Climate talks: A long road from Lima to Paris

Walking through the streets of Lima on Wednesday in that nation’s largest-ever march for climate action, I turned to a friend and said: “If you had told me when I started working on this issue in 1986 that I would still be in climate marches when I was 60 and that Canada would be ramping up emissions instead of meeting our pledges, I would have said you were crazy.”

She pointed out that if she had said that to me back then, it would have been pretty remarkable. She was three years old in 1986.

It is one of the moments that horrifyingly brings home to me that I have been working to arrest the threat of climate change a very long time – and not succeeding.

In June 1988, I worked within Environment Canada to organize the first international scientific climate conference in Toronto. It made an impact – that same year, the United Nations created a scientific organization to keep politicians informed of the growing threat, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The world appeared to be off to a pretty good start back in 1992 when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed by every nation on the planet at the Earth Summit.

Procrastination, corporate lobbying and lack of political will have led to a tragic loss of more than two decades when actions would have been easier, greenhouse gases could have been reduced before hitting the current 400 parts per million, before condemning glaciers and sea ice and coral reefs and other ecosystems to dangerous levels of damage.

Over the previous one million years, carbon dioxide concentrations have never exceeded 280 ppm. We have already changed the chemistry of the atmosphere, just as carbon dioxide mixing with ocean water is changing the acidity of our oceans.

The process of negotiating a treaty to move the world to a lowcarbon future has been going on since 1992. The third Conference of the Parties (COP3) took place in Kyoto, giving the protocol its name. Kyoto, in its second phase, still exists, but Canada dealt it several mortal blows.

The next big negotiation deadline was 2009 at the Conference of Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen. It was a train wreck of an event. It sowed deep seeds of distrust as U.S. President Barack Obama took a handful of big industrialized countries, plus China, into a hotel room – outside the integrity and transparency of the UN process – and cooked up the bogus “Copenhagen Accord.” The targets were not legally binding but “politically binding.”

It was accompanied by a blatant attempt to bribe the developing world into not protesting rising seas and droughts by providing a new Green Climate Fund, to ramp up to $100 billion a year by 2020. It was primarily designed to give Obama political cover in Washington to pass the Waxman-Markey climate bill. But in the end, the White House pulled its support for Waxman-Markey.

By then, the bill was so riddled with compromise, no one could really mourn its loss. Plus, trying to give that hopeless bill cover sabotaged global negotiations.

So here we are five years later in Lima at COP20. The deadline for the acceptance of the treaty that failed in Copenhagen will be next year at COP21 in Paris. The tensions created by Copenhagen are still with us. As is the distrust.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s pledge to cut emissions has been ignored by his administration and we have no hope of reaching it based on current plans.

Last year at COP19 in Warsaw, the failure to meet promised Green Climate Fund commitments took over the COP, with the popular button of the conference being “WTF?” – “Where’s the financing?” At COP20, industrialized countries wanted the developing world to be happy with text that leaves out such annoying promises, while giving the developed world a weak set of self-selected targets of dubious enforceability. The Lima negotiations went into overtime hours, adjourning more than 36 hours late. The deadlock was predictable and the compromise only slightly improves a weak Lima decision.

For years, I have been the only opposition MP at COP. Before next year’s COP in Paris, Canada’s elections will likely deliver a new prime minister with a Parliament with a greener hue – more Green MPs committed to working cooperatively. It is imperative that at least one opposition MP knows the negotiated trail that got us to this point.

Despite the tortuous path and dashed hopes of other COPs, we have no alternative. There is no other forum to navigate a course to global action for a carbon neutral world. We need to see our way through the thicket to reach the clear, aggressive and equitable climate treaty the world needs.

Elizabeth May is the MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands and leader of the Green Party of Canada. Originally published in the Victoria Times Columnist.