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OUT OF THIS WORLD | Earth, Space And The Stuff In Between - a daily journey through weather, space and science with meteorologist/science writer Scott Sutherland

Your guide to the 2015 Paris Conference on Climate Change


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Monday, June 5, 2017, 8:00 AM - When delegates gathered for the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, it was with high hopes for a new alliance that would pull us back from the brink of a climate disaster. Here is a guide to the summit, its goals and what it means for Canada.

Five abbreviations to remember for this week

As the Paris Climate Conference opens, discussions and news articles can be loaded with abbreviations. Here's a handy guide to the five most important initialisms you'll come across.

UNFCCC - United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: an international environmental treaty signed in 1992, with 196 members, worldwide
COP - Conference of Parties: the annual meeting of the parties to the UNFCCC, the first of which took place in Berlin, in 1995
INDC - Intended Nationally Determined Contributions: the commitments from each UNFCCC party towards this new global climate deal
GHG - Greenhouse Gases: gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen dioxide and others that trap infrared radiation (heat) in Earth's atmosphere
CO2 - Carbon Dioxide: the most important green house gas being emitted into the atmosphere, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal)

What is COP21?

In December 2014, representatives from over 190 countries from around the world met in Lima, Peru, with the goal of laying down the first steps towards a new global climate deal. This 20th Conference of the Parties (COP20) was a chance for these nations to discuss the issues and put a framework into place for what was to follow just one year later.

Upon returning home, they started the process of determining exactly how their individual nations (or group of nations, in the case of the European Union) would contribute to the expanding efforts to limit global warming and climate change. All were invited to submit those commitments for the rest of the world to see and review, in order to gather momentum leading up to the next meeting in the series, COP21, in Paris, France.

In November 2015, those same nations reconvened in Paris, with more than three-quarters of the expected Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) submitted for review, beforehand, and the rest showing up before the start of the conference.

A thorough review of those commitments submitted up to October 1, 2015 had shown that they did not yet cover 100 per cent of global emissions, and would fall short of what is needed to prevent global temperatures from exceeding 2oC over pre-industrial times by the year 2100. However, the last-minute submissions promised to bring us closer to that goal, and UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres said, at the time, that these commitments "represent a clear and determined down-payment on a new era of climate ambition from the global community."

Why limit to two degrees Celsius?

The world is getting warmer. Global temperatures in 2015, leading up to the conference, were already 0.9oC above the 20th century average, and the UK Met Office had announced that 2015 was likely to reach 1.0oC above pre-industrial levels (1850-1900). (Update: In the mean time, NASA recorded 2015's global temperatures at 1.08oC above pre-industrial levels, and 2016 surpassed that, at 1.2oC above pre-industrial levels).

That marks the halfway point towards the limit that climate scientists are warning us about. So, why is 2o so important? 

On our current trajectory, if the nations of the world simply ignore the problem of global warming, and by extension climate change, global temperatures in the year 2100 are expected to rise by around 4oC over what they were before the industrial revolution. The added energy and heat in our climate system will push more weather events - storms, cyclones, droughts, etc - into extreme categories, raising the overall risk to communities and raising the costs of recovery. Also, as a consequence of both dwindling global ice and ocean heat expansion, sea levels are expected to rise, pushing coastlines inland, and inundating coastal communities with flood waters.

Watch Below: Climate Central presents a comparison between a 4oC rise and 2oC, for the city of Vancouver, Canada.

Simply based on how much we've raised the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere so far, we are already locked into a certain level of climate change. While the carbon cycle means that any particular carbon dioxide molecule only remains in the atmosphere for a few years, because this cycle also releases CO2 into the atmosphere, it can take anywhere from decades to centuries for natural process to reduce the overall number of CO2 molecules to an amount that will just keep the climate in balance. Thus, the higher concentration we are producing will be around for many years to come.

We can probably adapt to this "locked in" amount of climate change with relative ease. However, if we keep emitting greenhouse gases (GHGs) without care, that "probably" will become a "maybe" and then on to even more uncertain terms as times goes on, and we will definitely lose the "relative ease" part of the statement as well.

There's nothing magical about a 2oC limit. In fact, that may even be past an important "tipping point" for the Earth, where the locked-in amount of climate change becomes permanent. By setting a cap of 2oC to the warming, though, it sets a realistic goal that effectively avoids the scenario where we have to pay ever-increasing costs of adapting to worsening sea level rise and extreme weather events, along with the inevitable impacts on the availability of both food and fresh water. Instead, it puts us on a much more reasonable "payment plan" meant to shift us away from dependence on fossil fuels, to more (and eventually complete) reliance on renewable energy sources, so that we can avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Watch Below: This animation, produced especially for COP21, acts as a repository of our knowledge about global warming and climate change

What will this Paris Climate Alliance do?

