The COP21 Climate Change Conference is over: now what?

Looters make off with merchandise from several downtown businesses in New Orleans, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005, after Hurricane Katrina hit the area. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

by Stan Hirst

A spanking new year is upon us. Time to clean out all the junk from 2015. Christmas cards, old calendars, used gift wrappings stuffed under the sofa. Time to file away bills, notices, demands and platitudes dated 2015 or earlier.

We live in a technological age, so there are huge amounts of clutter on my PC in the form of e-mails hastily scanned and then forgotten. Also web pages saved in a dozen hastily labelled folders for perusal at some later time. Hardly ever happened, the study part I mean, but my good intentions leave me with a warm, fuzzy feeling. That could be the lingering effects of the new year’s celebratory wine.

I’m struck by the large amount of communications in 2015 which dealt with the U.N. Climate Change Conference (also known as COP21) held in Paris from 30 November to 12 December. As evidenced by the number of stored e-mails on the topic on my PC, we Suzuki Elders spent a lot of time discussing the underlying climate change issues. They were lurking in the background of much that we debated in 2015 – climate change, oil pipelines proposed to bisect British Columbia, the future of the Alberta tar sands. Thanks to the efforts of our energetic Council Chair we even managed an honourable mention within the huge mass of news and publicity swirling around the halls and desks of the non-governmental component of the Conference at Le Bourget.

The pre-conference attitude amongst most groups such as the Elders was generally one of hype, rah-rah-rah and speculation. Expressions such as ‘our generation’s last hope’ and ‘historic opportunity’ were dropped everywhere. The post-conference phase by comparison is a tad more reserved. Almost lacklustre in fact. My rough guess is that media pieces on the meeting have dropped twenty-fold at least.

One reason for this is that the conference itself was overshadowed by the events around Bataclan and in neighbouring Belgium in December 2015. Greenhouse gases belched out by Chinese coal-fired plants or Melanesian islands slowly disappearing under the waves are editorial small potatoes compared to people being mowed down by brain-washed maniacs.

One estimate puts the total costs of COP21 at $1.2 billion. What will we get for that monumental outlay? What difference will it make in the coming years? I’ve spent a fair chunk of the Christmas vacation period perusing the better quality journals on their take on COP21 while assiduously avoiding reports that feature photos of Ban Ki Moon and Christiana Figueres. Here is what seems to be the general consensus.

The sober thinkers amongst the journalistic fraternity think that the overall outcome in Paris was better than had been expected. That is really no surprise, since the previous big international climate gathering in Copenhagen (COP 15) in 2009 was a disaster in terms of international cooperation on the global climate. Anything would have been an improvement.

The 195 countries meeting in Paris actually agreed on a goal of keeping the future increase in the global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”. Canada’s new Environment and Climate Change Minister, Catherine McKenna, made lots of friends back home when she told a stunned crowd at Le Bourget that she wanted the Paris agreement to restrict planetary warming to just 1.50C and not the generally accepted figure of 2°C.

The fact that 195 countries were able to reach an accord on anything is remarkable, but the fact that they reached a consensus after all the years of arguing, conniving, back-biting and outright hostility following the initial attempt to forge an agreement at Kyoto in Japan back in 1997 highlights the shift in perceptions of climate change amongst the world’s nations, rich and poor, east and west, in the last 20 years.

But its not all blue skies and sunny ways from here on forward. For starters what are the “pre-industrial temperature levels” that we don’t want to exceed by more than 20C? Conference reports and news items keep it a secret (suggesting that they have no idea either). The definition doesn’t seem to appear in formal reports of the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But if one stares at all the charts showing measured and assumed global mean temperatures published over the years, it is obvious the temperature curves all start no earlier than 1850. That is when the industrial revolution reached its climax in the western hemisphere.Global Surface Air Temperature Anomaly

If you stare at the charts a tad longer you’ll notice that the present mean global temperature already exceeds those pre-industrial levels by about 10C. That leaves us wiggle room of just one more 10C before we reach temperatures which climatologists fear will cause us serious grief. NASA estimates the current global warming trend to be 0.68°C per century. One can fiddle around with curves and projections until the cows come home, but its hard to avoid the conclusion that Minister McKenna is in for a huge disappointment 50 years from now. As will my grandchildren who will have to deal with the ecological and social consequences of the massively altered climate.

Most of the participating countries in COP 21 vowed to make ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ (INDCs). These are publicly stated pledges as to how each country intends to take action in the post-2020 period to assist in reducing GHG emissions. Pledges will be lodged with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for all the world to see. The process will hopefully work by each country determining its respective contribution to emission reduction in the context of its own national priorities, circumstances and capabilities. There will be no legal framework for enforcing the pledges, it will simply be up to the participants to demonstrate their commitments to the common cause. The optimists and the pessimists amongst us will have a grand debating point on that for years to come.

The good news is that to date 158 of the COP21 participating countries have submitted their INDCs to the UNFCCC. These collectively cover around 94% of global emissions (as estimated in 2010) and the participating countries contain 97% of the global population.

The bad news is that most INDCs submitted to date don’t meet the targets debated and cheered at Le Bourget. The Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis produced by four research organisations tracking climate action, considers only five of 32 reviewed INDCs to be ‘sufficient’, i.e. stating clear goals and providing an acceptable rationale for reduction of GHG emissions. All five are developing countries with rural economies and generally low levels of industrialization. Eleven of the submitted INDCs, including that submitted by the U.S.A., are judged ‘medium’, i.e. room for improvement, while 14 are rated ‘inadequate’.

Canada’s INDC is rated ‘inadequate’ because our widely-publicized economy-wide target to reduce emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 equates to a reduction in the lowering of actual emissions of only 21%. To meet the stated target, removal of atmospheric carbon would have to be implemented through terrestrial sinks such as land use, land-use changes and enhanced forestry (LULUCF) activities which are not yet in place. Canada’s stated INDC at COP21 is in fact equivalent to a mere 2% below actual 1990 emission levels.

If all nations are sincere in their commitments to their pledged reductions in GHG emissions, will that get us to the track we need to be on? Based on past performances in all endeavours over the millennia, the chances of maximum commitment by nations are zero. Even if by some miracle this were to come to pass, Climate Action Tracker‘s analysis suggests this would hold us down to a global increase of between 2.4 and 2.70C by the end of the century. Restricting global temperature rise to anywhere near 1.50C by century’s end would mean not only reducing total emissions to near zero but would necessitate actual removal of global CO2 from the atmosphere. Effects of pledges and policies on global temperature edit

The countries participating in COP21 did commit to pursuing a goal of zero net emissions, but were sketchy on the ways and means. Reforestation is one option which has not been hugely successful at the global level over the past decades. Deep underground storage of carbon will require technologies capable of storing carbon dioxide underground, but there is no proven technology of carbon removal capable of working on anything like the scale required, let alone at a reasonable price.

Like so many other policies, plans and agreements of our modern world, the COP21 Climate Change Conference guarantees us nothing. It does provide a roadmap of sorts to the future, and there is no doubt that our world will continue to change in ways and at scales the likes of which we modern humans have never seen before.


  1. Thanks for this excellent review. I am also concerned that enthusiasm in the buildup before COP21 was overshadowed by other events. I was also surprized by the suggestion from our government that we could actually aim to limit warming to 1.5 degrees when the science and pre-meeting pledges indicated this wouldn’t happen. But perhaps aiming high (or in this case low) ensures that we meet a much more acceptable target than the current policies would indicate.

  2. Thanks for a thoughtful and well researched summary of COP 21. Hopefully the new Federal government initiatives will have a nationwide plan in place by this coming April for emissions limitations.

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