Shauna Sylvester: Will COP21 deliver the new green?

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      By Shauna Sylvester

      I didn’t write a blog yesterday. I had hit the wall. Now I’m on my way home from COP21 in Paris.

      After six days and only 12 hours sleep, I couldn’t string a sentence together. Or perhaps I couldn’t stop stringing sentences together. My head was spinning with quotes from so many corporate, NGO, and global leaders that I couldn’t find that one single unifying concept to join together all the loose threads.

      It’s difficult to determine what is real and what is spin in the thick of an event like the Paris climate talks. Unlike Copenhagen, when the prospect of failure followed you from the airport terminal and engulfed you in the streets, Paris felt different. There was a sense of optimism here—a feeling that we have crossed over into a new global paradigm that measures progress in terms of carbon sequestered, green jobs created, and Pacific islands saved.

      But how much of this is real? When the world’s cameras are rolling, it’s easy to make aspirational speeches and paint utopian futures. But what happens when the makeshift pavilions are dismantled? Do we go back to the same old behaviours and policies? 

      I’d like to think that something is happening in Paris that will change the course of human history. I’d like to believe that scientists will win the day. That their projections of extreme weather patterns (floods, droughts, and hurricanes) and modeling of ice caps melting, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, and risks to human health will be enough to cause global leaders to press the reset button.

      But if the politicians don’t, others will. Like the businesswomen and men who see economic opportunity in going green, the insurance industry that sees too much risk in business as usual, or the institutions that want to divest from fossil fuels.

      At a New York Times event on Tuesday, Thomas Friedman said, “To name something is to own it. The people who originally coined the term green to describe the environmental movement did it to demean it.” He explained, “They called environmentalism green—sissy, vaguely European. But now green is the geocapitalist norm, it’s the new red, white, and blue.”

      I found his statement both settling and unsettling. It suggests that we’ve reached the tipping point—that green is the new scaffolding of our economic order and it’s just a matter of time for the pieces to fall into place. I hope that is the case.

      But green isn’t just the new face of America. Green is also the investment of Chinese sovereign wealth funds in renewable energy, it’s the emergence of cities as new energy producers, it’s the consumer choices of a generation of environmentally minded millennials, or the emergence of new technologies in Africa.

      To transition to a low-carbon economy involves a complex mix of new actors and entities in the international arena. When the French invited the world to COP21, they seemed to understand this complexity. They have put time and energy into setting a table for a variety of new and old guests and they have nurtured a space for dialogue among them.  

      And while it’s been hard to keep track of the sheer volume of messages coming from those dialogues, I want to believe that the consistent chorus I’ve heard—that says we are on a path to a greener future—isn’t just spin. I want to believe that when the final negotiations close and our official delegations return home, the real transformational work will begin.

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