I remember the 1970s and 80s like they were yesterday. If you're younger than me (which I hate to say is highly likely) perhaps they seem like ancient history, an era long before you were born. It was a time of Punk and New Romantics, the Marlboro man and heavy glass ash trays, big hair and bad cars (or bad hair and big cars). Vehicles drank leaded petrol and no-one insulated their houses. We certainly did nothing to reduce our carbon emissions. In fact few of us even talked about them. If you'd asked me or anyone else outside the scientific community what climate change was, I'd have looked at you bemused, and said something about it raining as usual.
Yet thirty years later the concept of climate change has gained main-stream acceptance. Of course some people still disagree the climate is changing at all, or if it is, that man has anything to do with it. In fact I still hear the argument that's it's all a huge government conspiracy to raise taxes (like that needs a conspiracy). This, despite the findings of the world's scientific community.
In 2014 the handily titled IPCC (given the full name Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which collates those scientific findings, wrote: "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia." And "...anthropogenic drivers... have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century."
Thankfully the public, governments, business and scientists are now more engaged than ever. Individually most of us at least try to do the right thing. Our younger generation is reassuringly militant. Recently I discussed with my team how we might lower our own carbon emissions. All bar three of us already walked to work or took transit, which in BC runs on hydro-generated electricity. Most ate little or no meat. We managed our waste as efficiently as possible. We do fly regularly, so there's more scope to buy offsets or limit journeys. But that seemed to be about it. Whatever our motivation, and whether conscious or inadvertent, it appeared from our mini-survey that society had been changing its habits.
Technology has also advanced incredibly since the 1980s, from electric vehicles to power generation using rivers and pavements. Innovative policies, like the UK's Carbon Budgets or BC's revenue-neutral Carbon Tax, are deliberately designed to reduce emissions and can make a real impact.
But this is why the Paris COP21 is so important (also a handy abbreviation, given the full title of 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change). The meeting is a key opportunity for international leaders to reach agreement on next steps: an agreement that should be ambitious, pushing us further along the path of emissions reductions; an agreement that is legally binding; and one which is supported by regular defined reviews to help tie us to our commitments.
But even if all this is achieved, then what? In many ways, Paris is the next beginning. What comes out of it will be a guide for the future. Real action will then have to take place to deliver it, and continue for a long, long time afterwards.
So where will we be in 2050, in another thirty years or so? I hope we will be able to look back and remember Paris as a time when we got it right; when the technology we use nowadays seems embarrassingly simple and dirty; when our behaviours have become unthinkingly responsible; and when policy wisdom set us all on an ambitious course. If all that is in place, we'll feel freer to laugh at the old music and poor hairstyles that were so 2015.
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