Tomorrow’s Deadline of 6:00 PM

Reflections from Michael Simpson, BCCIC Executive Director, from Paris, France, December 10th, 2015.

Tomorrow’s deadline of 6:00 p.m. for the world to come to a climate agreement is breathtakingly close.

We are in the absolute home stretch (there is no mandate for the UN to keep negotiating) and it is worth reflecting on why development groups, many of whom are parts of the Canadian Councils for Cooperation should be paying attention to what is happening here.

Will our world really change tomorrow? The answer is that it already has! These talks build on previous agreements.  Tomorrow is essentially the culmination of six years of talks since the failed Copenhagen meeting where the world agreed it could not agree. This time France, which is clearly gifted in diplomacy, sent diplomats (at least twice) to each country ahead of time and spoke individually with heads of state to prepare for this meeting.  Each country, for example, has come to this meeting with a list of commitments on exactly how much it will reduce emissions.

Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) give us a global picture of how every nation will reduce its carbon footprint. If we add all of these numbers up we can get a cumulative picture of the quantity of greenhouse gases people expect to keep pumping into the atmosphere.  We also know with some probability of certainty what that means in terms of temperature rise. Under the current commitments we will raise the temperature of the planet by at least 2.7 degrees in this century. Essentially we have a carbon budget, or a total amount of carbon we can pump into the air over a given period of time; the faster we pump the faster we run out of time.  If we want to reduce the overall temperature from 2 degrees to 1.5 we have a much, much smaller carbon budget.

So what does this mean?

It means if our Minister of Environment stands up publicly and says Canada will commit to 1.5 degrees, as she did on Monday, we can only emit about 220 Gigatonnes of carbon in total into the atmosphere and then we have to completely stop.

Completely stop means exactly that. When do we need to do this?

At current rates we have until 2020 and then we must completely stop all emissions, stop all cars, stop all coal plants, stop all deforestation, etc, etc. We need to park our cars and turn coal and gas fired electricity off all over the planet.  If we were capable of reversing our upward climb in emissions and it is possible that we may be able to do that, we can prolong this deadline.

The faster we take action the more time we buy. Keep in mind, however, that we are not even expected to peak our emissions, under some business as usual scenarios, until 2030 which puts perspective on how difficult the 1.5 degree vision is to accomplish. The agreement everyone hopes to sign tomorrow does not even come into effect until 2020 at which point we will have busted our carbon budget anyway.

So politically agreeing to 1.5 degrees means immediate action, with or without an agreement in place, starting on Saturday morning…or should I say Fridy evening.

A quick glimpse of how complicated this will be is exemplified by the concept of climate policy coherence.  Canada just committed 2.65 billion dollars toward assisting developing countries in tackling climate change. Thirty million dollars, for example, will be going toward helping least developed countries who are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

On the other hand, because of our previous political direction in Canada, we will find ourselves taking this laudable action while at the same time giving tens of millions of dollars more than this to support extractive industries in the developing world; previous government projects that were committed in order to promote a carbon economy; policies that are in direct contradiction to each other!

This is not Catherine McKenna’s fault.  She just got the job a few weeks ago. It is just one example of how problematic it is to stand up in public and say and do the right thing.

It will be incumbent on our sector as NGOs to help sort this out.  For example, in Africa alone, Canada is supporting a fifteen million dollar energy sector project in Tanzania, an 18.5 million dollar extractives project in Mozambique, 25 million dollars a year for the EXCEED program (Extractives Cooperation for Enhanced Economic Development) and we even have our own Canadian International Institute for Extractives and Development housed at the University of British Columbia worth tens of millions of dollars.

So while, on one hand we find ourselves funding and promoting a future with fossil fuels on the other we are trying to transition to a low carbon future. Technically this is called a need for policy coherence. The OECD made a fantastic presentation on this yesterday as Canada is not alone in this regard; all nations struggle to come to grips with what 1.5 or even a 2 degree “legally binding” document will mean.

Again what does tomorrow at 6:31 pm mean for development organizations?

It means we are looking at a substantially different world and the project assumptions we are making today may be completely erroneous. An agriculture project based on today’s world may be fruitless. Populations in certain zones of vulnerability may not be there anymore. Resource conflicts, movements of environmental refugees, the rates of natural disasters and need for assistance, the viability of development solutions are all called into question in an above two-degree scenario.

Indeed, even 1.5 degrees will be an unbearable world for many least developed or vulnerable developing nations and this is the best-case scenario at this point with an extremely challenging timeline as I have pointed out with the carbon budget explanation.

Our assumptions about humanitarian assistance may be completely underestimated. I went to a UNICEF presentation yesterday, which outlined the impact of climate change on children and the developing world. The World Council of Churches, which has been working on this issue for decades now also presented a grim picture of the impact of climate change on development under the various scenarios. The NASA display at the US Pavillion is one of the most sobering things I have ever watched. Whether it is drought, floods or sea level rise the number of climate change impacts will increase in intensity and frequency making the work of development that much more challenging.

There is also an upside to the current situation. Catherine McKenna announced yesterday in one of the press conference rooms here that Canada will spend 150 million dollars to promote renewable clean energy in Africa. Having personally worked on this issue in Africa for more than a decade I cannot think of a more welcome or intelligent prospect. Perhaps soon we will open the doors of an International Institute for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Development at the University of British Columbia or some other venerable institution. Transitioning to a low carbon economy, in the remaining time we have, will require an intense effort and investment of human resources.

Just some interim thoughts…more coming soon.


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