COP21 Update - Emergencies in Paris

Main Image
Labour delegates in Paris

By Fred Wilson

A state of emergency has seized Paris this December, although sometimes it is hard to determine just which emergency is foremost. Armies of police surrounding the Le Bourget Climate Conference and smaller groups at every transit station and downtown shopping centres speak to one emergency. The massive posters and displays on the COP21 and environment and climate themes that dominate public spaces throughout Paris and its underground metro stations point to the other global emergency that brings us here.

The climate emergency is now at decision point for COP21. This second Tuesday of the COP has been described as "influence day" before a near final text emerges tomorrow that in turn will set up a final day of negotiations towards the agreement on Friday that the world is waiting for. 

For the great majority of participants at the Paris COP—including Unifor and the trade union delegations—there are clear benchmarks for the agreement we need. The first two of these measurements, "ambition" (goals) and global finance, are the overarching benchmarks that COP21 will be judged against. The third set of issues, human rights and just transition, have been put on the table in Paris by the global labour movement and its closest ENGO and social justice allies.

There has already been a big shift on the ambition of COP21. We arrived in Paris with the consensus goal of an agreement to limit warming to less than 2 degrees, although we were well aware that there was a strong and growing call for stronger action to put forward a goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. The newest science indicates that sea level rise and extreme weather events at 2 degrees will be catastrophic.

By the end of the first week of preliminary negotiations, 1.5 degrees had become a focus of debate and was referenced in the preliminary text. Canada was an early and strong voice for recognizing and asserting the 1.5 goal, highlighting a stunning, positive reversal of Canada's role in these global negotiations.

The more ambitious goal may seem to be a contradiction because the national targets for GHGs reductions announced leading into the COP would already cause warming to soar above 2 degrees. Here is where the most crucial part of this negotiation comes in. Unlike the Kyoto model where each nation declared a specific target, at Paris there will be a global science based goal and regular check in points where nations adjust their national emission reduction targets.

In that context, a 1.5 degrees target would declare a new state of emergency that sets the bar higher and points towards a "carbon neutral" world by around 2050 -- half a century earlier than earlier projections of what is needed. To set this framework in motion, the agreement needs to set the first check in period before 2020 where each country would revise and resubmit their national goals. On this point also, Canada is among the leaders suggesting a 2017 check in to "ratchet" up national targets.

It isn't clear yet how far COP21 will go in setting down this ambition, but a major factor for India, Africa and developing countries to buy in will be the commitments of the rich countries to ensure a Global Climate Fund of at least $100 Billion to assist them. Canada appears to take the high ground on this issue also, although the daily briefings of Canadian negotiators carefully avoid detailed positions.

There are calls from Europe and the US for a "larger donor base" to fulfill the fund. On the other hand, developing nations want assurances that they can count on funding after 2020, including for "adaptation" to deal with the consequences of climate change they are already experiencing, including recognition for "loss and damages" of sea level rise and extreme weather. No surprise—inequality and money are the sticky points that could hold back a truly global effort for sustainability.

While these are the basic elements of an agreement to be celebrated or merely grudgingly taken as better than no agreement, the trade union delegations to COP21 will measure the results also by whether human rights and "just transition" are included in the operational text of the agreement.

On the initiative of the new conservative government of Norway, a paragraph setting out the importance of ensuring that all climate actions uphold principles of human rights, gender and intergenerational equity, indigenous rights and just transition for workers was moved to the preamble of the current working agreement. The importance of maintaining these references in the operational text can be hugely important for how climate programs and fund expenditures are shaped. Labour and social justice activists know exactly the consequences of downplaying these issues when displaced workers and marginalized groups are left to fend for themselves as climate policies drive economic change.

On this "influence day" trade unionists from all over the globe are mounting a full court press on their national delegations to have the just transition language rescued and reinserted into Article 2 of the agreement text. The Canadian caucus are meeting again today with the Canadian team headed by Environment and Climate Minister Catherine McKenna, with a request that they once more add Canada's weight to the labour lobby. To this point, the CLC and Unifor delegates in Paris have enjoyed remarkably strong support from the Canadian negotiators, who have been the most outspoken of any national delegation for inclusion of human rights and just transition. 

Unifor's delegation to Paris (President Jerry Dias, Assistants Jenny Ahn, Dave Moffat, Scott Doherty, Health Safety and Environment Director Sari Sairanen, Local 707A President Ken Smith, and myself) has been part of the Canadian Labour Congress group of over 40 trade unionists. The CLC delegation is the largest from outside France, and Canadian ENGOs are also among the largest and well-organized of the civil society groups in Paris. Together with the opposition parties, provincial and city delegations, and First Nations that have been included in the official Canadian team, it has added up to a Canadian presence at COP21 that is in every way disproportionate.

For all of the Unifor delegates here, COP21 is a remarkable, inspiring, and hopeful experience. But we are seized with the state of emergency that has France and the world in its grip. Through the magic of time zones, the second last stage of the COP negotiations will be on the Thursday morning news in Canada. Stay tuned.