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Why the political winds are shifting on climate change

Originally published in the Globe and Mail, September 26, 2014

You will have noticed a sudden flurry in climate change coverage this week. On Tuesday, global heads of state from more than 120 countries convened in New York City at the request of UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon to start to frame a new global approach to reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs). Canada was not represented by Prime Minster Stephen Harper, but instead Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq spoke in the waning hours of the summit, touting Canada’s efforts to reduce emissions from the electricity and transportation sectors, while supporting mitigation efforts globally.

The last time global leaders convened to discuss climate change, we witnessed the death of a global deal on greenhouse gas emissions in Copenhagen, in 2009. Still, Copenhagen was not such a mess, and emerging from Copenhagen came a more country driven approach to managing GHGs. That said, countries all over the world have sputtered since Copenhagen to make good their pledges. Canada is certainly not alone on climate inaction.

On the agenda at this week’s Climate Summit was building the political will for a post-2020 agreement to be finalized in Paris, 2015. At the Summit, leaders blustered about actions they have taken and the climate impacts threatening their economies while pleading for urgent action to stabilize the global concentration of CO2 to avoid dangerous climate change.

But one has to ask why so many world leaders would come together to talk climate change a full year and a half ahead of the Paris conference? There are three important drivers likely underpinning this renewed political interest.

First, climate change is imposing real costs on economies now. While the competitiveness neurosis of imposing carbon costs on industry remains, there is a stark realization that climate induced damages are impeding economic growth and risking human health. This is as true for small island states facing sea-level rise, for African countries experiencing drought and in North America, where more frequent and intense storms are wreaking havoc.

Second, GHG mitigation costs are not what we thought, while innovation is creating market opportunities. Innovation is driving down technology costs with government policy and market forces rapidly making our cars and houses less carbon intensive and cheaper to operate. Renewable electricity is becoming reliable and increasingly competitive with electricity systems that are rapidly decarbonizing. Demand for low-carbon goods is on the rise, with market opportunities for those countries positioned to compete in carbon-constrained markets.

Third, constituents are becoming more comfortable with climate action. For so long climate change was synonymous with imposing costs and limiting lifestyle choices. But this is changing. Climate change damages are plain to see, and low carbon and energy efficiency technologies are starting to penetrate our homes, cars and businesses. Active and vocal campaigns, typified by the 310,000 strong People’s March in New York this week, are changing attitudes are spurring non-governmental actions such as the Divest Fossil Fuels. Politicians, ever looking to ride the wave of public sentiment, are seeing this shift in public attitudes and figuring the political calculus.

A lot has changed since Copenhagen just five years ago, while at the same time perhaps nothing has changed. Looking beyond the Climate Summit, we can expect more talk and climate action misaligned with climate science. Yet, the global political winds are changing. Global leaders are seeing the need to climate-proof their economies, to position industry to compete in carbon constrained markets and to respond to public pressure for climate action. By focusing on political will, this week’s Climate Summit in New York City may not have been just another United Nations gabfest.

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