British Columbians have seen the effects of climate change this year with deadly heat waves, wildfires, wind storms, droughts, and floods.
Earlier this month, leaders from 120 countries spent 15 days negotiating at the yearly United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Glasgow, Scotland, trying to establish an agreement on how to lower emissions and transfer into a low carbon, or carbon neutral economy.
Also known as COP26, the conference has been held since 1995, except in 2020, when it was cancelled due to the pandemic. Over 30,000 people attended the meeting from university conference delegates, business and civil society groups, to climate activists and politicians.
The final negotiations at COP26 went 24-hours past the deadline of 6:00 pm on Nov. 12. They concluded with the Glasgow Climate Pact, a document that explains how nations will “phasedown” coal, provide financial help to developing countries to mitigate climate change and stricter rules for global carbon markets.
In addition, other promises that world leaders made were reducing methane emissions by 30 per cent, halting and reversing deforestation, and for developed countries to stop using coal by 2030, and other countries by 2040.
From the conference, there were crucial moments that showed progress for a greener future. The U.S. and China, two of the largest carbon dioxide emitters in the world, agreed on working together to curb carbon emissions over the next 10 years.
Canada also saw some progress. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to cut methane emissions from the country’s oil and gas industry by 75 per cent by 2030, put a strict cap on emissions, and put aside 80 per cent of the $5.3 billion climate investments in projects that help promote gender equality over the next five years, according to the National Observer.
People saw COP26 as “the last chance saloon” to stay under the 1.5 C point and prevent further effects on climate change.
The Runner asked Kwantlen Polytechnic University and the University of British Columbia climate experts about their thoughts on COP26.
Paul Richard is an instructor from the environmental technology program at KPU and has researched agricultural engineering and resource management for years. Erin Pedersen is the sustainability coordinator at the Kwantlen Student Association. Temitope Onifade is a graduate law student at UBC and one of the COP26 delegates for the university. Terry Sunderland is an instructor in the forest and conservation sciences at UBC and also a COP26 delegate.
The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
What did you think about the results of the conference?
Richard: I’m quite happy to see that priorities for climate had a huge contingent because they’re really needed to keep the political pressure on. There’s only so much you can expect from a conference like that. It kind of went a bit beyond my expectations. I was ready to be very disappointed, and I’m not.
Pedersen: I have mixed opinions about the results. There was wording in the draft about ending fossil fuel subsidies and phasing out coal. It does seem that the language has been somewhat watered down, which is not surprising because there were a lot of fossil fuel lobbyists at the conference. There are definitely things to be optimistic about in this conference, and at the same time, there are other things that are concerning.
Onifade: I think that we have some things to look forward to. We’re going to have an agreement that would be more ambitious than previous years. There is the challenge that the agreements may not be as ambitious as we want, given the urgency of climate change, because scientists have already told us that we need to reach low emissions by 2030 so that we can target achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Which means this decade is perhaps the most crucial for addressing climate change. The agreement is going to enhance the ambitions and make some definite decisions that would help us move beyond where we were under the Paris agreements in 2015. It’s going to be an improvement from what we had, but we have to do more.
Sunderland: We could have done a lot better at the climate change meetings. This reliance on fossil fuels and the subsidizing of fossil fuels needs to stop. The watered-down ending where coal is going to be “phasedown” rather than phased out is a problem. It gives India, China, Australia, and other coal-burning nations an out so they can continue business as usual. We could have done more, but I think it’s a step in the right direction and it’s created awareness. The awareness of the issues has increased significantly and that can only be a positive thing.
Were there any things that you felt were important to take note of?
Pedersen: I definitely think looking beyond the oil and gas alliance is something to watch in the future, seeing what other countries are going to join that. We’re not saying, ‘Hey, we’re just not going to make any more fossil fuels, they’re going to stay in the ground.’ That’s what we need to do, we need to keep them in the ground.
But, in countries like Canada, Trudeau is promising important things. At the same time, Canada has very high fossil fuel subsidies. They bought the Trans Mountain Pipeline. When you build a project like that, you’re essentially committing to extracting oil and gas for quite a long time.
There’s too much of a focus on 2050. It’s very easy to kick the can down the road and say, ‘Oh, well, in 2050 we’re going to do XYZ.’ But if we don’t meet the necessary targets for 2030, it is super unlikely, possibly. We can’t just do whatever we want in the next eight years and expect to meet our targets for 2050 and expect everything is going to be fine.
