By Louise Comeau
Executive Director, Climate Action Network Canada
Paris Agreement a milestone but won’t get us to where we need to go until we face our consumer demons
Recovering from the intensity of the two-week United Nations climate negotiations just completed in Paris, France feels like the slow re-entry from a decompression chamber. First, there is the recovery from the shock and awe of international travel. Then there is the withdrawal from checking in on social media and emails that escalated to several hundred a day at the most intense part of the negotiations, followed by the return to a “normal” day absent early mornings and all-nighters. Finally, here is the re-entry into normal life where friends and family who cheer you on have probing questions that show we have done little to inform even those who love us and who care, in an abstract way, about what climate change means to our lives.
Let’s start with international travel. In the air and on the water, day after day after day, planes and ships move goods and people around the world fuelling a consumer lifestyle that represents one of the fastest growing sources of carbon pollution changing the climate. As the global middle class grows the jump from meeting basic needs to meeting status needs is marked by the jump to air and international travel.
To get to Paris for the UN climate negotiations I took my first international flight in nine years. The reason for that last international flight? Attending the United Nations Climate Negotiations in Nairobi in 2006. I have never been one for holiday travel as I try to manage my personal carbon budget, but business travel to climate change negotiations has been one area I have felt was acceptable. I am no longer sure that I can rationalize that.
In addition to the gruelling grind of cramped spaces, bad air and expensive food, my re-exposure to international travel was re-exposures to excessive consumerism on a grand scale with Toronto International Airport, like so many other airports, renovated to a high-end, designer brand mall. International air travel is a monument to excessive consumerism. Is this the reason that after 25 years of climate negotiations, control of aviation (as well as marine) emissions affecting the climate are not included in the Paris Agreement? Emissions from international aviation, by the way, are projected to increase by over 100 percent in the next ten years.
On the ground, I am also reflecting on the teachable moment that a high profile United Nations climate meeting represents. With heightened media attention, members of Climate Action Network, including me, were over the last weeks busy telling the Paris story, but did we succeed in telling the story so that Canadians have a better understanding now of the implications of climate change for our daily lives? I am not sure.
Over the years, months and days leading up to the Paris climate negotiations, activists of every strip have been talking amongst themselves and to media about the climate negotiations, laying out our positions and telling governments what they should and shouldn’t do. My social media and email traffic increased so much from Climate Action Network business I had little time to stay in touch with family and friends. So my loved ones watched from afar listening avidly to radio and television and monitoring Facebook. From what I can tell, the most effective teachable moment came from an in-studio CBC New Brunswick radio interview I was able to do because I had come home from Paris early due to an out-of-control eye infection. That interview, spanning almost 10 minutes, allowed me to explain climate change in simple terms and to talk about how solving it will affect our lives as we make our electricity, buildings and transportation one integrated and renewable energy system. From what I can tell the hunger for a contextual story of what climate change means to our daily lives only started to be satisfied by that interview. I am being peppered by questions from friends and family for more information, more detail, more context.
Media coverage is event driven, not thematically drive. As a result, questions asked of me by friends and family made me realize that most people hear and see “Paris climate negotiations” as a “new” story. So they asked basic questions about whether there is any institutional infrastructure (rules, reporting, review, compliance) at home and abroad to manage the Paris Climate Agreement. They asked how UN negotiations work and how so many people get to an agreement. People are unaware we have been building the institutional infrastructure to report, track, and implement actions to protect the climate for the last 25 years. They said they learned a lot about what climate change really means to them through my CBC radio interview.
For the last week of the negotiations, I participated by email and webcast, following every moment live, contributing almost as if I were there. Sure, I did not participate in the hugs and high-fives along the way, or share in the tears of joy as we finally concluded an agreement that should have been operational decades ago. Instead, I watched the final hours with my partner Tom. We cried together and shared the moment and he came to learn more about the work I do and to share with me the commitment to doing more of this work together. Hours after the Paris Agreement was gavelled through and negotiators and observers dragged their tired bodies to celebrations and their long flights home, I spent the evening with friends answering probing questions about the negotiations and climate change.
What’s clear to me is that some of the most important work that I did to contribute to the Paris climate negotiations happened after I got home from Paris. I have serious doubts that we need 40,000 observers attending climate negotiations with all the attendant international travel and carbon pollution that goes with it. We need people at the negotiations, no doubt about it. But we need more of us maximizing the potential from these teachable moments and that means more of us staying home, but staying in touch, while we talk to Canadians about what climate change means for our lives and how we will change.
The purpose of the Paris Agreement is to “hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”. We need deep and rapid cuts to greenhouse gas pollution requiring that we phase out the burning of fossil fuels within 35 years. Change is in the air and it must be in our lives and in our lifestyles.
It is only in the last of 16 introductory clauses to the Paris Agreement that we recognize that sustainable lifestyles and sustainable patterns of consumption play an important role in addressing climate change. It is the only time lifestyle is mentioned in the entire 12-page document. Lifestyle is not mentioned at all in the 20 pages of Decision text guiding future work of governments and supporting institutions.
If we are going to make 100% renewable 100% inevitable, we need to confront the need to change, not just by being good consumers and buying the latest renewable energy technologies, green homes and spiffy cars (I love the Tesla!). We also have to confront the difference between wants and needs, to slow things down, to stay home more, to talk to loved ones about life and to make life choices that ratchet back our demands on nature.
Have a happy holiday season. As we head into the New Year and begin the work of helping Canada develop a new climate plan to meet the demands of the Paris Agreement, let’s not forget to talk to each other and to commit to living low-carbon, sustainable lives whatever way you define that for yourself. For me, it means working more strategically, doing more research into how to message climate change better, and to continue bringing to life a low-carbon lifestyle that Tom and I can share with people from our home in Keswick Ridge, New Brunswick.