Letter from Paris

David Oswald
Henry Marion photo (Creative Commons)

Why I was there

We observed a historic moment this past week at the UNFCCC COP 21 meeting in Paris and I was fortunate to be in attendance. I normally attend the UN COP meetings for the Convention on Biological Diversity and this was the first time I decided to go to the UN climate change conference because, despite the hype around it, I felt it was a pivotal event. Along with team members at my company, DE Design + Environment Inc., I work on a variety of consulting and design projects that involve various types of sustainability challenges, one of which is climate change adaptation. My scholarly interests relate to environmental design and impact assessment and I thought that this would be a very productive and interesting experience – boy was I right!

The setting – what is the lay of the land at COP21?

In any UN COP conference there tend to be two sections – the official area for delegates where one requires accreditation as a representative of a party to the convention (government) or as an observer (NGO, university, etc.) and then an area which is open to civil society where there are pavilions, side events, and all kinds of happenings. The civil society area at this meeting was called the “Générations Climat” area and was monitored for security, but accessible to all. I was not an official delegate but have found in my previous experiences that a lot of the most interesting presentations are by governments, NGOs, IGOs, and businesses in the civil society area. The Générations Climat area was going to be my turf for COP21 and I mapped out all the events and meetings I thought would be worthwhile. DE works closely with the UN on various projects so it was quite easy to determine the best plan through consultation with people in my network. My goal was simple – to listen, dialogue where appropriate, reflect, and most importantly – learn.

New and old business

This meeting was emblematic of the conflict between the old industrial world with a new industrial world – fossil fuel companies vs. the new green energy economy. The reality is that the problem is far more complicated and nuanced than just stopping exploiting hydrocarbon resources for energy and switching to renewable energy. For one, there is a phase of transition that needs to occur. The attendees of COP 21 did not arrive on airplanes energized with electricity derived from renewable sources, they were large metal airborne vehicles consuming copious amounts of fossil fuels - offset or not. However, the fundamental changes that are coming are multi-dimensional and involve new regulations, policy, science, technology, and processes – all of which will take time. I attended various presentations related to carbon finance, climate change adaptation, natural resource management, and disaster risk management and in all of them there are fantastic new opportunities for innovation and business development. One underlying theme is the fact that research and education will be central to all of these.

Living your learning

In the somewhat infamous words of Donald Rumsfeld - ‘there are known knowns, known unknowns, and there are unknown unknowns’ and I think this applies to how we will chart a path forward from Paris. We have a good idea that excessive GHG emissions are causing more energy to be trapped in the earth system, which results in an increase in mean temperature and also high climatic variability [1]. What we know we don’t know are the non-linear, cascading effects that are likely to result from current and projected increases in GHG concentrations in the atmosphere. What I think are the ‘unknown unknowns’ are the social, scientific, economic, and technological solutions to this problem. There has been a lot of work done on various energy and environment futures scenarios but the often irrational reaction of markets and the insatiable curiosity of humanity for innovation are very difficult things to predict and project [2] [3]. This is where education, research, and having a ‘learning-centric’ mentality are important. The RRU model of ‘living your learning’ could not be more relevant than to the period of history we are now in. We need sustainable development and leadership and I think RRU strives to produce people that excel at both.

Canada is back

You have seen in the media the phrase ‘Canada is back’ many times, and although I appreciate the attention that Canada received at COP21, I have to disagree with this statement. I disagree with it in principle because I truly think that Canada never left. It is true that we now have a government that is more inclined to be progressive with climate change negotiations than the previous government – this I do not refute. However, Canada is more than those who have been elected to represent us. I have worked in the area of sustainable development since my graduation from RRU in 1999 and had the pleasure of working with a vast array of amazing Canadians and Canadian organizations – even in the past 10 years during the ‘Harper era’. I think it is part of the Canadian DNA to be concerned about the health of the global environment and even if we have had a federal government that was less than proactive there has still been very good work done by Canadians to address climate change. I attended a meeting at COP21 on sub-national action on climate change and heard remarkable initiatives underway from the Premier of Manitoba and the Ministers of Environment of Alberta, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and Ontario. These efforts have been a long time in development. Yes, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals are ‘back’ but my hat goes off to the many people in Canada who have been hard at work on these issues even during the past ten years when we were ‘away’. Let’s not forget about their contributions and dedication

The Paris Agreement

We have a new agreement, The Paris Agreement, which aims to ensure that global GHG emissions do not exceed levels that will result in a greater than 2° C increase in temperature from pre-industrial levels. This is a great achievement in international diplomacy. Is it a concrete victory for the planet? Well, to be honest, not yet. It is a start. The problem is that this agreement is difficult to enforce and to that end one could say it really is not legally binding. I think that what it does achieve is more important - it catalyzes action. The Paris Agreement represents consensus amongst nations on the need for action. The real work starts now, on the ground, where in jurisdictions such as Alberta, where we rely on carbon emission intensive industries (which are currently suffering), we need to find solutions. There remains the issue of equity between developed countries and developing countries in terms of the costs of adaptation and new technology for those countries that are most affected by climate change and variability that, by and large, they are least responsible for. We need a price on carbon emissions and we need to find ways to accelerate green technology development. No small challenges – any of them.

The next steps – consult with the mermaids …

COP21 brought everyone out and I was thrilled to be a part of it. High level discussions of re-defining risk in the context of disasters and insurance; meetings about how to combat land degradation and increase landscape resilience; propositions for new ‘green bonds’ and various kinds of debt swaps in exchange for conservation; vocal protests against fracking; and peaceful parades of the spiritually inclined to name a few. I even happened upon a massive protest at the Eiffel Tower on the Saturday following the agreement of the final text. Heck, even the mermaids came out for COP21 protesting for more climate change so they had more space to swim in (see photo). So when the noise has declined and the media moves onto the next issue where will we be?

I can speak for myself in saying that I will have fond memories and high aspirations from what I saw. What we are all left with though is a huge design problem: the challenge of ushering in an eco-industrial revolution that will need to change pretty much everything. I take solace in the fact that I am a member of the Royal Roads community as an alumni and now associate faculty. A community of vibrant people prepared to take on these tasks with the principles of empowering leadership, entrepreneurship, conflict resolution, and sustainable development as anchors to their work.

So, are we ‘back’? No, we never left … and we are just getting started.

Read more about David Oswald, School of Environment and Sustainability alumni and associate faculty member

[1] IPCC, 2013: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1535 pp, doi:10.1017/CBO9781107415324.

[2] Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC.

[3] Jefferson, M. 2012. Shell scenarios: What really happened in the 1970’s and what may be learned for current world prospects. Technological Forecasting and Social Change. 79(1): 186-197