What happens after COP21 is what matters most

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Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN treaty responsible for the Paris climate summit, cites five pieces of evidence that a global "signal" has emerged through all the "noise" about climate change. 

Figueres says that pledges and plans already submitted by 155 countries (the "intended nationally determined contributions") could "dramatically change the course of growth in greenhouse gas emissions." If fully implemented, these pledges might limit global warming to 3 degrees Celsius: exceeding the 2-degree danger threshold, but far less than the 4- to 5-degree rise otherwise projected.

China has pledged to peak its coal use before 2020 and its total emissions before 2035, and is already closing some coal plants. Massive amounts of investment capital -- $2.6 trillion to date -- is shifting into renewables. And, despite the absence of a single global carbon price, some 60 jurisdictions, including China, are implementing their own carbon price either through a carbon tax or emissions trading.

According to Figueres, "a very large ship… has already changed the course of its direction," and this is unstoppable. We are decarbonizing the global economy. But, she adds, there is uncertainty about the final destination and pace of decarbonization. Can countries agree to reach climate neutrality in 50 years? She says this is what science demands, but developing countries remain to be convinced. And with regard to pace, "the quicker we move this, the cheaper it's going to be."

In the new suburbs of south Ottawa -- Barrhaven, Riverside South -- it's hard to see the transition. Housing developments sprawl across former corn fields. Shoppers drive from one big box store to the next across huge parking lots. Giant power lines march across the landscape. There are no solar panels on the roofs, no bicycles on the streets. We are locking in unsustainability.

Are we also locking in conflict and terrorism? In a recent interview, Prince Charles cites evidence that drought is one of the main reasons for the "horror in Syria," saying there is "absolutely" a link between climate change, conflict and terrorism. U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders made the same point in a debate one day after the Paris attacks.

Klaus Töpfer, former German environment minister and former head of the UN Environment Program, says the bottom-up approach of nationally determined pledges may succeed where the top-down approach of the Kyoto Protocol failed. Unlike Kyoto, countries that do not fulfil their pledges will not have the option of paying a fine. The "legally binding" provisions of the Paris agreement will involve monitoring, verification and reporting -- tracking emissions accurately and completely.

Will pledges be met? The international scientific journal Nature just released a special issue on the Paris talks. The authors of one article note that "keeping business on board" will be challenging. Companies are making their own pledges -- such as to stop converting forests to palm oil plantations, soybean fields and cattle pastures -- but these pledges will not be met without collaboration between businesses, governments and civil society. The authors warn, "Unless the pledging system is improved, it could become a licence to do nothing."

Given the likelihood that carbon dioxide will continue to rise to levels that allow global warming to surpass that the 2-degree threshold, scientists are actively pursuing technologies that can remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in stable forms. If wood or other biomass is quickly heated in the absence of oxygen, it produces bio-oil and bio-char. Bio-oil can be converted to heating oil or transportation fuel; bio-char can be added to agricultural soils, where it persists for many decades and houses beneficial soil fungi. With sound forest management and conservation of biodiversity, bio-char could make a significant contribution to stabilizing the global climate. Unfortunately, this "third way" to fight climate change is almost completely ignored by policy-makers, even in Canada, which has world-leading fast pyrolysis technology and a lot of underutilized wood biomass.

Climate change is already happening. Droughts in Africa and the Middle East, small island states flooded by rising seas, coastal nations damaged by typhoons -- these are a current reality. Adaptation to climate change is squarely on the global policy agenda. Paris will see a continuation of long-standing and difficult debates about the responsibility of developed nations such as Canada for damages already occurring around the world, and for costs of adaptation. We burned more than our fair share of fossil fuels -- should we pay countries that did not?

What happens after Paris is what matters most. The fate of the world will be in the hands of individual nations. Ultimately, everyone must participate in the transition to a carbon-neutral society.

Ole Hendrickson is a retired forest ecologist and a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Photo: Ron Mader/flickr

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