Canada in the post-COP21 world

By Mike Morrice, Executive Director, Sustainability CoLab

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Arundhati Roy

It’s been just over one month since COP 21. Going in to the conference, global climate change commitments were estimated to put us on track for a 2.7 degrees C rise in temperature. Viewed by many as a game changer, at COP 21, 195 signatory countries channelled their shared ambition to create the Paris Agreement. Together, they aspire to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels through voluntary targets.

In Canada, the contrast between this ambition and the federal target of a 30% carbon reduction by 2030 (from 2005 levels) produced unlikely agreement. All sides of the political spectrum – from Margaret Wente to David Runnalls to Thomas Homer-Dixon – shared skepticism, albeit for different reasons. The chorus was the same though: even with a plan (which is still in the works), it won’t be nearly enough to meet the aspiration championed by Minister McKenna and others from the Canadian delegation in Paris.

And while Paris is the most substantial global agreement on climate change to-date, a fair criticism has emerged: because commitments remain voluntary – there’s no binding action and no meaningful penalties for non-compliance – the weight of any commitments remains suspect.

Now, I’ve spent my entire career to-date championing a similar voluntary approach in communities across Ontario. It’s what has rallied hundreds of people in Waterloo Region to change the conversation on sustainability over the past 8 years, and in turn inspired the formation of CoLab and our work to support other community organizations to follow suit.

We’ve found there to be huge power in shared aspiration. When businesses promise to report back regularly, expectations change in a community, peer pressure builds for others to follow suit, and this produces a virtuous cycle of progress towards both sustainability and profitability. We’ve seen this translate intention into action in cities across Ontario.

The difference between our experience and the Paris Agreement, though, is that programs in the CoLab Network are designed to work within the existing economic system to support businesses to go further and build on one another’s success, not to bring transformational results overnight. Instead, we’re seeing results across Ontario help pave the way for the larger transition to the low-carbon economy over time. Events like COP21, however, are expected to bring about significant changes to the systems we’re working within.

Simply, if COP21 is to be seen as a success – a watershed moment in the climate crisis – signatory countries will need to make good on their rhetoric. There is some precedent for this: the Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion in 1989 being a relatively recent example.

If the Canadian government is serious about living up to its aspiration and providing real leadership in the transition to a low-carbon economy – not just to meet their current 2030 target but to shine a light on what is needed to limit warming to 1.5C – they’ll need to be decisive. And their efforts will need to be diverse: a mix of market-based mechanisms, tools, investments, regulations, and incentives. They will need to mobilize resources at a scale and pace that has drawn comparisons to previous war efforts.

And for those businesses and organizations already involved in transitioning to the low-carbon economy, we need to re-orient in the post-COP21 era. We live in a time of unprecedented crisis, and have simultaneously been presented with an incredible opportunity. So let’s make it easy to maximize the assets we’ve already put in place in communities across the country. Let’s step up our game. And let’s to do it together.

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