The Paris Climate Talks: What do they mean for us at UAlberta?

You’ve probably heard about the big climate change meeting that is currently happening in Paris. There have been countless news stories about heightened security or which world leaders are attending, but what does it mean for us who aren’t going to France?

Why talk about climate change?

Discussing climate change on an international stage is important since the effects of climate change aren’t restricted to national borders. Since the 1990s, the United Nations has tried to negotiate agreements to stop or mitigate the impacts of climate change. One of the barriers to an agreement is that the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases like CO2 have not signed onto a legally-binding agreement, namely China and the United States.

What is COP21?

The name of this meeting is kind of odd. COP stands for “Conference of the Parties” and it’s the annual meeting for all countries who signed up for the United Nations’ agreement on climate change action (the UNFCCC). The “21” part refers to this being the 21st meeting of its kind. With that mouthful it’s no wonder it gets shortened to COP21.

Since France is hosting COP21 and all 40,000 participants, they are also acting as facilitator between all the attending parties in an effort to come to an agreement to act on climate change.

With almost two dozen previous conferences dedicated to acting on climate change, there is a lot of history to get through. Luckily, Agence France-Presse compiled that background information into a quick video to help get you up to speed.

What’s the goal of COP21?

This conference is especially important as the expected goal of the meeting is a new international agreement on climate change to keep global warming below 2oC. Climate scientists have suggested that if the planet gets any warmer than that, climate change would become catastrophic. At the Copenhagen-hosted conference in 2009, there was debate as to whether the temperature limit should be 2oC or 1.5oC, but no agreement was adopted back then.

Some of the stumbling blocks for the Copenhagen-conference included whether or not the final agreement would include legal consequences for missing targets—an issue also facing the Paris summit. Another topic is the amount of money developed nations—historically, the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases—would commit to helping developing nations least prepared to face the effects of climate change. The Canadian government recently announced they would double the amount of planned contributions to developing countries.

GreenhouseGasEmissions_Sector_EN - enviro cda
Distribution of greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector, Canada, 2013/ Environment Canada

The French government’s goal is to make the agreement appealing to all countries, which means the planet’s economic engines will all have to agree to shift to a low-carbon economy or risk losing potential signatories to a new agreement.

What does it mean for Canada?

Canada is in a difficult spot. With a new federal government jumping into negotiations after the election, Canada is set to take a new, proactive direction. However, as of right now, there is no new national climate plan. The Canadian economy relies heavily on resource-extraction industries which produce a sizable amount of carbon emissions, so a commitment from Canada would have to mean a distinct change in policy and action.

In Alberta, the new provincial government recently unveiled a climate change strategy that includes a carbon tax, a cap on oil sands emissions and a plan to phase out all coal plants in the province by 2030. The new strategy is a big change in a province that hasn’t updated its policy since 2008, so it’s possible that Alberta’s new direction can be used as an example of a high-carbon economy taking action on climate change.

GreenhouseGasEmissions_Prov_EN - enviro cda
Greenhouse gas emissions by province and territory, Canada, 1990, 2005 and 2013/ Environment Canada


How can I get involved here?

Most of us can’t make it to Paris for the conference, let alone directly participate in the treaty negotiations, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be engaged citizens.

  • Follow the talks on social media
    With the many leaders involved in climate talks becoming more social media savvy, you can follow the public aspect of the negotiations on Twitter or Facebook. The conference has an official Twitter account in English and many other attendees are posting using the hashtag #COP21. Others, like Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May has started posting update videos on Facebook to share what she’s seeing.
  • Follow UAlberta experts at the talks
    There are also two UAlberta professors tweeting about their experiences at COP21: Dr. Debra Davidson and Dr. Makere Stewart-Harawira, who is also blogging.
  • Get involved with local initiatives
    While the Global Climate March is over, there are still many ways to get involved locally. Join a campus club or start volunteering with a local organization that takes action on climate change.
  • Take personal action on climate change
    Anyone can take small, personal actions to make a difference and help reduce your eco-footprint.  Learn about what you can do and make your own commitment with One Simple Act on Campus.

About the author

Kateryna Barnes is the Communications Assistant with the Office of Sustainability.  

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