Forbidden to march, climate change protesters in Paris leave behind shoes (photo by Duc via Flickr)

Climate change: U of T experts head to Paris for COP21 conference

Matthew Hoffmann, Stephen Scharper and Danny Harvey on the global challenges ahead

With much of the world already beginning to feel the effects of climate change, there’s a lot at stake at the United Nations COP21 conference underway in Paris. 

Nearly 150 heads of state are meeting through Dec. 11 and about 180 countries have pledged to cut or curb their emissions. But temperatures today are almost one degree Celsius higher than 100 years ago and climate scientists are calling for even bigger reductions to keep the Earth from warming beyond two degrees Celsius. They warn that if emissions continue at current levels, the world will pass the threshold beyond which global warming becomes irreversible. 

Associate Professor Stephen Scharper from the department of anthropology and the School of the Environment and Professor Matthew Hoffmann of political science are attending the conference in Paris. Hoffmann, who is co-director of Munk’s Environmental Governance Lab, will be observing the negotiations as well as talking about his research at side events. Scharper will be following closely the role of religious groups at the climate conference. 

U of T News asked Scharper, Hoffmann, and Professor Danny Harvey, a geographer who specializes in climate modeling, to weigh in on what needs to get accomplished at the conference.

What will happen in the world especially in Canada and other countries if the global temperature goes up by 2 degrees Celsius?
DH: Two degrees is still a pretty big change in temperature. We’re already beginning to see with 1 degree warming, some very noticeable impacts. In the short term, we’ve seen more intense rainfall events. At the same time, other regions are going to get drier because you have increased evaporation. So you get an increase in extremes. That’s a concern. There are pretty big impacts on food production that can be expected with 2 degrees: more flooding in many regions, water stress and drought. The current drought in California and the American Southwest can be a harbinger of what’s coming.

Drier conditions throughout the Middle East are predicted, and that’s already happening. One to two degrees sustained warming − we’re talking over hundreds of years − could provoke the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet. That’s going to result in a 3 to 4 metre sea level rise. It could also provoke collapse of part of the West Antarctic ice sheet, another 4 to 5 metre sea level rise. Even with a couple of degrees warming, there could be 10 or more metre sea level rise in a thousand years. That means a metre sea level rise per century for ten centuries. That’s a big impact. There’s the possibility of collapse of the Amazon Rainforest, forest fires and species extinction of 20 to 30 percent of the world’s species with 2 degrees warming.

SS: Such a rise in global temperature, according to leading climatologists, would mean a deepening of the trends we are already seeing − a rise in sea levels, threatening the existence of small island nations such as Tuvalu and the Maldives, increased ocean acidification and die-off of coral reefs, and an uptick in “natural” disasters, such as droughts, wildfires, floods, and extreme temperature fluctuations, profoundly and especially affecting economically marginalized persons in coastal regions of the global South and First Nations’ communities in the far North.

(Photo below of dead lawns in Sacramento, California by Kevin Cortopassi via Flickr)

photo of unwatered lawns in California

The EU is promising to reduce emissions by 40 per cent, U.S. by 26 per cent. What is Canada’s target number? Can it be met?

SS: Canada going into Paris is proposing, along with the previous government, a 30 per cent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030; however, the Liberal government is suggesting it wants to set even more ambitious emissions targets in concert with the provinces after the Paris summit. This is one reason Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invited the premiers to accompany him to Paris. If the political will at the federal level is there, and the cooperation of the provinces is nourished and fostered, yes, I believe this and even more significant emissions reductions can be achieved.

MH: Most observers agree that it can be met (It's actually one of the weaker pledges amongst industrialized countries) but that it will take real policy and action at the national and provincial level. While some provinces have been moving on climate policy, there has been a dearth of effective federal policy for quite some time (in both Liberal and Conservative governments).

By meeting these targets, is it likely that the world will only get 2 degrees warmer, or is it likely to get even warmer?

