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COP21: More than just hot air?

can bend the curve on climate change, but success at this year’s climate
conference is only one milestone in a long marathon. 

By: /
9 December, 2015
A participant is pictured in front of a screen projecting a world map showing climate anomalies during COP21 at Le Bourget, near Paris, December 8, 2015. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

Climate talks wrap up in Paris this week. The leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, spoke passionately on the need for action. But the Copenhagen, Bali and Kyoto climate conferences were also suffused with passion and eloquence. The test this time will be whether the commitments promised in Paris are global, verifiable and continuing. 

Meanwhile, global temperatures keep rising, with the World Meteorological Organization predicting 2015 will be the warmest on record. United States President Barack Obama warned last week in Paris that “more and more and more” of economic and military resources are devoted to adapting to the “various consequences of a changing planet.”

Paris is the 21st in an annual series of meetings. The conference of the parties (COP) began after the Rio de Janeiro “Earth Summit” (1992) produced the UN Framework Conventions on Climate Change and Biodiversity. Rio established climate change as a global problem requiring global action.

Rio also acknowledged that because of different stages of industrialization, there would be “common but differentiated responsibilities.” The Kyoto Protocol (1997) interpreted this principle by having developed nations, but not developing nations, taking on specific commitments to reduce their carbon footprint.

Kyoto didn’t fly, largely because of this differentiation. The U.S. Senate rejected Kyoto 95-0. Others, including Canada, withdrew with the result that Kyoto commitments only cover around 14 percent of global emissions.

Global growth in emissions now comes from large emerging economies as developed nations’ emissions are flattening.

China recently passed the U.S. as the world’s biggest emitter. Any breakthroughs in Paris will owe much to the 2014 agreement by President Obama and President Xi Jinping on targets for their emissions’ cuts. Their agreement shifted the global politics of climate change.

Determining whether Paris is more than just hot air will depend on a series of markers.

First, sufficient buy-in. The “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDC) going into Paris totalled 185 nations covering more than 95 percent of global emissions. This significantly differentiates Paris from Kyoto and, if it holds, gives both scope and foundation for ongoing progress.

Second, a mechanism for review, verification and renewal. Regular five-year reviews should include ratcheting up provisions to take account of breakthroughs in innovation.

Third, a fund for mitigation and adaptation. Developed countries have pledged a $100-billion Green Climate Fund, with Canada contributing $2.65-billion, by 2020 to help the poorest countries with loss and damage. Some developing nations want developed nations to accept unlimited liability for climate and weather damages but, like Kyoto, this won’t fly.

There is growing recognition that while different countries face different realities and have different responsibilities, it is a problem of the global commons.

The Mission Innovation initiative announced at Paris by 21 leaders, including Trudeau, pledges to make clean energy available worldwide. Canada has pledged $300-million annually for investment in clean technology and innovation.

That the private sector is stepping up is another positive. As Canadian Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, recently told Lloyd’s of London, climate change is “the tragedy of the horizon” warning that “once climate change becomes a defining issue for financial stability, it may already be too late.”

Last week, the Breakthrough Business Coalition, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Alibaba’s Jack Ma, pledged to mobilize billions in investment in “truly transformative” energy solutions. At TED2010, Gates made the case for innovating our economies to zero emissions by 2050 through a combination of market and innovation incentives and help to the world’s poorest.

After Paris, the continuing process will be both top-down and bottom-up. There are many unknowns: How fast we can develop new technologies; population growth; economic growth; and, especially, political will and commitment.

Within Canada and the United States, the climate debate has got to get past the right versus left divide.

A polarized environment-versus-economy argument makes no sense. As Preston Manning has argued, “conservatives” and “conservation” come from the same root. Margaret Thatcher understood this. Conservative skeptics should read her 1989 speech where the Iron Lady told the United Nations that the “evidence is there and damage is being done.”

Paris can bend the curve on climate change. But success at Paris is not the finale. Rather it is another anchor event in a long marathon that must include changing attitudes and habits across nations and across generations. There is continuing resonance in Ms. Thatcher’s parting admonition at the UN:

“We are not the lords, we are the Lord’s creatures, the trustees of this planet, charged today with preserving life itself – preserving life with all its mystery and all its wonder.”

This piece was originally published in The Globe and Mail.

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