I interviewed Roger Rashi, long-time social and political activist in Montreal, on October 28th, 2015 to discuss the impending COP 21 conference in Paris and the parallel mobilizations planned.
What is the Paris COP 21 Conference, and what are some of its objectives?
The meeting is a yearly meeting organized by the UN and has been going on for 21 years, hence the name COP 21. This year’s meeting is thought to be the last meeting before climate change is irreversible. The official aim is to reach an international agreement on limiting global warming to hopefully under 2 degrees for this coming century. The problem with the negotiations for at least the past six years is the fact that there have been no compulsory agreements; so in other words, it is up to the member countries to establish their own goals and see whether they can comply with these goals or not. There are no international mechanisms to impose these goals, and there are no international limits or targets. So the problem with these negotiations is that this weakness is not dealt with. COP 21 will not result in a compulsory agreement, and since the targets are left to specific countries, every change in government can bring a change of targets. Furthermore, COP 21 fails to attack fossil fuels and extraction of fossil fuels. As long as this question is not tackled, and as long as there’s no binding, international call to limit the extraction of fossil fuels, which are the main driver of climate change and global warming, it is unlikely that this conference will yield any positive results.
More specifically, what are these limitations of COP 21?
So far, about 150 out of 190 countries participating in COP 21 have put out voluntary targets. According to studies, if these targets are complied with, at best, global warming will be 3 degrees this century. Which is way beyond what is required, necessary, and needed. Global warming has to be limited to 2 degrees and below. If we base ourselves on these voluntary targets, and remember that there’s no compliance mechanisms for these, the outcome will be insufficient.
The most important limitation is that there is absolutely nothing being said at COP 21 about keeping fossil fuels in the ground, and this is a big criticism that civil society groups will put forward. Unfortunately, there are a lot of corporations participating in the climate negotiations of COP 21, and the UN has not taken a position on limiting extraction of fossil fuels. This is a second big limitation and big failure of the process.
The third one, which is in discussion currently, relates to the setting up of a Green Climate Fund to help countries from the global south deal with climate issues. As of 6 years ago, the UN claimed that the fund should have at least 150 billion dollars pledged to it; so far, there are less than 10 billion dollars, which is less than a tenth of what is needed. Many of the countries from the global north, the wealthier countries, that should participate, are holding back on it. These sorts of negotiations are not likely to produce anything significant.
The fourth issue, which is an issue that concerns us all, is that one tax likely to be explored in Paris is called carbon pricing, especially putting forward carbon markets. We don’t think, and a lot of the grassroots organizations don’t think, that this is a viable solution to the problem we have. All it does is lead to possible financial speculation on the price of carbon, or the setting up of carbon markets, but not really any meaningful impact on the problems we’re facing. So, at least on four levels, the negotiations seem to be leading, if not nowhere, not anywhere close to what is needed.
How will the new Liberal government under Justin Trudeau change Canada’s involvement in COP 21?
The new canadian government has set no targets. Justin Trudeau has said that eventually Canada should have targets that comply with maintaining global warming under 2 degrees, but he will not set them before Paris, and he was hoping to set them in the 3 months following Paris. This is typical of the double speak that we see of the new liberal government.
How are civil society groups mobilizing parallel to COP 21? What stances are these groups taking?
Around this issue you have two elements, say two currents of thought. One hopes that indeed the governments will reach some kind of an agreement that will lead to a limitation in terms of greenhouse gas emission and therefore global warming. And a second category, espoused mostly by grassroots organizations, believes that nothing can really come out of COP21, and the only path forward is to continue mobilization on the ground: to stop pipelines, to stop the Tar Sands, to halt big projects that will have a negative impact on global warming. These are the two currents of thoughts, and it’s around these two currents of thoughts that most of the civil society organizations that are participating in COP21 find themselves dealing with.
What specific organizations are mobilizing? How are they negotiating these two currents of thought?