DH: To have a chance of limiting the warming to 2 degrees, fossil fuel emissions have to go to zero within this century. And that doesn’t guarantee 2 degrees. We could go to zero on fossil fuel emissions and get 4 degrees warming. To have a chance for 2 degrees, fossil fuel emissions have to go to zero in 85 years or less. If we get to zero, and find out it’s still not enough, then we have to consider means of taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. But that would be expensive and difficult, and there’s no point considering that if you're still freely emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And so, it’s a complete denial of reality to think you can address this problem and build pipelines to increase tar sands oil production. If emissions have to go to zero by the end of century, they have to be down at least 50 per cent in the next 35 or 40 years, and they’re not going to go down 50 per cent if you build pipelines that last 40 to 60 years. 

SS: Meeting these targets will be key in limiting global warming, but so is embracing a new way of envisioning our relationship with the planet. By exploring carbon pricing, investing in renewable energy sources, and linking ecological destruction with global poverty, we are in a sense rethinking our exploitative relationship with the planet. We are being invited to see ourselves more holistically, not as “masters and conquerors” of the earth, but, rather as “citizens” of the earth.

photo of coastline cleanup in Hawaii

(Shoreline cleanup image above by US Army Corps of Engineers via Flickr)

Do you think the agreement should be binding? 

SS: Yes, I think the agreement should be binding. This would bring a deeper level of accountability and alacrity to the accord.

MH: There will most likely be some legally binding aspects to the treaty − a legal obligation for countries to set targets and commit to act on those targets − but not legally binding emissions reduction targets themselves. This is what Canada and the US are pushing for. 

Legally binding emissions reductions is often seen as the gold standard for international agreements on climate change. It signals a serious commitment. And we know that most countries uphold their international legal commitments most of the time. In a perfect world, that’s what I’d like to see as well. 

I’d like to see binding emissions reductions, but in some ways that’s a red herring and the Canadian and US position on this makes the most political sense. It is what we need to move the process forward and ensure that major players like the US and China will be parties to the agreement. For the US, President Barack Obama cannot get a treaty with legally binding emissions reductions through the Senate. There’s just no way. What Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, is calling for is to include legally binding processes, and they are ones in line with existing US domestic legislation (like the Clean Air Act). President Obama can sign and execute that kind of agreement without bringing it to the Senate. 

For China and others with uncertain emissions growth profiles (and I would include Canada here), they see it as a bridge too far to bind themselves to particular targets. They value flexibility in the face of uncertainty. This is especially true of countries in the Global South, where the pledges are more about when emissions growth will peak. But this means it’s even more important for Canada and other countries that want to be aggressive on climate change to push for measures that go beyond just making pledges a legal responsibility.

(Image below of Shanghai by Leniners via Flickr)

photo of city of Shanghai shrouded in pollution in 2013

It has to be more than just bringing promises to a summit. That obligation has to come with commitments for regular review of those pledges and to ratchet up pledges (or at least not backslide). There has to be some accountability for countries to pursue their commitments even if their emissions reductions pledges aren’t legally binding. That’s what I’ll be looking for in these negotiations. I care less about having binding emissions reductions targets if countries demonstrate that their pledges to act are serious and that they begin putting in place policies to realize their pledges. Making something legally binding can limit the ambition of what is agreed to and, as we learned from the Kyoto Protocol, which was legally binding, enforcement is very difficult − the US withdrawal and failure of countries like Canada to meet its legal obligations were not sanctioned. 

Who are the global players in the Climate Conference and what are they proposing or resisting?

SS: One hopeful thread going into Paris is that the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, the US and China, have held bilateral talks on reducing carbon emissions. Moreover, President Obama seems much more engaged in the process now, and interested in a substantive deal, than he was at the 2009 Copenhagen summit. In addition, Prime Minister Trudeau recently pledged $2.65 billion in emissions-reduction projects for developing countries, helping address objections by India and other nations of the Global South that wealthy northern nations who have the highest per capita emissions must financially assist less affluent nations in limiting their emissions. So, there is some positive movement.

(Visit Flickr to see the original of the photo at top