Courtney Kehoe, Student at University of Ottawa

by Courtney Kehoe, MSc in Environment Sustainability Candidate, University of Ottawa

When I reached out to the Forest Products Association of Canada last spring, asking if they would be willing to take a MSc in Environmental Sustainability student onto their delegation for the climate change negotiations in Paris (COP21), I never imagined how truly enriching — and historic — an experience it would be.

Over the course of my two weeks at COP21 I listened in on negotiating sessions, attended multiple side events — covering everything from forests to oceans; intended nationally determined contributions (INDC) to fair shares and historic responsibility; carbon pricing to climate change education in our schooling systems — and met with numerous individuals passionate about the future of our planet. These are just a few things I learned along the way:

The role of forests: Where they stand

I am sure many of you have heard the philosophical question “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” For those of you who haven’t, be prepared to think long and hard—and possibly never come to definitive yes or no.

As an observer holding a badge that read Forest Products Association of Canada I felt it was only fitting that I attend events centered around forests. This included sessions focused on, for instance, the role of Russian forests in adaptation efforts, the implementation of the REDD+ program (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) in Mexico, Burundi, Pakistan, and other developing countries; the inclusion of REDD+, LULUCF (land use, land use change and forestry), and forests within INDCs. What I came to realize listening to the speakers at these various events was that it does not matter whether or not we hear trees falling: they are falling, and many of our economies — including Canada’s—depend on this. What matters is how often they fall and what is done to the landscape once they have fallen.

The key theme running throughout these sessions was that while human activity in forests can lead to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), it can also lead to an increase in the capacity of forests to absorb carbon. Proper management, in the form of protected areas for instance can reduce deforestation and its subsequent emissions; while afforestation of landscapes that would otherwise be converted for agricultural use can create new carbon sinks.

As one speaker noted, forestry has long been the “Cinderella sector” not allowed to join the party. In order to arrive at a ‘happily ever after’, it is necessary that we start to realize that while it may not be the sole solution to climate change, the forestry sector’s contribution is certainly not negligible. Canada’s forest sector is a good case to support such a narrative.

Negotiations: A necessary nuisance

Having had to the opportunity to observe the COP21 negotiations I now find myself able to better understand why in the last 20 years we have been unsuccessful in reaching a global agreement to tackle climate change.

Imagine for a moment, that you and four friends have to collectively decide on a restaurant for dinner. Now imagine that each of you have different levels of income — some less wealthy than others and therefore only able to afford to dine at certain venues. Imagine still, that some of your friends prefer to get their calories or “energy” from clean food, while others would prefer to consume more dirty foods (e.g. foods high in trans fat). If you are anything like me, you will have already given yourself a headache just thinking about such a scenario.

Now add another 190 people to your group, some of whom are not your friends at all but merely acquaintances.

I admit this is an extremely simple metaphor to try and capture the complexity of the negotiation process at the Conference of Parties. Nevertheless, I think it is quite useful in highlighting the difficulties associated with asking 195 countries, each with their own national economic, social and environmental interests, to come to collective agreement.

In the time I spent listening to the negotiations I was surprised by the numerous points of disagreement among Parties – although not shocked, as I understood that the document would likely be legally binding. These points of disagreement ranged from those considered to be only minor such as word choice (e.g. the use of the word ‘invites’ rather than ‘welcomes’), to the those more major in scope such as the inclusion of key issues and principles (e.g. sustainable development, human and indigenous rights, support/finance for developing countries, common but differentiated responsibilities and limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees).

All of this disagreement — although counterproductive at times— supports the French playwright Moliere’s theory that ‘the greater the obstacle, the more joy in overcoming it’. So just as the group of people who eventually set aside their differences and agreed on a place to dine would feel joy in satisfying their hunger, so too did the world erupt in joy when the COP finally came to an agreement in order to try and avoid the subsequent catastrophic effects of climate change.

Post-Paris: Where do we go from here?

Whether or not this joy will translate into action we must wait and see. In adopting this new historic agreement, countries have committed to transition toward a low-carbon economy and all eyes are now on governments to put in place the policies needed to drive this change. But, as Bill McKibben with The Guardian asks, now that “the pistol has fired…why aren’t we running?”

If Canada hopes to be a leader in this race to save our planet from the negative effects of climate change, our government will need to seize every opportunity available to lower emissions. And, given what I have heard during my two weeks in Paris, I am confident that our forestry sector here in Canada is well positioned to offer the kind of nature-based solutions that will be needed.

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