COP 21: The Big Issues

Reflections from Michael Simpson, BCCIC Executive Director

Frenetic seems the most precise way of describing this climate change meeting here in Paris. It has a markedly different feel than the recent Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) meeting in New York, which was basically a gathering of Heads of State in September to announce a pre-negotiated text.

Indeed, every U.N. meeting I have been to has a different underlying feel to it. Some have been downright depressing or even alarming. This one is decidedly fast paced, logistically huge and trying to live up in written ambition to its sister Sustainable Development Goals… of which it is number 13. The stakes are very high here and the devil is in the details.  The current 48 page document is heavily bracketed with disputed text and there are only days left in the negotiations. Behind this task there is a gathering feeling of cautious momentum… hence the frenetic pace as leaders push several key issues.


Big Issue Number One: 1.5 Degrees. This is the new mantra of non-governmental organizations. It is a whopping half-degree less than the frightening two degree threshold scientists define as “dangerous” climate change.  Last night in a random bar downtown after a long day of meetings, I was sitting next to a gaggle of foreign accents when someone stood up, clutching their iphone and announced “Canada’s Minister has agreed to 1.5 degrees, he has come on board”. There was a round of clapping, which roused me from a moment of quiet solitude in the corner to reply equally as loudly and perhaps a little proudly the simple word “she”.

The conversation went quiet.

Canada’s new Minister of Environment and Climate change Catherine McKenna is a “she” I pointed out, which quickly launched what became a heated international side discussion on our planetary survival; one of thousands of similar conversations taking place across Paris right now on the significance of exactly how many degrees we can handle. Climate change itself is no longer debated.   Those days, thankfully, are long gone.


What is hotly debated is how hot we can afford to become and how quickly. At the debriefing by the Canadian delegation yesterday there was some confusion about exactly what was our position. Canadian Green Party Member of Parliament Elizabeth May candidly pointed out from the audience that the Liberal Minister had announced Canada’s new position was going to be 1.5 degrees the night before so therefore it must be official.  This seemed to put some finality on it and by nightfall it was being tweeted on iphones. Today it is in McLeans magazine.  I witnessed a similar moment of policy becoming “official” in a side event on natural gas flaring when the Minister of Environment of Nigeria Amina Mohammed “announced” that Nigeria would join the international campaign to stop gas flaring and methane emissions.  She then smiled to rousing applause and said her counterparts back in Nigeria had yet to hear about this but as far as she was concerned it was now “official”.  Then, in a moment of equally candid observation, pointed out that if the previous climate change agreements had included more women we would not be in our current position which caused yet again another round of haughty applause. Both Amina and McKenna were offering diplomatic solidarity with the small islands nations who basically fear they will drown under a two-degree scenario.


Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, and another powerful female voice had only just hours before pointed out the plight of President Anote Tong of Kiribati who has purchased land in Fiji for his people who face sea level rise. Indeed, he has sadly publicly stated that climate change deal or no climate deal here in Paris it is already “too late” for his people. He bought 6000 acres. Mary Robinson describes dangerous climate change as an “unconscionable failure of human solidarity”, as hard to say out loud as it is to come to grips with.   Al Gore told the same story to a packed crowd this afternoon albeit with terrifying graphics and an emotional appeal that the talk in the hallway described as the “speech of his lifetime”.  It certainly was gripping! He lost me on the hope part of the speech.

Big Issue Number 2: Ambition.  A strong and ambitious agreement and nothing less is what every politician here would like to be a part of.  Indeed, some sound more impassioned than Greenpeace activists and it has become very clear why.  They are starting to understand exactly what is going on. In a brilliant display booth, activists from Global Forest Watch have constructed a giant google earth screen replete with moving graphics and satellite overviews. One of the simplest yet most impressive is an actual time lapse sequencing of carbon dioxide levels illustrating the results from various sampling stations on our planet.  Generally speaking the baseline carbon dioxide levels for thousands of years has been a comfortable 280 parts per million.  I remember twenty years ago the dread that we climate activists would incite regarding the number 350. There is even an international movement known as because this threshold number is considered the launching point that plunges us into dangerous climate change.  On the giant screen the graph keeps going up and up until in 2014 it climbs off the screen at a staggering 400 parts per million and growing and we have years left to “peak”.  The critical number 350 came and went long ago.  It is important to remember that the impact of a measured change in carbon dioxide levels is not immediate. Some say the changes in the atmosphere take as long as ten years from the time of emission. So when we let a greenhouse gas like methane, which gram for gram is eighty times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2, escape into the atmosphere we might not understand the full impact until 2025. In other words, record breaking events like the recent Hurricane Patricia with its 200 mph winds (if they are considered to be the evidence of anthropocentric changes in our atmosphere) are essentially caused by greenhouse gases that we emitted back in 2006.

One can quickly see the problem.


By the time we take action on what we are witnessing today it may already, to quote the President of Kiribi, be “too late”. In another side event yesterday the International Energy Agency announced that under the current “business as usual” scenario (based on the current commitments of countries here in Paris) our carbon emissions will not peak until 2030 at the earliest.  In other words Global Forest Watch needs to make another graph or buy some more screens to stack on top of their display. The year 2040 will be more than interesting!  On a side note, Paul Simons from the IEA pointed out in a study that was released yesterday that we may have underestimated methane leaks from oil and gas infrastructure by as much as 90 percent. Nobody really understands exactly how much methane is leaking but the current estimate is 3% of worldwide gas production escapes into the atmosphere.  Underestimating that figure by 90% is hugely problematic. Indeed, as Simons illustrated, an accidental gas leak discovered yesterday in California is emitting 50,000 kg of methane a day and it is just one leak. To put that in perspective it is the equivalent of driving 7 million cars!  We could build a lot of bicycle lanes and miss the critical low hanging fruit of fixing methane leaks.  We have absolutely no idea what is going on in a less regulated or understood environment like the Niger Delta.

For politicians who are being collectively exposed to this information it is starting to sink in. As we understand more and more about climate change there is a deepening appetite for an “ambitious” agreement. Can we really afford to wait until 2030 before we peak?  Is anything less than a complete turnaround justifiable?


Coming up in my next Blog… The other big issues of money, differentiation, loss and damages and why all of this is important for non-governmental organizations in Canada working on the Sustainable Development Goals. For a sneak peak check out this poster claiming 87 percent of natural disasters last year were climate related.  And one final quote from Al Gore’s presentation, which I have not fact checked, but this is word for word what he said. The actual amount of heat being trapped in our atmosphere EVERY day because of climate change is equal to the amount of heat caused by 400,000 atomic bombs the size of Hiroshima going off…every day. That is mind-boggling and 90 % of this is absorbed into the oceans…explaining many of the hydrological changes we see these days. What has that to do with development? More to come soon…





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