Matt and Ashley at Cop 15

Those hoping for world leaders to emerge from the Copenhagen COP-15 conference with an ambitious, legally binding agreement were left disappointed. As two delegates with these exact hopes, we flew out of Copenhagen feeling much the same. But as the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day and in the past few weeks we have been able to step back and gain perspective of what exactly this conference meant and why it wasn’t a waste of time.

The Copenhagen Accord is not legally binding and alone stands as no more than a symbol of the goals for the future. There are no targets, only an end goal of keeping global temperatures within two degrees Celsius of pre-industrial age averages. But the Copenhagen Accord’s inclusion of developing countries does make it an important document. Perhaps the biggest criticism of Kyoto was that it did not include either of the world’s top two emitters of carbon dioxide, the United States and China. In addition, some of the world’s fastest growing economies that are rapidly climbing the list were also excluded (India and Brazil being the two most cited apart from China). Four of the five players in the Copenhagen Accord are listed here, all of whom have now shown that they are taking climate change seriously.

Indeed, it is important to remember that the impact of COP-15 must not be viewed through the narrow lens of what happened during the two weeks in December when the conference was occurring, but what happened in the build up and aftermath as well. Brazil fulfilled a conference commitment by signing into law a piece of legislation that promises a 39% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. In the lead up to the conference, China announced strong targets that it intends to reach — and while these aren’t as promising as hard caps, they will help slow the growth of emissions as China’s economy blossoms. The United States saw its climate legislation enter into the Senate, and Senator John Kerry ensured Copenhagen attendees that the U.S. will pass significant climate legislation in 2010.

The road from Copenhagen to COP-16 (to be held in Mexico) is bright, and as individual countries continue to enact legislation and start working towards their goals they will discover that emissions reduction can be achieved without significant damage to the economy. By the end of 2010, many countries will feel comfortable with their own ability to combat climate change and will thus be more likely to sign an international, legally binding agreement.

The unprecedented amount of public attention the issue of climate change is getting is also promising. While not all of it is positive, media coverage of the COP-15 far exceeds that of any other environmental conference. The amount of people attending the conference surpassed previous conference totals by a large margin. As delegates in Copenhagen, we were overwhelmed by the size and diversity of the crowd, and specifically that such a large group had nearly uniform goals in mind. Across the globe there is an increasing number of individuals who want to see their governments act on this crucial issue.

Our own personal work did not finish as we left Copenhagen. We aim to continue to bring attention to this issue and help keep the momentum going over the next year. The power of public attention and opinion are often underestimated, and it will be too easy for the public to lose interest after the disappointment of COP-15. We have been in touch with a number of politicians, and recently attended a town hall meeting to talk with Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt. While the top issue on the minds of those attending was the recent prorogation of Parliament, there were a number of concerned citizens talking about Copenhagen. Unfortunately, Minister Raitt did not appear to share the concern about Canada’s performance in Copenhagen — stating that we ought to be proud of our country’s initiatives to combat climate change. It is an unfortunate opinion that seems to be shared by many members of our government and one that Canadians need to work to combat. We encourage Canadians to do their own research and take individual action in the absence of leadership from their government.

As a country, we need to have a serious conversation about the roadmap we will follow in order to meet our targets. A great deal will likely be decided once the United States passes its legislation and develops a market for carbon. But we cannot simply sit back and wait for the United States – there are questions of our own to be answered. The tar sands and their importance to the economy of our western provinces present an additional challenge for Canada. How will Canada’s greatest polluter be addressed and what effect might it have on national unity? Will we trade carbon permits on the international stage or remain restricted to a North American market? It is easy to regard this extra year as an opportunity for Canada, but our government must use it wisely and come to Mexico truly prepared to participate in a meaningful way.

Ashley Bigda is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto – St.George with an Honors B.A. in Political Science and Environmental Policy and Practice. Her love and passion for both politics and the environment began at an early age and led her to join the Liberal Party of Canada where she has actively been involved for the last few years. Currently she is working for the Halton Federal Liberal Association as Candidates Aide, Youth Committee Outreach Co-Chair and Social Media adviser to Halton Liberal Candidate Deborah Gillis.

Matt Juniper is a recent graduate from Ryerson University with an Honors B.A. in Communications/Public Relations and Psychology. Matt has been a Liberal Party member for over two years but his interests and passion for politics has grown immensely since the election of Stephen Harper. He is also currently working for the Halton Federal Liberal Association as Candidates Aide, Youth Committee Outreach Co-Chair and Social Media Advisor to Halton Liberal Candidate Deborah Gillis.