By Laurens van Gelderen, Ph.D. student at the Technical University of Denmark, interests in (green) chemistry and international climate policy
The first day of the Arctic Frontiers 2016 conference started (as usual) with the policy section of the conference. The audience was addressed by several ministers and other political leaders in the morning program, followed by talks from science and industry representatives and closed off by break-out sessions on different topics. As a Ph.D. student in the natural sciences, it was interesting to hear the typical way of political presenting during the morning session. There were a lot of good and interesting talks, but most of them suffered from the typical shallowness famous from politicians that use a lot of words to basically say nothing. There were many calls for action, new leadership and statements that the time has come for change. None of the politicians mentioned however how they would make this happen or how they would work towards such goals. I could not help but to have the slight feeling of empty promises throughout most of the morning session. It is very easy to state something needs to change or encourage others to do so. It is much harder to actually do something concrete to make a change.
This feeling did not take away that the overall tone and message of the first day was a positive one. Following the agreement at COP 21 in Paris, the presentations had a positive note that showed that while challenging, sustainable changes will likely be made for the better of our environment. The outlook of our future was in general positive. The world seems to have woken up from a slumber of inaction and is ready to act and meet the targets set at the COP 21. I was genuinely surprised by this message, as the last time I had been actively following international climate policy in 2012-2013 the political arena was rather stagnant and a solution to climate change seemed far removed from us. Thus, this willingness to act can be seen as an achievement by itself.
During the breakout sessions I joined the COP 21 revisited session in the hope to hear more about COP 21 and why it was considered such a success, even before the agreement was legally binding. Knowing that it is much easier to promise to act than to actually do so (which I have often observed in politics), I was slightly skeptical about the agreement made in Paris. The same positive message of the morning sessions was continued in the breakout session, starting with a nice presentation of the Norwegian minister of Climate and the Environment. Minister Vidar Helgesen actually gave some concrete examples of how he envisioned shifting Norway’s economic reliance from oil to ‘blue’ economic growth (e.g. fisheries), which was surprisingly direct and interesting to hear. The presentation provided a good example of how emissions can be reduced, while still allowing for economic growth and international competitiveness. Afterwards there was an interesting panel with four very knowledgeable scientists and politicians, during which I had the opportunity to ask my question about the perceived optimism of the COP 21 agreement. My question was kindly answered by all four panel participants who explained each in their own field of knowledge what the implications are of the COP 21 results. In my understanding their main arguments can be summarized into:
- the agreement on global climate change targets has prevented upcoming issues between nations based on differences in national climate policy;
- based on previous experience of similar agreements, there is no reason to believe that the agreement will not be signed and become legally binding in April 2016;
- it is a unique step forward in international climate change policy that all nations agreed on a single target that, while there is still room for improvement, presents a much better image than previous business-as-usual scenarios.
All in all, it was an interesting day that presented a very new perspective on international climate policy; a positive and welcome message that the world has agreed to act and is willing to act. If the promises and calls for action are converted to actual actions, I believe there is a positive future ahead of us in terms of the climate of our planet. The prediction of some of the speakers that 2016 will be a very important year for (inter)national climate policy seems a solid prediction. It will be interesting to see if and how our leaders and industries will make the promised changes happen and how the new climate goals should be reached. Signing the COP 21 agreement in New York in April this year will be a good first indication for me that things are really going the right way. I’m therefore very curious to see how international climate policy will come along in April and what the future brings for the climate of our world.