Shauna Sylvester: Shifting and divergent narratives at COP21

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      By Shauna Sylvester

      It’s Sunday and I find myself in a dark auditorium listening to panel after panel of men in suits, with the odd woman participating, talk about renewable energy (RE). It’s not my idea of an engaging format and it reminds me of those mind-numbing lectures that I endured in my undergraduate years.

      When I find myself in such situations, I employ a strategy to keep myself from nodding off—I listen carefully to the narratives that underscore the presentations. How do people use those few minutes that they have in front of a passive audience to relay their message? How do their stories diverge or reinforce a common narrative?

      So far, I’m hearing a consistent story within the business and government gatherings in Paris. That message is that the transition to renewable energy has arrived. According to California governor Gerry Brown, "We have the technological means to shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy, but what we lack is the political will to make it happen." 

      The contrast between this message and the common narrative present at the Copenhagen climate talks couldn’t be starker.

      Five years ago, the focus of the conversation was on the need to save the Kyoto Accord and find a financial formula to support developing countries in their energy transition.

      Now the focus is less on what national governments should strive to achieve and more on what cities and markets are actually doing. It’s a narrative that underscores the speed of innovation in renewable energy, solar and wind technology cost declines, new financing tools that are scaling up RE production, and the emergence of developing countries as important renewable-energy markets. These messages were reinforced by a diverse range of people from Sydney mayor Clover Moore to American rap artist Akon, who is working to bring more and better lighting to Africa.

      This shift in the climate-change narrative is also evident in campaigns launched by major international companies.

      Five years ago in Copenhagen, a group of companies lead by Unilever and Coca-Cola announced a major collaborative effort that would track the carbon footprint of their supply chains. This project was heralded as an important step forward in the fight against climate change. Up to that point, few companies reported their carbon emissions and even fewer committed to reducing them and reporting on those reductions.

      Today, Unilever took the stage again to announce a new campaign, but this time in partnership with Marks & Spencer. Together they launched This new initiative focuses on getting millennials to push for renewable energy in their universities, cities, and countries. 

      Both presenters made impassioned pitches to the baby boomer audiences to help engage younger people in shifting the political will for renewable energy. "Let’s make sustainable living the new norm," said Marks & Spencer CEO Mark Bolland. 

      While the cynic in me wants to question why two international brands would launch a vague campaign to mobilize millennials for RE (wouldn’t a more potent campaign focus on the companies’ operations, suppliers, and other lines of business?), the optimist wants to thank them for being solutions-oriented and using their consumer networks to advance renewable energy.

      The more I listen for narratives, the more I realize that they are powerful forces that evolve over time. I’ve been around international environmental negotiations for over 25 years and I’m hearing new messages of hope and change in Paris. Ironically, these narratives are not coming from the blue zone where the United Nations COP texts are being written. Instead they are coming from a range of actors, from cities to civil society leaders to artists to businesses, who are tired of waiting for countries to act. 

      So, while these government and business panelists may not deliver their messages in the most compelling fashion, they are giving me ample reason to stay alert and listen. The energy transition is happening if you know where to look for it.

      Shauna Sylvester is director of the SFU Centre for Dialogue, founder of Carbon Talks, and cofounder of Renewable Cities.