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On the Paris Climate Summit, the Role of Youth, and Next Steps for Canada

January 6th, 2016 - A guest blog for The Starfish:

The Paris Climate Summit was phenomenal. As a student delegate from the University of Toronto for the second week of COP21 (December 7-11), I was amazed by the diversity of cultures that were represented at the negotiations as well as the respect that all of the observer and party delegates showed towards each other.

COP21 was the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties, a series of annual international negotiations under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It took place in Paris from November 30-December 11, and nearly 200 countries from around the world sent delegates to the negotiations to decide on a binding agreement to save mankind from catastrophic consequences of climate change.

Summary of the Climate Summit.

To have witnessed the negotiations from an observer perspective was a rewarding experience. Every day at the conference venue, situated in Le Bourget Exhibition Place near the Saint-Denis region of Paris, there would be exhibitions and side events on innovative initiatives that cities and not-for-profit organizations are spearheading in their respective countries. Initiatives ranged from biofuel research to carbon sinks modelling in China to Germany’s post-2020 climate action plan. These educational events took place throughout the day, and were a highlight of the negotiations for observers, who were also accredited and could enter the negotiations venue, but could not join in on the actual Paris Agreement drafting sessions which were facilitated in the late afternoons and evenings by the facilitators to the COP21 President and the President himself, Minister Laurent Fabius.

Role of Youth and Observer Delegates.

Although youth and observer delegates were not allowed to enter the closed-door negotiations where the Paris text was being drafted, we were able to host numerous rallies and events to support the decisions of our leaders and sometimes steer them on the right path throughout the negotiations. One instance was when delegates from Canadian universities, including the University of Toronto and University of Waterloo, worked in conjunction with the Canadian Youth Delegation to host a press avail to condemn Canada for not offering compensation and liability for loss and damage. Press avails require two elements: an expert on the subject who can answer reporters’ questions, and reporters themselves to write up the story. Youth delegates belong to a provisional constituency called YOUNGO (Youth Non-Governmental Organizations), and I was able to join youth around the world who were part of this network in numerous attention-grabbing, creative initiatives from a ‘Celebrate the Retirement of the Fossil Fuel Industry’ event, to a peaceful rally on the final day of the summit outside of the venue where youth delegates took turns speaking up for their generation and their hope that leaders will make the text ambitious and binding.

Overall, the experience made me realize just how much observers can influence the outcome of the negotiations. There wasn’t a single moment in Paris spent doing nothing - every minute, delegates were reporting back to their organizations on the progress of the talks, hosting events, giving workshops on what they are doing back home to fight climate change, or emailing their leaders in the room across from them about what they want to see in the text.

Next Steps.

I am very optimistic about the outcome of the Paris Agreement because of the unanimous adoption of the agreement by the parties at COP21 and because it touches on so many key issues tied to climate change, from mitigation to adaptation to human rights. However, more work needs to be accomplished domestically after this negotiation to make emission reduction targets more ambitious. In fact, before the negotiations ended, the observer delegates I spoke to felt that regardless of what treaty is negotiated, international decisions are not a substitute for subnational and local action.

The good news is that we were all already prepared to begin local campaigns back home, all of the youth at the negotiations - it was obvious in their passion and their dedication. And with the Paris Agreement a success, it only provides more fuel for our efforts.

In Canada…

Canada has 90 days after the end of the Paris Climate Talks to come up with a national climate change strategy that will ensure its emission reduction commitments are met. Unfortunately, Canada’s submitted target is not very ambitious, a mere 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, and organizations are already starting to ring this message home to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change. Efforts are continuing to convince the federal government that tar sands oil needs to stay in the ground, and several organizations, including Environmental Defence and, are making this one of their top priorities. Finally, not just in Canada but in other countries as well, divestment movements from fossil fuels are spreading across university campuses with great momentum. So there is much advocacy work ahead, and lots to get involved in for anyone who has a passion for climate and sustainability.

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