The most interesting aspect which I’ve seen develop over the past year is that a big umbrella organization was set up to lead and organize civil society groups around the negotiations. This umbrella group is called Coalition Climat 21 (Climate Coalition 21). It was set up primarily by French groups, around a year ago, and it has around 130 organizations participating: everything from trade unions to big green organizations to local grassroots organizations. What this coalition has put forward is that while putting pressure on the negotiators to adopt the best possible deal, they will not limit themselves to only this institutional goal; and that above and beyond climate negotiations at the UN, the team must continue mobilizations going forward.
What sorts of mobilization efforts and organizations are planned for the upcoming months?
There are four things which Coalition Climat 21 has put forward in terms of mobilizations for civil society organizations around COP 21.
One: mass demonstrations on November 28th and 29th across the globe. There are at least 40 cities participating; all the main cities in Europe, as well as others around the globe: New Delhi, in Australia and New Zealand, and in Canada, in Ottawa, which will be held November 29th. This is the first vast mobilization. The idea is to say: civil society organizations want a true transition away from fossil fuels and real means taken to combat global warming.
The second set of activities planned in Paris is a summit, what they call a Civil Society Summit on climate change, that will be held December 5th and 6th in Paris, in a suburb called Montreuil.
This will be followed by what they call a ‘climate space’ in another part of Paris, which will be held from December 7-11th. This second space, the climate space, will concentrate on having more people’s participation. Whether it’s cultural, activity-based, or discussions, the idea is to bring in as many people from the public as possible.
The fourth set of action is on December 12th. A big mobilization is planned in Paris, and the idea is to have the last word of the conference, to say: what has been accepted is not enough, and we need to continue to mobilize on the ground going forward.
These are the four types of activities planned in Paris. Internationally, it’ll be essentially November 28th and 28th, but people will follow the discussions and follow what is happening in Paris.
What are alternative measures that civil society groups are proposing?
At this stage, what we’ve seen develop over the past three or four years in Quebec and around Canada is a whole discussion and debate about the question of transition. How to transition out of fossil fuel extraction. There are very interesting initiatives that are happening. In Quebec, there’s a Common Front set up of about forty different green and ecological organizations, it was set up in September and Alternatives is part of this group. The objective is to say that by 2050, Quebec should be completely out of fossil fuels, and by then have developed a whole set of renewable energy sources, so as not to rely on fossil fuels. This is a very interesting debate.
What is being put forward: 1) developing public transport on a mass basis, much wider than what we have now, so as to get people to move away from transport by individual cars based on internal combustion engines. 2) investing massively in renewable energies, hydroelectricity, geothermal, wind energy, and others. I think parts of the programme that Justin Trudeau is putting forward is this development of renewable energy and investment budgets for these. It remains to be seen if it will be applied, but that is one aspect that has to be put forward and developed aggressively. 3) the question of transitioning to green jobs. In other words, moving out of highly polluting industries, such as refinery, for example, and moving into more sustainable green energies and developing a plan for green jobs. Interestingly enough the trade unions are beginning to look at this in a meaningful and serious way. This is quite a change from what we saw 3 or 4 years ago. The concentration on ending fossil fuel extraction, developing renewable energy, moving into mass transit, and hopefully a plan for a conversion of industry around green jobs, these would be the main goals in order to be able to come out of the present system into a more sustainable system.
Given the limitations of COP 21, and the alternatives that civil society groups advocate for, what is the viability of an internationalist approach?
The viability of this kind of international negotiations have been questioned for many years, and the whole process has been really going nowhere since 2009, since Copenhagen. Absolutely nothing has been achieved of any note, of any impact on the environment. It’s hard to say where the process will lead. The next COP is planned for Morocco, in 2016. Already civil society organizations are beginning to mobilize around the issue. Personally, I don’t see much use for these negotiations going forward. I don’t think they have achieved much. I don’t think that given the kind of relations of forces internationally that we can expect any breakthrough at any time soon. But, unfortunately, there are quite a few people in the movement that still believe in internationalist approaches. Part of the approach has got to be a bit of an inside-outside approach. While hoping that something does happen at these negotiations, we cannot center our activities and our own mobilizations around them, but center them on continuing, for example in Canada, efforts to block the Tar Sands. I think if we’re able to block the Tar Sands, if we’re able to begin pushing the government into developing renewable energy, this is the primary role we have a responsibility to pursue.