Onifade: There is a gap that is increasing between the government and society in the negotiations and global climate policy process. I got the sense that the big business community and the financial institutions see climate change as something that the government has to address first, to de-risk climate action before they can come in and put their resources into it. So they want to make money in a low-carbon transition, but they do not want to take the high risks.
Sunderland: What amazes me about the government of Canada’s stance is I read all the documentation they were going to COP26 with, and all the documentation that has been released since there’s one word not mentioned at all: forests. Canada has the third-largest forest estate in the world. Why are they not saying, ‘Look, we’re doing this for climate change. We’re sustainably managing our forests, we’re replanting X number of hectares a year.’
How do you feel conferences like this can help to combat climate change?
Richard: Public education and credibility. We do have solutions. The more people that hear there’s practical, tangible steps that can be taken and are being taken, the more there’s a sense that there’s a way out, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Pedersen: Climate change is a wicked problem. You really need all the countries at the table, willing to work together. And we are seeing progress, it’s just very slow, which is the scary part because we don’t have that much time anymore.
Another thing to look at is what’s happening on the streets at these conferences. There are Indigenous leaders who were part of the conference and their youth leaders who were there, and people in the streets asking for these transformative changes that are needed. Look at what these people are asking for because if you get movements on the ground, that’s what eventually will shift governments.
Onifade: Conferences like this are great. All these conferences that we’re doing are organized by governments that are based on international law. Governments will come together, make a law that can guide them towards a common goal. The problem is that those laws are not necessarily directly binding when they make them. It’s great that we have these types of conferences and they have actually been helpful and made impacts. The question is whether those promises are going to come to fruition.
Sunderland: I don’t think they achieve very much in the short term, but increasing awareness of what the issues are is an important function. The problem with these big conferences is the levels of hypocrisy that goes on. About 400 private jets flew into Glasgow on the first day of the conference and they had no space to park them, so they were diverted to a military airfield. I think that we need to balance these conferences and the appreciation of the awareness they raise with a much more ecologically sensitive footprint.
What do you think Canada’s role could be to help combat climate change?
Richard: We’re a rich nation. So one of the things we should be doing more is helping poorer nations develop their programs. We can develop technology and share it, and that to me would ultimately be the best thing. It’s more a ‘Here’s how you manufacture it, how it gets installed,’ so on and so forth. I think that could be a role, and certainly not putting money into hydrocarbons and paying for pipelines that our governments should really be stepping away from as fast as possible.
Pedersen: Canada’s a big producer of fossil fuels, so figuring out a transition for fossil fuel workers so we can stop developing our fossil fuel resources would be a great first step.
Then the rest of the world would say, ‘Look, Canada has this reputation as a fossil fuel producer and look what they’ve done, they’ve managed to get off of fossil fuels. Wow, we could do that too.’
Onifade: I was actually quite impressed with Canada at this COP. For instance, Canada has partnered with Germany to design a climate finance delivery plan that would cover how developing countries will get that $100 billion Green Climate Fund. The new Canadian minister in charge of environment and climate change also announced that Canada will now be taking some steps to ensure that the private sector contributes to addressing climate change, and steps to ensure that the carbon pricing system becomes stronger in Canada, so we can expect the price of pollution is going to increase in the coming years. I think something Canada can do much better is increase its own ambition at home, not just international leadership.
Sunderland: There were two obvious ones. Stop subsidizing fossil fuel projects, not only in Canada but also overseas. The second one is to focus more on forests. Make it more about carbon and less about timber, and not just carbon but other ecosystem services as well. Cultural, spiritual services, and making it a much more Indigenous friendly environment.
What do you think still needs to be done?
Richard: Stop subsidizing any fossil fuel projects and selling thermal coal. That’s what the world needs to do overall.
Pedersen: This is a decisive decade, and the only way we’re going to meet the targets is if we stopped putting carbon into the atmosphere. If somebody creates a magic technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere, then we can talk about continuing oil and gas. But until then, we have to stop emitting. We’re not talking about something easy here, there are no more easy choices.
Onifade: The most important thing that needs to be done is to actually implement, not just make promises. We need to implement the $100 billion Green Climate Fund first and then that will give the positive signal that all other promises are going to be implemented. It’s not just about the governments, people can also make terrific contributions however small.
Sunderland: What needs to happen is to follow through on those commitments. All of us on an individual, community, national, and global level. Those commitments need to be respected. There is hope. This is front-page news, this is a very timely storm. We had the heat dome, a tornado last week, now we’ve got this conference. It’s a good reminder that these issues are real and we should take them seriously.