UN climate talks offer hope for humanity

Eiffel Tower shines at night
(Credit: Yann Caradec via Flickr)

With world leaders now meeting in Paris for the UN Climate Change Conference, we’re seeing signs of hope for an agreement to limit the escalating effects of global warming. Canadians, especially, have reason to be optimistic about our country’s role.

It hasn’t always been this way.Governments have been formally discussing climate change since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the first climate conference in Berlin, Germany, in 1995. Since then, we’ve been taking two steps forward and one step back — not good enough when dealing with an accelerating crisis.

Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, ratified it in 2002, did little to meet its targets, then withdrew in late 2011, the first and only nation to do so. The Climate Action Network selected our country for numerous Fossil of the Day, Fossil of the Year and Lifetime Unachievement Fossil awards for inaction on climate change and for obstructing international agreements.

But it appears leaders in Canada and globally are finally giving the issue the attention it deserves. Our government now has a minister of environment and climate change, and sent a delegation to Paris that includes a cabinet committee on environment, climate change and energy headed by Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion, as well as opposition party representatives and provincial leaders.

Alberta, which has long put fossil-fuel interests ahead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, now has a comprehensive strategy to phase out coal power, promote renewable energy, put a price on carbon pollution and limit oilsands emissions. Ontario and Quebec have also moved to put a price on carbon emissions, joining California in a cap-and-trade system. Even Saskatchewan, not known for climate leadership, has committed to 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030.

Phasing out coal power and putting a price on carbon are effective ways to reduce dangerous CO2 emissions. Burning coal is the most polluting way to produce energy and creates the highest greenhouse gas emissions, and a well-designed carbon tax or cap-and-trade system has proven to cut emissions and fossil-fuel consumption without negatively affecting economies.

In its first five years, B.C.’s carbon tax, implemented in 2008, led to a 17.4 per cent drop in petroleum-fuel use, and greenhouse gas emissions went down while GDP remained strong. B.C. income tax rates remain the lowest in Canada.

Globally, things are also looking up. The Paris conference required the 196 participating countries to submit their own climate plans. Although those combined aren’t enough to keep us below the 2 C increase in global average temperatures beyond pre-industrial levels that scientists say is necessary to avoid catastrophe, they do limit warming to a 2.7 C rise, which is at least a serious starting point. Current practices put us on track for a 5 C increase!

The Paris conference is also aiming for national climate plan reviews every five years to ensure targets are being met and to look at ways of improving them. And cities, local governments and businesses are being encouraged to do more, which has worked well in Canada.

Another important component of the Paris talks is to find ways to help developing nations improve prosperity while keeping emissions from rising. Developed countries have committed to raising $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing nations though the Green Climate Fund, World Bank, government contributions and other mechanisms.

But government commitments only raise hopes so far. The other good sign is the rapid development of renewable energy technologies like wind, solar and geothermal. Coupled with energy conservation, renewables are critical to confronting the climate crisis.

A recent report from Stanford University and the International Renewable Energy Agencyfound it’s technically feasible and economically viable for the world to shift to sustainable energy by 2030, and lays out a plan for 139 countries to reach that goal. Many jurisdictions are already getting a lot of their energy from renewable sources.

With clean energy production and grid technology improving and costs coming down, there’s no excuse to continue rapidly burning diminishing supplies of fossil fuels. As leaders meet in Paris, citizens march in the streets and innovators develop solutions, we have more reason than ever to be hopeful for the future of our place on this small, blue planet.

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.

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