PARIS — Inspiration is what made a global climate deal possible. Aspiration is what lies within its groundbreaking text. Perspiration at the national level is what comes next.
In Canada, it starts with federal-provincial efforts to come up with a long-term climate strategy, culminating in a promised meeting between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and provincial and territorial leaders sometime within the next 12 weeks.
Resulting actions will further inspire us to aspire, driving even more action — and so on, and so on. A virtuous cycle is created, feeding on its own momentum, leaving meaningful change in its path.
If the events of the last two weeks are any indication, this change will be no less than an accelerated worldwide reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, and by association, a massive shift away from fossil fuels toward clean energy sources that don’t pollute the air, jack up global temperatures or destabilize the climate.
“New energy technologies have become hugely cost-competitive in recent years and the effect of the momentum created in Paris will only accelerate that trend,” said Anthony Hobley, chief executive officer of London-based financial think tank Carbon Tracker.
The United Nations climate talks, and the legally binding global agreement that emerged, is a pivotal event in the history of climate activism, but it is important to remember that such action didn’t start — and won’t end — in Paris.
It’s also important to see that the deal itself — a “powerful, yet delicate” document, in the words of summit chair Laurent Fabius — doesn’t mean much if looked at in isolation, outside of the context of what has happened worldwide over the past few years.
Christiana Figueres, the UN’s top climate bureaucrat, spoke on the evening of the agreement’s approval about the tireless work that had led up to the moment. After the dismal failure of the Copenhagen summit in 2009 left all involved broken and defeated, a rebuilding effort began in 2010 in Cancun where national delegates and “non-state actors” agreed on the importance of limiting global warming to 2 C. They also raised the ambition of a 1.5 C target.
The Cancun meeting, Figueres said, “established the direction of travel.”
A year later, at the Durban conference, countries laid out a timetable to reach a universal climate accord by 2015, ideally an all-inclusive, binding deal with the United States, China and India on board. Three years of diplomatic efforts saw the tides begin to the shift.
But politicians and bureaucrats weren’t the only ones on the job. Emma Ruby-Sachs, acting executive director of social activism network Avaaz, said civil society was orchestrating its own movement with growing assistance from businesses and cities. “By marching in the streets, calling leaders and signing petitions, people everywhere created this moment,” she said.
Pipeline and coal projects were persistently protested and groups such as 350.org organized more frequent public demonstrations, sometimes simultaneously in cities around the world.
In September 2014, at a UN summit on climate change in New York City, hundreds of thousands of citizens from all walks of life took to the streets as part of the People’s Climate March in united protest against lack of government action. This was followed two months later by a surprise U.S.-China climate deal, bringing the planet’s two largest emitters of GHGs to the table for the first time.
“It was then,” Figueres said, “that we knew we had the power of the people on our side.” By the Lima climate conference in December 2014 “the tsunami of action had become irreversible,” she added.
At the same time, renewable energy technologies had become more efficient and dramatically less costly, and small and big investors alike were for the first time asking serious questions about “climate risks” — how both climate change and responses to it might hurt their investments over the coming years.
Cities, provinces and states also took the lead where national governments lagged, and for the general public, extreme weather events — from California droughts to B.C. wildfires to Calgary floods — created an escalating sense of urgency for action.
All stars aligned when most of the world’s government leaders arrived on Nov. 30, the first day of the Paris summit, in a show of unprecedented support. Also unprecedented was that more than 185 countries had already made official pledges to reduce GHG emissions. Figueres knew, at that precise moment, that the political will to secure a global deal had been all but locked down.
Nigel Topping, CEO of We Mean Business, a growing coalition of businesses and investors that share a desire for climate action, said the Paris agreement is more than a deal between nation states; it’s a clear and loud call for all-hands-on-deck action.
“We see this not just as a diplomatic settlement but as a catalytic economic instrument,” he said Monday. “Policy ambitions tend to drive business ambitions, driving impact, which creates more ambition for policy-makers.”
And so on, and so on. The virtuous cycle seems unstoppable now. It was already in motion. What the Paris agreement has done is kick it into higher gear.
– This article is part of a series produced in partnership by the Toronto Star and Tides Canada to address a range of pressing climate issues in Canada leading up to and following the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, December 2015. Tides Canada is supporting this partnership to increase public awareness and dialogue around the impacts of climate change on Canada’s economy and communities. The Toronto Star has full editorial control and responsibility to ensure stories are rigorously edited in order to meet its editorial standards.