I like to think I am not a cynical person. My cofounders and I started Student Energy when we were in our early 20s and were told many times that we couldn’t do it but somehow always kept our optimism and pulled through. Having said that, working in the environmental space does have a way of hardening you. It can be slow and the size of the challenge is daunting. We are up against a status quo that is so entrenched it often feels impossible to change. I have had many meetings where I returned to the office so discouraged I wondered if I was chasing something that doesn’t exist. That is why I believe COP21 in Paris provided something much more important than an international agreement – it provided new hope.
Paris was markedly different from other international climate or sustainability conferences I have attended including prior COP summits and the Rio +20 Earth Summit. To me, it felt like there was an inexplicable shift in the sentiment and tone of the conversations about the way our future is being approached. It is difficult to describe but it felt as if there was a general acceptance that the path we are on is not a sustainable one and that change is imminent. The incumbents were much less vocal in their opposition to this change and in fact they were often partners at the table lending their support to world leaders to take the steps necessary to adopt an agreement that was progressive and future-focused.
The environmental movement was quieter as well. Not in a bad way, in a way that felt like we were finally getting what we wanted and that many leaders were now seeing our point of view. Don’t me get wrong; ENGOs and YOUNGOs were there every step of the way keeping leaders accountable and they can be thanked for the more ambitious parts of the text. As a good friend of mine, Nimra Amjad from the Canadian Youth Delegation, beautifully put it “it is much harder to keep your friends accountable than to put pressure on your enemies.”
It is important to note that even with the new commitment from leaders there were still some disappointments such as the lack of recognition of human rights and the soft language around the temperature targets (this infographic does a great job summing up the highlights and challenges of the agreement). No one is saying this agreement is perfect and there will be a lot of time spent deconstructing it on its shortcomings but the fact that an agreement was reached and that it is far better than anything we have seen in the past represents a positive direction.
When I learned about systems innovation during my graduate studies, I distinctly remember our professors talking about when systems change occurs it is almost in a tipping point fashion. It seems slow at first and each of the actors are working in their own way and at their own levers - activists putting a topic on the agenda and creating space for the conversation, policy makers responding to the interests of their voters, businesses seeing future risks to their models and reacting, etc. True innovation doesn’t happen overnight, it happens over time and due to commitment of diverse people with differing interests. I think with addressing climate change, we are deep in this process and our tipping point is on the horizon.
The work is just beginning. We have a long way to go. Words on paper are not the same as action on the ground. All I know is that I have renewed excitement for tackling the challenge and I can’t wait to get to work to make the vision that emerged at Paris a reality for our generation and those to come.