At stake: Everything; Walking the Paris climate talks

First Posted: Saturday, December 19, 2015 in The Chronicle-Journal

By Julee Boan

With nearly 200 countries at the table, is it not surprising that the Paris climate agreement that was negotiated last Saturday fell short of legally-binding caps on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Differences in wealth, geography, and population size were but a few of the complexities facing the talks. It was abundantly evident before the negotiations even began that economic (and carbon) powerhouses like the United States and China would only agree to non-binding targets.
Yet, the significance of the agreement is unmistakable. The signatories recognize that, “climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet.”
They acknowledge that we must limit average global temperature rise to less than 2 C above pre-industrial conditions, with an ultimate goal of a 1.5 C limit. Further, they echo serious concerns that collectively current, nationally-determined, GHG reduction pledges will not achieve these goals. To try to address this, the agreement requires signatories to “ratchet up” their targets every five years. As a result, many environmental groups and developing nations have concluded that it is the best they could hope for.
The agreement represents progress — at least from the perspective of good intentions. But that is the crux of the problem. The key objective of the Paris climate agreement — to sufficiently reduce GHG emissions to ensure a livable planet — is based on promises of future processes. Existing GHG reduction commitments are expected to lead us to CO2 levels close to 3 C (and higher still if these commitments are not met), exceeding the 2 C threshold set out as an initial goal in the agreement.
This is not a case of splitting hairs. While a 1 C increase may not seem significant, scientists have stated that beyond 2 C — droughts, floods, heatwaves and other extreme weather events — are likely to become catastrophic and irreversible. Yes, catastrophic and irreversible.
Further, the interpretations vocalized by many global leaders emphasize that the agreement will stimulate a surge of private-sector investment in renewable energy, carbon sequestration and other “environmentally friendly technologies.” This understates the root causes that got us here in the first place — namely overconsumption, inequality and the erosion of democracy.
It has taken 23 years to get us this far — the first international treaty on climate change was signed in Rio de Janeiro in 1992! That delay has cost us. It will no doubt make the transition to a low-carbon world more difficult and more costly. We can thank the aggressive and unrelenting propaganda from oil and gas interests, which induced governments and the general public into indecision, for that.
So what does this mean for us? In Canada, we produce one of the largest carbon footprints per person in the world. We rank sixth among all countries for total GHG emissions. We have a significant global responsibility for reductions. Individually, we must drive less, use public transportation more, increase the heat efficiency in our homes, eat local, and generally reduce our consumption and waste. Politically, we must object to any expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure. That includes the Energy East pipeline currently proposed to support an expansion of Alberta’s oil sands extraction via transport through northern Ontario. These fossil fuel megaprojects lock us into long-term increases in production that do not make sense in a low carbon future. Currently, more than one third of Canada’s increasing GHG emissions expected between 2004 and 2020 will come from petroleum production and refining.
Whether we meet the goals set out in the Paris agreement will determine our ability to leave an inhabitable planet for future generations. They will only be achieved if citizens demand it.
Nothing short of everything is at stake.

Julee Boan is the Boreal Program Manager for Ontario Nature based in Thunder Bay. She was in Paris for the UN Climate Change Conference last week.