Paris COP 21

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What if we are looking at the problem wrong? In the past, Canada’s approach to governing sustainability has been through a natural system lens — a quantitative perspective. However, the barriers actually stem from political will and socio-cultural factors according Assistant Professor Sarah Burch from the University of Waterloo and Senior Fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).

“Acknowledging the barriers to these transitions as social and political suggest a totally different suit of strategies to respond to them than we might use to respond to natural science problems,” Burch said.

This approach is vital for post-COP21 thinking. Although crucial, COP21 is just the starting point and according to Burch, climate change mitigation and adaptation depends on how political leaders implement the Paris Agreement in their home countries.  It requires looking at sustainability issues through a very different lens and asks for a change in domestic policies and transformative governance models says Burch.

Getting to healthier, more diverse and ecologically resilient communities will “require a transformation of some kind, rather than incremental change,” says Burch. But the challenge is envisioning a sustainable future with civil society members, private sector and governmental actors.

The Paris Agreement can guide Canada to a low-carbon and more equitable future — a key ingredient of transformative sustainability governance, says Burch..”  

But creating a vision of a deeply sustainable future is not an expert driven top-down project. As an expert and researcher in governing responses to climate change in urban spaces, Burch says it needs to be a collaborative vision that is created with multiple parties contributing, using traditional knowledge and the mindset that experts don’t have a complete grasp on what a sustainable future looks like.

By setting targets, the Paris Agreement considers the challenges faced due to ecological thresholds — certain limits if exceeded will cause rapid deterioration of earth systems.  COP21, says Burch, was an essential event in governing nations like Canada to commit to greenhouse gas reductions on a global platform and be held accountable by the world that’s watching.

How Canada reaches those targets will be entirely up to Canadians. These global targets will be of no value policy and legislation is made in each country to support them. Burch says the biggest question going forward is what strategies will Canada’s new government put in place to show its commitment to climate change mitigation.

 “We tend to govern the future as though it reflects the past, but that is not the case… therefore governance models need to shift to acknowledge this,” Burch said.

The federal government’s efforts to work closely with provinces and large municipalities are a promising sign of a sustainability future. Even the proposed provincial carbon strategies of Alberta, Ontario and Quebec are encouraging.

But there is always more.  For instance, Burch says that climate change initiatives must also incorporate small businesses since they employ a vast majority of Canadians and has a lot of potential for reducing GHG emissions. Well thought-out ecosystem-based strategies could also be used to simultaneously mitigate and adapt to climate change.

 If we do not consider mitigation and adaptation conjointly, we might build concrete walls to keep coastal communities from sinking, which in turn would cause more Green House Gas emissions. But, if we planned for them simultaneously, we would design constructive wetland that would cushion the community against rising sea levels and storm frequency but also purifies water, enhances biodiversity, and sinks carbon.

Going forward, Canada has the opportunity to orchestrate plans to transform its communities. Transformative Sustainability Governance requires deeper thinking and understanding of the issue to consider all the different ways we want our communities to be better and not just low carbon footprint. 

Naomi Roy is an artist and a fourth year Planning student at the University of Waterloo. 

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