65+ students come out to these climate talks, and another 75+ students participate in our whiteboard sessions, where they answered climate change related discussion questions. This has been an inspiring and uplifting experience, and I’m so happy to have been a part of the communication and engagement outreach surrounding the University of Waterloo’s journey to COP21! Climate action requires engaging and creative communication efforts, as meaningful discussion surrounding climate change is one of the supporting and motivating pillars for progress.
To add to Sara’s home team highlights, I was thrilled to be able to lead the home team again, and grateful for all the support that was given from the faculty, the delegates and from all of the members of Climate Students. The skype sessions and the white board sessions were a great success! It is nice to see the university community participating in our events in such big numbers. I am very happy to have been able to support our delegates for this conference, and am looking forward to helping them share their experiences on campus in the new year.
Having not attended the conference, it was interesting to see the awareness around the issues and the shift in conversation here at home as the conference progressed. I am looking forward to see how world leaders follow through with their actions, let’s hold them to account!
Thoughts from the Kiribati team (see their blog here!):
Laura, Kadra, Rija, and Vidya
We could never have imagined just how incredible, rich, and rewarding our experience at COP21 would be and we are very grateful to everyone who has played a part in our journey. The Kiribati delegation treated us like family, and we can never thank them enough. We miss them already, and know that this is not a goodbye, but a see-you-later (preferably on a trip to Kiribati)! Special thanks to UWaterloo for their support and guidance pre-COP, during, and now post-COP. We are very grateful, and are overwhelmed by the positive response we have received from the University. An extra special thank you to Dr. Simron Singh! Finally, our experience would not have been possible without the support of our friends and family. Thank you to everyone who has followed us on this amazing journey. We cannot wait to share our experience with everyone in person!
We hope you’ve enjoyed our blog posts so far – we always welcome your thoughts, stories and perspective in our comments section, or anywhere on social media (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and Climate Students, to name a few)! Be sure to tag #UWCOP21!
See you in the new year with much more to come on COP21 (both on-campus and online) on the road to climate action!