About the author:

Rebekka Bond is a Mindfirst blogger and a Masters Of Global Affairs candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto 2016



I’m going to be honest with you – Prior to attending Mindfirst and RBC’s event “What Happened at COP21: Outcomes From the U.N. Climate Negotiations in Paris” I was somewhat sceptical about what had been achieved in Paris last December. While COP21 was undoubtedly a success compared to previous COPs, I certainly didn’t buy into the unwaveringly positive sentiment that seemed to consume the media following the two-week summit.

Yes, delegates and negotiators were brought to tears as world leaders announced the historic climate agreement. Yes, negotiators were able to get 196 (!) countries (with very disparate worldviews) on the same page to tackle climate change. And yes, the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund became operational in 2015 and can now play an active role in channelling and catalysing climate finance around the world.

But, what if we delve a little bit deeper? What about the scientists who say that the agreement is both unclear and unrealistic? What about claims made by experts that the agreement is not consistent with the latest science, and that by the time the deal comes into force in 2020 it will be too little too late?

So, what is different this time?

Was COP21 really all it was made out to be?

Despite an initial dose of scepticism, I would now say that what emerged from COP21 is something that we as Canadians, and as global citizens, can be proud of.

As our “What Happened at COP21” panellists Lisa DeMarco, Alex Wood, Anthony D’Agostino, Ginny Flood, and moderator Ed Whittingham reaffirmed – There is a lot to be enthusiastic about. The outcomes of the conference were totally unprecedented and surpassed the expectations of many. Here are a couple of the key insights that emerged from our panellist’s discussion on January 21st.

A legally-binding climate deal

It is important to note that international law rarely pushes states beyond what they are already doing. Therefore, it is a notable achievement that the legal form of the Paris climate agreement is much stronger than anything we have seen in the past. Although the new agreement does not contain legal penalties like Kyoto, states are legally bound to submit targets. These targets will then be made legally binding through national instruments. The legal teeth of this agreement may seem more like baby teeth, but the practical implications and enforcement potential is far greater than most people believe.

A global commitment to change

COP21 was one of the first times that governments, industry and civil society came together to signal a global commitment to change. Together, these actors have agreed on a firm direction for tackling climate change, making it quite clear that anyone who does not get on board will be left behind in the dust. Furthermore, we saw a much greater willingness to recognize carbon pricing as a valid compliance tool than in previous years. This has sent a strong message to many stakeholders, especially the business community, who have taken note.

An ambitious target

The emergence of the 1.5°C target caught many people by surprise. Where did this target come from? It began in the science community, with many climate and assessment reports concluding that the traditional 2°C target was not sufficient. Once the ball got rolling on the science front, many island and developing nations partnered with civil society groups to fight for a 1.5°C target. Even if we don’t end up meeting this ambitious target, we must strive towards it. The agreement also saw loss and damage provisions negotiated for the smallest and most vulnerable countries.

A more inclusive process

Although the mission of the U.N. is to promote international co-operation, there are a lot of politics at play regarding who can lead, guide and feed into the overarching solutions that emerge. COP21 was unique because there was a real effort to make the voices of civil society, industry, aboriginal and developing countries heard.

What’s next for Canada?: The road ahead

As Lisa DeMarco pointed out: Canada has a very unique challenge when it comes to tackling climate change. Let’s start by juxtaposing the Canadian emissions context with that of the United States. In the U.S., a significant portion of their emissions comes from the electricity sector. In Canada, our electricity system is very nearly decarbonized, so we need to look to other sectors, such as oil and gas, transportation and industrial processes, to meet our emission targets. This will be a daunting challenge for Canada.

However, despite this challenge, Canada is attempting to be a leader in the fight against climate change. Our very own Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, was invited to serve as 1 of 14 facilitators for the COP21 negotiations. The panellists also noted there was a lot of buzz surrounding Canada at COP21, and that many delegates were pleased to see Canada taking an active and engaged role on the global stage once again.

The Government of Canada has promised that within 90 days of the Paris Conference, they will be working with provinces and territories to establish a Pan-Canadian framework to combat climate change. However, if there’s one thing that we’ve learned through previous climate negotiations – we’re not going to have another top-down post deal again. Both Canada and the United States are large, sprawling federations that have multiple sectors and very different economies. Therefore, it is extremely tough for federal governments to bring in framework policies, and almost all attempts to do so in the past have failed. Given this, the logical place to craft climate policy within these big, messy democracies would be at the state or provincial level.

As one of the panellists pointed out: Canada has been doing this for some time now. For the last 10 years, provinces and territories have been left to play in the climate change sandbox without any parental supervision at all. Despite the odds, they have been making some pretty admirable sandcastles and have been playing together nicely. Although the federal government has come a little late to the sandbox, a least they arrived when there was a real appetite amongst provinces, territories and industry to develop a climate strategy.

The real test of whether COP21 was a success will be what comes next. So, what comes next for Canada? To be successful in the Canadian context, we need all levels of government to work closely with industry, civil society and aboriginal groups to design a solution. We need provinces and territories to determine what works for each jurisdiction, what works for Canada, and to do it now. We need the federal government to stitch all of this together in a way that makes sense. And we, as individuals, need to do more to educate ourselves and to engage youth in addressing global climate change issues.

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