Shauna Sylvester: COP26 Day 1—beyond pledges

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      By Shauna Sylvester

      Copenhagen – Paris – Glasgow. This is my third global climate conference, or COP (Conference of the Parties), but the 26th for our negotiators. I expect it will be my last. 

      As I boarded the plane (yes, I recognize the dilemma of burning fossil fuels to come here), it felt different. 

      In Copenhagen, Canada was deemed the Global Fossil of the Year for its betrayal of the Kyoto Protocol and its efforts to undermine the negotiations. There were huge posters of Stephen Harper lining the airport walls with the message “I’m sorry. We could have stopped catastrophic climate change… we didn’t.” 

      In Paris, just days after Catherine McKenna was appointed our first minister of environment and climate change, Canada ended our period of shame by stepping back into the role of a middle power convenor, and helped to negotiate an agreement to limit global temperatures to 1.5° C. I remember leaving Paris feeling cautiously optimistic and hopeful. 

      Fast forward to October 31, 2021 in Glasgow—what has changed?

      It would be so easy to say nothing has changed—that we are on a course of planetary destruction and this COP is going to be no different than any other global climate conference “just more blah, blah, blah”. But I don’t believe that. 

      Over the last six years, so much has changed. Here are just five significant developments I’ve witnessed since Paris:

      1. We are no longer having conversations about whether climate change exists—the evidence surrounds us. There isn’t a single community in B.C. that isn’t feeling the impacts of our volatile weather patterns, and every mayor and city council recognizes that they have to act if they are to save their citizens from dying in an extreme heat wave, their communities from burning in a wild fire, their farmers from losing their crops to drought or heavy rains, or their children from drowning in a flood or mudslide.
      2. Young people are done. They don’t trust older generations or their government to protect their future, and they are stepping up in the thousands to strike. Some are creating new ways of living, studying and working on advancing climate justice, while others are living for the moment, uncertain of what tomorrow will bring.
      3. We are two years into COVID—the greatest public health event of our lives. This pandemic has made us acutely aware of how vulnerable we are to global threats and how much we need to depend on each other and our governments to survive.
      4. The era of fossil fuel expansion is over. Despite well-funded lobbying efforts by oil and gas companies to maintain subsidies, public opinion has shifted. The focus now is on divestment, pricing carbon pollution and transitioning away from coal and oil extraction. Investment in clean technology is rising and clean energy jobs now outpace fossil fuel jobs in Canada.
      5. The narrative has changed. We are no longer just trying to reduce our “carbon footprint”, we are aiming for “net-zero” in our transportation, buildings, heating and cooling, food production, and waste management. In our cities, that means we are looking at planning in a far more integrated way so that livability and resilience are central. 

      But what impact, if any, will these changes have in Glasgow? 

      The one thing I’m going to be looking for from our Canadian negotiators over the next two weeks is action. Canada has set our target—our nationally determined contribution (NDC) to reduce our green-house gas emissions is now 40 to 45 percent by 2030. It’s not enough to get us to 1.5° C (global climate experts suggest our NDC should be closer to 60 percent), but it’s a start. Now, Canada has to be clear on the actions it is going to take to get us there. 

      Our new minister of environment and climate change, Steven Guibeault, has deep roots in climate action and he knows the COP process well—as he noted yesterday, this will be his 19th COP. I have high hopes that he and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson will step up to do whatever they can to move the dial here. 

      If they are to be successful, they will need to collaborate with other levels of government, the private sector and civil society.  

      As we know so well in B.C., cities are at the forefront of dealing with climate change. They account for 60 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions and they have consistently been a source of scalable innovation in climate action. Yet, currently cities are extremely limited in their capacity to act.

      As Canada charts its pathway forward, I’m going to be listening carefully for what role cities will play in the federal government’s plan. What specific commitments will they make to support cities in dealing with the impacts of climate, and what capacities will they strengthen to support cities in reducing emissions?

      So much has happened on the road to Glasgow. This COP feels different. There is a mix of both deep cynicism and a recognition that this is our last opportunity to get it right. While the drama feels real, I’m focusing on the practical—the steps we need to take to deliver real change.

      I don’t want to attend another COP. I’m here to do what I can in Glasgow to move us beyond pledges and towards concrete actions—to support our government, our province, our cities, our Indigenous communities, and our citizens in solving our climate crisis.

      And as I look around this city—I know I’m not alone. Thousands have come to do the same. To find new climate solutions, to support and hold our governments to account, and ensure we don’t squander this moment.

      This time will be different—it has to be.

      I’ll be writing a regular blog profiling some of the people, initiatives and ideas I’m seeing here in Glasgow from Nov. 1 to 12. With my SFU and other city colleagues I’ll also be cohosting a daily briefing at 11:30 a.m. Pacific time (this week) 10:30 a.m. (next week) by Zoom. You can find the link at our infosite at http://www.citiesCop26.caShauna Sylvester is executive director of the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue and lead convenor of Canadian Cities + COP26

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