It’s that time of year again. I’m overwhelmed with glitzy pop renditions of holiday music while my email and facebook accounts explode with news of the UN climate negotiations. Held in Paris France this year, there are heightened expectations for a new global treaty.
The stakes couldn’t be higher.
In addressing world leaders, Pope Francis recently told world leaders ‘we are at the limits of suicide if more is not done to combat climate change.’ I could list some of the heart wrenching effects climate change has had this year, but it feels like we should be past this. We know we’re facing a huge, collective crisis in climate change and that we need urgent, effective action to change course.
So what is happening at these talks?
If you’re anything like me, you’ll find tracking these talks mind boggling. There are the actual commitments on the part of governments to follow and the dynamics between the most vulnerable island states (vulnerable to extreme weather events and rising waters) and countries that have contributed the least to the problem, with those like ours, which have. There are the critical voices of the Indigenous caucus injecting knowledge, experience and sense of urgency. There are the discourses of the social movement, fractured between what constitutes action and a false solution, true system change versus green capitalism – united in the need for emissions to plummet.
Here’s my first attempt to parse out what I’m tracking during the Paris climate talks.
Are the Paris talks on track towards necessary climate pollution cuts?
Bad news on this front. According to the pledges submitted by countries entering the talks, we’re on track to 3 degrees of global warming. What does this look like? According to Professor Anders Levermann from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Research “Three degrees of warming increases the risk of strong sea level rise from, for example Antarctica, or the collapse of marine ecosystems, such as Arctic sea ice or coral reefs [It] increases the risk of intensification of extreme events … In short, beyond two degrees of warming we are leaving the world as we know it.”
The last time earth was 3 degrees above pre-Industrial levels was around 3 million years ago. There was no ice and sea levels were 20 metres higher, according to Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in an Aljazeera America interview.
3 degrees of warming means big drops in food production, more heat waves like the one that killed thousands in India this year. More wildfires, more droughts.
“What happens when Bangladesh becomes inhabitable? When talking about climate refugees, what if Bangladesh becomes uninhabitable? The scale of climate migration could dwarf anything we’ve seen,” asks Ray Pierrehumbert, a physics professor at the University of Oxford, explaining densly populated, mostly low-lying country could be uninhabitable within a century.
All of this has the ability to disrupt economic systems.
There is also the climate justice movement’s critique of the mechanisms states are allowed to achieve cuts in countries like ours without actually reducing emissions here by purchasing international carbon offsets. Some carbon offset projects not only have dubious records in actually achieving pollution cuts, but have also resulted in land theft from Indigenous peoples.
Would a global treaty be equitable?
A new report by Oxfam has found the richest 10 percent of the world’s population produce half of the Earth’s climate-harming fossil fuel emissions. The poorest half – about 3.5 billion people – are responsible for only around 10 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.
G77 countries will continue to rightly raise historical responsibility on the part of Global North countries in creating the crisis we now face. This has been contentious in recent rounds of negations with ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ dropped from the text in 2011.
The idea is those countries that have contributed the most to the crisis, and have the greatest capacity to address it, should make the deepest climate pollution cuts and help assist Global South countries in both lowering emission and adapt to the changing climate. This is intimately tied with energy rights, with Global South countries needing the ability to expand electricity and primary energy to all people.
So far, news from Paris confirms there are commitments to funds directed for these purposes to the Global South, but criticisms, particularly on the part of India, are emerging they fall short of the estimated $100 billion annually needed. Here the related, broader subject of ‘loss and damages’ has the potential to be a sticking point between Global North and South countries.
Is Canada ‘back’?
Without a doubt, there have already been strides under the Trudeau government in distancing itself from the bullying, obstructive role of the Harper government. The Canadian delegation is far more inclusive. At home, the attack on charities has been called off, scientists un-muzzled and promises have been made to strengthen clawed back environmental legislation. Prime Minister Trudeau recently gave a speech in Paris, declaring Canada is back to the resounding applause and ovation of the crowd. Canada has also committed to $2.65 billion over five years, noting that it will seek private contributions to raise this to the $4 billion groups have demanded.
But. And this is a big but. Trudeau has essentially entered the talks with Harper’s climate commitments. While Environment Minister McKenna has stated these commitments are a floor, not a ceiling and that Liberals will make improvements, it can not be underscored enough how far off track Canada is in cutting climate pollution and how far we have to go. A slight or even moderate improvement of Harper’s targets will likely see us still leagues behind the European Union, potentially even the U.S. in cutting climate pollution. We also must not forget that Liberal governments prior to Harper made unfulfilled commitments to cut emissions.
Troubling still are Minister Dion’s recent comments in support of ‘sustainable development’ of the tar sands, saying he disagrees with groups (like the Council of Canadians and many others) calling on a freeze of expansion. There is also the ongoing lack of clarify over the promise to reform National Energy Board (NEB) pipeline reviews, including existing projects, and the refusal to put ongoing reviews on hold.
I’m grateful to know friends and colleagues including Maude Barlow, Sujata Dey and Diane Connors of the Council of Canadians, in Paris now doing all they can to hold world leaders accountable – this is undoubtedly critical work. I’ll continue to track and report on these three areas throughout the Paris climate talks.