Adoption of text session at COP21, December 12, 2015 (photo by Benjamin Géminel/COP via flickr)

Historic but flawed: U of T student delegates evaluate COP21 agreement

Among the thousands of world leaders, legislators, bureaucrats, climate activists and journalists at the recent COP21 conference in Paris was a student delegation from the University of Toronto.

The six undergraduate and graduate students attended sessions, took selfies with VIPs such as Green Party leader Elizabeth May and Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, and blogged about their experiences and observations.

Afterwards, they talked with U of T News, summing up COP21 as a historic, but flawed agreement – historic because the countries agreed to an aspirational goal of a reduction of 1.5 degrees Celsius in global warming, but flawed because of a lack of recognition of indigenous rights and because the proposed emission reductions won’t be sufficient to meet the 1.5 degree goal. 

The students were Alice (Xia) Zhu (BSc., environmental chemistry), Alissa Saieva (J.D. , Faculty of Law and U of T grad in environmental studies and political science), Christelle Broux (BSc., environmental science), Keven Roy (PhD candidate, physics), Larissa Parker (BA, ethics, society and law and environmental studies) and Sophie Guilbault (PhD candidate, planning and environmental science).  Coordinating their efforts at U of T was Mira Kanaan (BSc, psychology and environmental studies). 

How did the delegation come about?

Mira Kanaan: Alice (Zhu) approached David Powell, the School of the Environment undergraduate student adviser, early in 2015 to discuss sending a delegation. The delegates were chosen from 58 undergraduate and graduate applicants based on their programs of study, their climate change knowledge, and their extracurricular involvement in climate issues. 

Each delegate had a specific focus for the conference, wrote blog posts and recorded interviews on that topic from the conference.

Read the students' blog posts

How do you think COP21 went? 

Alissa Saieva: COP21 marked an historic point in time. There is still a lot of work to be done and the agreement needs to be effectively implemented to have any weight. However, we have an agreement that will help shape more effective solutions to the problem.  I am disheartened at the lack of recognition of Indigenous rights and traditional knowledge. This was a highly contested area and Canada’s pressure on the issue seemed sincere. Unfortunately, this is not reflected in the final text and is an example of how negotiators must be flexible on certain issues in order for a body of text to be approved.  

Keven Roy: This was my first time attending a COP meeting, and I was impressed at the breadth of stakeholders present in the Climate Generations areas, an area outside the delegate zone that enabled discussions between different civil society groups. As a whole, I think the meeting was a success since it was the first time that the vast majority of countries agreed on a binding agreement. However, it should be noted that, from a scientific perspective, the promised emission reductions are far from being sufficient to meet the 2.0-degree target, let alone the 1.5-degree aspiration. The disconnect between the avowed goal to be reached and the means to reach it is very striking.

photo of president of Kiribati at COP21Christelle Broux: While the final agreement is not perfect, the text acknowledges the need to strive to keep temperatures at 1.5C above pre-industrial levels – a key demand from vulnerable countries.

I was deeply moved by the speech from the president of the island nation of Kiribati (pictured at right in a photo by worldmetorg via Flickr) who described the threat of rising sea levels to his people.

I also had the opportunity to attend a solidarity boat ride with Indigenous leaders from all around the world, who called for the need for unity on addressing climate change and associated injustice. 

Sophie Guilbault: COP21 was a wonderful learning experience. I was delighted to see the wide variety of stakeholders, from non-governmental environmental groups to energy companies. It was reassuring to witness a stronger commitment from Canadian leaders to take action to address climate change related issues and to work hard to secure a strong global climate agreement.

As most of my research is specific to disaster mitigation, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation, I was pleased to learn about the new approach that will be used under the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. This new framework is characterized by a strong focus on preventing new climate risk and a growing attention to issues related to climate refugees.

Alice Zhu: I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of the conference – the diversity of the delegates at the conference and our collective efforts to tackle this issue by supporting our leaders’ decisions and guiding the negotiations in the right path was an amazing experience. What is even better is that a review mechanism is described in the final accord, which will make sure countries continue to make their emission targets more ambitious by 2020 and beyond. 

Larissa Parker: For the first time in history, nations collectively responded to the urgency of tackling climate change. Although the agreement is not perfect, it is unexpectedly ambitious. Not only does this agreement represent the first time in history that all signatories have committed in writing to cut their carbon emissions, the agreement adopted centres around an ambitious 1.5 degree target instead of the planned 2 degree goal. This represents a huge victory for the developing world, and particularly small island states, who passionately argued that 2 degrees was not enough to save their nations from natural disasters such as floods and droughts. 

(photo below courtesy COP Paris via Flickr)

photo of cop21 delegates celebrating

Will you be doing any follow-up work regarding the conference?

Alice Zhu: We will hold a panel and roundtable called, Panel and Roundtable on Paris Agreement and Canada’s Next Steps, on March 2nd, Wednesday, from 5-8 pm in Hart House Debates Room. The event will summarize the final decisions made at COP21, and relate the significance of the agreement to Canadians and local action.

We will invite panellists to speak about the emission targets and clauses of the agreement, their implications, and what steps Canadians and especially students should now take in order to keep our leaders to their promises and embark on local adaptation and mitigation measures to simultaneously complement international action. 

I also conducted a research project on the nature of international climate negotiations and will be publishing my results early next year in 2016.

Mira Kanaan: To get updates on events that the delegates as well as the COP21 Home Team will plan throughout the new year, take a look at our Facebook page (, our Twitter feed (@cop21utstudents), as well as our blog (

selfie with Elisabeth May

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


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