From ‘Blah Blah Blah’ to ‘Wow, at last!’: How Canada can Lead at COP26

This article was originally published by Policy Magazine (Canadian Politics and Public Policy). 

By Elizabeth May

October 21, 2021

As we get closer to the COP26 (26th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) climate change negotiations in Glasgow, I am gratified by the clarity of press coverage. In contrast to the pre-Copenhagen, pre-Paris advance rave reviews, it seems to me there is a higher degree of skepticism. Not exactly “show me the money” — although climate finance remains a hot (and unresolved) topic – but definitely “show me the progress.”

Greta Thunberg has set the right tone. This child leader is anything but childish. More than nearly anyone on the planet, she speaks accurately to the science with an unforgiving moral clarity. She hears the politicians claiming to be climate leaders, quotes them and punctures their rhetorical balloons.

“Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah…Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises,” Thunberg said recently.

The tone of her comments was surprisingly matched by HM Queen Elizabeth. “It’s really irritating when they talk, but they don’t do,” she said, in a private comment picked up by a hot microphone.

Saul Griffith, inventor and Australian climate expert, was recently interviewed by Laura Lynch for CBC Radio’s What on Earth. In the same vein as Thunberg, Griffiths reacted to the tortuous rationale of our environment and climate change minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, trying to explain how building a pipeline helps us go off fossil fuels. Griffiths’ response was that it was “word salad” nonsense, which he then attributed to our energy minister. CBC host Lynch corrected him, “No, environment minister” and they both laughed.

Of all the industrialized countries, Canada goes to COP26 with the worst record and the (just recently toughened) weakest targets for emissions reductions. We do have a chance to be better and do better. And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a chance to be the surprise leader Griffiths called for — the Churchillian leader, demanding that everyone do better — starting with us. It does appear that Trudeau, recently re-elected prime minister of a minority government, will be attending. The timing is opportune.

The G20 Summit is taking place in Rome October 30-31. COP26 opens the next day, not far away in Glasgow, the morning of November 1. Increasing attention has turned to which of the world leaders will be attending. In the normal flow of COPs, the first week is unexciting grunt work. Diplomats and negotiators attempt to hammer out agreed-upon texts for the ministers and high-level political leaders to accept the following week. But this year, as was the case at COP21 in Paris, leaders will speak first in a two-day summit.

Trudeau could surprise the world by abandoning our climate cowardice to announce a commitment to what is necessary. Climate goals are not political; they are based on cold, hard realities of a vanishingly small remaining carbon budget – which itself is vanishing. To have any prospect of hanging on to a livable world – avoiding the worst case-scenarios that are too terrifying to put on paper, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says we must slash emissions roughly in half from 2010 levels before 2030.

The Paris goal, negotiated in 2015, is to stay as far below 2 degrees C global average temperature increase as possible and preferably to hold to 1.5 degrees C. The IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degrees, (released in October 2018), made it clear that every fraction of a degree above 1.5 leads to increased danger of catastrophic impacts. The most recent IPCC report, dubbed “Code Red for Humanity” by UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres, is even clearer. Time is running out and fast.

Trudeau could surprise the world by abandoning our climate cowardice to announce a commitment to what is necessary. Climate goals are not political; they are based on cold, hard realities of a vanishingly small remaining carbon budget – which itself is vanishing.

Pressure is on for nations to strengthen action to meet the demands of science – to have any hope of holding to 1.5 degrees C global average temperature increase. Global Greens call it the “Last Chance COP.” Prince Charles called it the “Last Chance Saloon.” No matter what you call it, we are running out of time.

Former Bank of Canada and Bank of England governor and United Nations climate finance guru Mark Carney delivers one of the clearest, plain-speaking explanations of carbon budgets and closing windows in his new book Values: Building a Better World for All.

“The carbon budget to limit temperature rises to below catastrophic levels is rapidly being exhausted…If we had started in 2000, we could have hit the 1.5 degree C objective by halving emissions every thirty years. Now, we must halve emissions every ten years. If we wait another four years, the challenge will be to halve emissions every year. If we wait another eight years, our 1.5 degree C carbon budget will be exhausted.”

The heat is on – pun intended.

About 120 world leaders are expected in Glasgow for this conference, already delayed one year by COVID. Confirmed are US President Joe Biden, UK PM Boris Johnson, Queen Elizabeth, Emmanuel Macron of France, and the leaders of Sweden, President of Switzerland, Congo, and South Korea. Normally, the world could look to Germany for leadership, but the German government is still being formed post-election. One of my German Green colleagues could be their climate minister. But, for now, they are unlikely to be present at the political level. Thanks to Prince Charles’s prodding, Australia’s PM has also confirmed attendance.

Not attending — China’s Xi Jinping, but he will likely present by video link. Interestingly, Xi Jinping has not traveled from Beijing at all in the pandemic. He even skipped attendance at the Biodiversity COP earlier this month in Kunming, China. And, of course, the Chinese government will be there in negotiations, as will all nations on earth.

Trudeau could be the leader everyone needs to deliver momentum. He could announce that Canada is turning over a new (maple) leaf — cancelling the TMX pipeline, getting serious about ending fossil fuel subsidies, banning fracking and bringing in a strong safety net through a Just Transition bill for energy-sector workers. No one expects this. But it is in the prime minister’s hands to shift the conference from “Blah blah blah” to “Wow – at last!”

I will report from COP for our Policy readers. But why not take a hand in the negotiations yourself and encourage our prime minister to be the leader we all need.

Contributing Writer Elizabeth May is the Green Party MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands.