Under the cover of Copenhagen

There is no hope in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's efforts at tackling climate change, says Amber Church. That's why young climate change activists will be pressing for action at the ballot box rather than the negotiating table...

There is no hope in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s efforts at tackling climate change, says Amber Church.

That’s why young climate change activists will be pressing for action at the ballot box rather than the negotiating table after a dismal conclusion to last month’s Copenhagen meeting.

“We do have a block in terms of the Conservatives,” said Church, a Yukoner who travelled to Copenhagen as the head of Canada’s Youth Delegation.

“I’m really not holding a lot of hope on Stephen Harper suddenly getting religious on climate change.

“So, ultimately, we have to work around him until we can replace him.”

The delegation was a vocal critic of the government’s actions in Copenhagen, even shaming Canada’s lead negotiator, Michael Martin, during a news conference.

They’ve returned to Canada with a bit of disappointment, and a bit of political realism.

“We know an election will eventually be called,” said Church. “When that happens, our role is to mobilize the youth vote and to mobilize them around climate change.

“Hopefully, we can get that youth vote to vote for whoever is actually offering an action plan.”

Hitting the ballot box is probably the youth movement’s only hope.

Ottawa found ways to lower expectations through the United Nations-guided negotiations.

The Canadian government walked away from the conference with a sweetheart deal that gave it more flexibility when declaring emission-cut targets.

Three days ago, Ottawa followed up with some disappointing news.

Canada will actually increase its carbon emissions by 2.5 per cent in 2020 compared to 1990 levels.

“Although (the targets) look like a cut, it actually equates to an increase,” says Church.

But deceiving government statements hide that fact.

On paper, Canada’s targets will mirror the expected numbers from the United States – a 17 per cent cut from 2005 emission levels by 2020, said Environment Minister Jim Prentice in Calgary on Saturday.

The measurement used by most countries and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are emissions in 1990 levels.

When you compare the target with what Canadians spewed into the atmosphere back then, we’ll actually be increasing our emissions by 2.5 per cent, according to Church and Greenpeace.

The increase is a weaker target than what Canada brought to Denmark.

Before Copenhagen, Harper was sticking with goals he made in the 2006 action plan on climate change, called Turning the Corner, which recommended a 20 per cent cut from 2006 levels by 2020.

Converted into 1990 numbers, that equaled a three per cent decrease in the nation’s emissions.

So we left Copenhagen with weaker targets than those we showed up with.

“It was a step backward,” said Church, who is 28.

She is the national director of the Canadian Youth Delegation, which sent 35 people to December’s environmental summit to lobby, meet and protest the world’s political leaders.

She hopes to set the record straight on the controversial summit.

“Copenhagen was a very mixed bag,” said Church. “Some leaders, our prime minister included, are passing off the agreement as being significant. But it really isn’t.”

The summit was meant to create targets for 2020 and 2050 that countries will begin working towards in 2012. It is meant to continue the failed aspirations of the Kyoto Protocol; the protocol’s targets were meant to kick in in 2005.

But Copenhagen has been almost universally panned.

The fact that it was non-binding allowed countries some wiggle room in writing their new targets, which had to be submitted to the United Nations by Sunday.

Some countries, like Brazil, increased their cuts.

Others, like Canada, lowered them.

The Copenhagen meeting was the 15th in a series that began in 1992 on climate change negotiations.

One of the most recent meetings, which took place in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007, was able to get countries to sign on to future targets for negotiations.

But the two-week Copenhagen meeting ended with much looser conditions on countries.

Negotiators were hit with major setbacks, including multiple conflicts erupting between developed and developing countries.

Lead negotiators from developing countries protested in hallways at the behaviour of countries like Canada, said Church.

There were also walkouts and other time-consuming disagreements.

By the time the heads of state arrived near the end of the summit’s second week, the negotiators had nothing for them to sign.

“So it was incredibly devastating,” said Church.

She doesn’t blame the structure of the meetings – which were massive, difficult and long.

“There’s 192 countries negotiations and that obviously means 192 separate points of view are being negotiated,” said Church. “They intentionally make it hard on themselves to try and make sure everyone gets listened to.

“That said, it doesn’t always play out that way.”

Toward the end of the meeting, the Danish Prime Minister unveiled a text labelled as a Copenhagen agreement.

Problem is, only a dozen developed countries took part in writing it at the last minute.

And on the other side, some media outlets reported that a consortium of developing nations, including China and India, had bandied together to stall the talks.

“The process could work if it was not abused and acted in the way it was written,” said Church.

Some commentators have argued the meeting’s only gain was getting both sides of the world to work together. Previous meetings hadn’t gotten that far.

The other side of what really happened in Copenhagen is the massive populist support for action on climate change.

Church attended a 100,000-person protest organized by the city of Copenhagen during the summit.

“What we’re seeing for the first time ever is world leaders being held accountable (for climate change),” said Church. “Because there are millions of people counting on them.”

“They’re realizing that there is this political capital there that they can get by actually tackling climate change,” she said.

As the clock for the next climate change meeting ticks on, the delegation will focus its attention populist support.

The delegation is non-partisan and works will all national parties, said Church. But the Conservative Party’s track record shows a sustained effort at avoiding the issue.

Harper didn’t include climate change in recent announcements on the coming G8 and G20 summits this summer in Ontario.

“When he first made announcements about (the G8), he spoke about how climate change would be on the table,” said Church.

“Now, it looks like he’s trying to sidestep as much as possible the issue.

“That’s worrisome in a country that is already seeing the effects of climate change in the Arctic, in the Prairies and on the coastlines.”

But many polls done last year show Canadians are worried about climate change and want the government to issue stronger targets, not weaker ones.

In the fall, a private member’s bill from the Bloc Quebecois pledging to use science-based targets for climate change won approval from the majority of the House of Commons.

The only holdout? The Conservatives.

“The majority of the house is with us,” said Church. “We just need to push that much more.”

The delegation’s big test will be whether it can tap into a populist climate change movement before the next United Nations meeting in Cancun, Mexico, in November.

“So ultimately, (Copenhagen) could be a good thing,” said Church.

“There are many people who stalled the process in December who are surprised and worried that that pressure hasn’t disappeared or gone away.

“They’re actually going to have to be accountable for what they do.”

Contact James Munson at jamesm@yukon-news.com