Like climate agreements of the past, such as the Kyoto Protocol, COP21 brought the nations of the world together to form an alliance, to tackle the issues of climate change.

What's different about this Paris Climate Alliance, and where it will succeed where the others have failed?

1. The largest emitters of GHGs in the world - the United States, China and India - are fully involved, and are expected to not only sign the agreement but also commit to it. This is something that was lacking for past agreements.
2. We are at a time when the science behind global warming and climate change is stronger than ever, with the only uncertainties being with the minute details.
3. Support for clean, renewable energy is higher than it has been in the past, and the options for clean energy are more abundant and more competitive with fossil fuels (especially if fossil fuel subsidies are taken out of the equation).

Overall, it looks as though this alliance is one of the most ambitious agreements so far, and it will push for even more ambition in the future, to make the shift from fossil fuels to clean energy happen even faster.

Watch Below: Show our leaders that you support this new climate deal, for the sake of the Earth and all of us who live on it, by sending them an #EarthtoParis message

What will this deal mean for Canada?

Canada's prior commitment to this new climate deal had been described by some as "modest," while other sources were far more critical of the plan already presented to the UNFCCC.

In a May 15, 2015 press release, coinciding with the submission of Canada's INDC by the conservative government that was in power at the time, the Climate Action Network - Réseau action climat (CAN-Rac) Canada said: "The federal approach to controlling climate disrupting pollution puts our people, communities and economy at risk by failing to ensure the country joins the global march toward a clean energy system."

Approaching the conference, the Canadian public had been letting the government know how it truly feels. In a poll by CAN-Rac Canada, the majority of Canadians are behind plans for more renewable energy, environmental protection, and limits on carbon pollution.


The results of a national online survey of 1,500 Canadians, conducted in Nov 2015. Credit: CAN-Rac Canada/Oraclepoll Research

This interest wasn't just in the public opinion.

With the change in Canada's federal government, our national commitment to climate change action had changed as well, starting with the appointment of Catherine McKenna as Canada's new Minister of Environment and Climate Change.

For the first time in years, a federal minister was in attendance at the meetings leading up to a Conference of Parties, as the newly-appointed McKenna had already been in Paris for the start of negotiations, actively engaged with other delegates towards a viable deal.

Alberta has been a large source of the climate change problem for Canada. It is one of three provinces (along with Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia) that still produces the abundance of their electricity from coal, and it is also the source of oil sands bitumen, which has a higher carbon footprint than any other source of oil. That is changing now, though.

Just one week before the start of the conference, as the Canadian government was attempting to strengthen our commitment towards this new global agreement, Alberta released their new Climate Leadership Plan, which seeks to turn the province from a problem into a solution.

The goal of this plan is to phase out pollution from coal by 2030, by transitioning to more renewable energy sources and through natural gas energy production, and to reduce methane emissions to nearly half 2014 levels by the year 2025. At the same time, it will start up a carbon pricing program that will reinvest back into the province - driving innovations for these transitions and reductions, supporting greener infrastructure, and providing support for the businesses and families that will be most affected by these changes.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley stated during a press conference:

"Responding to climate change is about doing what’s right for future generations of Albertans – protecting our jobs, health and the environment. It will help us access new markets for our energy products, and diversify our economy with renewable energy and energy efficiency technology. Alberta is showing leadership on one of the world’s biggest problems, and doing our part."

Ontario also stepped up with a new commitment leading up to the conference.

Although 2014 saw the end of coal-fired electricity in Ontario, a new law passed on Monday makes the province's current ban on coal-fired power plants permanent.

"Ontario's ban on coal-fired power is an important success story that I will be proud to share with world leaders at the United Nations’ Conference of the Parties in Paris next week," Ontario's Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Glen R. Murray, said in a statement. "Provincial efforts are critical to Canada’s success to fight climate change and Ontario will work closely with the new federal government to fully leverage all possible opportunities to continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

Thus, while our nation may have been behind the pack in the months leading up this conference, with McKenna's presence, along with these new actions by Alberta and Ontario, we showed that we can advance ourselves to be among the leaders in climate action moving forward.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on November 29, 2015, and has been updated to reflect more current information.

Sources: UNFCCC COP21 | EarthtoParis | CBC | Province of Alberta | Climate Action Network Canada

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