CLIMATE: Urban School responds to COP21 and climate change

Olivia Meehan, Staff Writer

The November 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris, France, was a major stepping-stone on the path to fighting climate change. Consented to by 195 nations, this voluntary agreement proposed goals to keep global temperature rise this century no more than 2 degrees Celsius, but preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius, above pre-industrial levels. Additionally, COP21 outlined methods to enhance countries’ abilities to tackle the already noticeable effects of climate change.

However, much debate has arisen over whether these goals will be substantial enough to effectively reduce global warming. Urban’s Academic Dean Geoff Ruth, who teaches the BlendEd class; Climate Change: Scientific Principles, Impacts, and Humane Responses, commented on Paris’s 2 degree deduction goal stating, “Will Paris accomplish a reduction to 2 degrees Celsius? Absolutely not. It’s not intended to … Paris is not the end game in limiting carbon emissions. The intent is that there are future COP’s that create more stringent reductions in carbon emissions… It’s ill-advised to say (that COP21 is) a failure, because it is supposed to be the first in a series of international agreements to further limit carbon emissions.”

“However, it was revolutionary that they included language about a 1.5 degree target instead of a 2 degree target in the agreement,” Ruth added. Most scientists agree that limiting temperature rise to even a 2 degree increase is highly unachievable. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that in the 21st century, global temperatures are predicted to rise at least 0.3 to 1.7 degrees Celsius if stringent mitigation is performed, and if no actions are taken, temperatures are projected to rise as high as 2.6 to 4.8 degrees Celsius. Therefore, Paris’ inclusion of aiming for a 1.5 degree temperature increase reflects the level of urgency and action that is needed in the struggle against climate change.

Ruth noted that the COP21 agreement does not require countries to reduce emissions before 2020. “We’ve dallied around for the last 20 years,” he commented, and COP21 not requiring carbon mitigation for another four years will only make reduction in emissions harder. “Each year that goes by without substantial reductions means there’s more carbon pumped into the atmosphere, more warming, and thus you need even more dramatic quick cuts to reduce emotions,” Ruth added. Placing the starting line at the year 2020 is a controversial part of the agreement. To achieve the ambitious 1.5 degree temperature increase, countries need to start acting now.

In assessing further aspects omitted from COP21, Sam Littlejohn, Urban science teacher, noted that the agreement lacked “more accountability for countries.” Because COP21 is a non-binding agreement, “it’s easy to create goals as a country around meeting carbon emissions,” she said, “but there is no penalty for not meeting those goals.” According to Littlejohn, making the agreement binding, or creating a greater incentive to meet the goals outlined in COP21, would encourage countries to begin mitigation before 2020, and would assist in ensuring the success of COP21’s goals.

The Urban Legend interviewed Patrick Holden, a Welsh farmer, founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust, and prominent advocate of the green movement. Holden said, “There was a real weakness in the COP21 agreement about agriculture. Agriculture probably is the most important single area where action can be taken, and the politicians have not woken up to that yet,” he added. “It is the only area where we can take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. In every other area, one can only use less energy of less fuel. In agriculture you can actually put carbon back into the soil by changing your farming practices (through photosynthesis). Agriculture and food is about 30% of CO2 emissions so it is the biggest area where we could reduce emissions, and it’s the only area where we can take CO2 out of the atmosphere.”

However, Ruth pointed out that “agriculture alone is not going to do it. There’s no single solution, it is a suite of different actions.” It will take a combination of different mitigation strategies to dramatically reduce the emissions of carbon, he explains.

Although many may criticize COP21 due to its arguably illogical timeline for achieving goals, its voluntary participation, and for missing crucial tactics of mitigation, Ruth noted that the conference as a whole was “extremely well organized. There was a fantastic job (done by COP21) in bringing in both poor and rich countries, and then bridging gaps between them about some issues that were previously very sticky. The organizers were able to capitalize on the demands of some more vulnerable countries and (include) them into the final agreement.”

Another positive outcome of COP21 was the public attention that resulted, dramatically bolstering the climate change movement. Holden commented that, looking back at the conference, he now feels much more optimistic about tackling climate change. “Because there was so much public pressure put on (World Leaders) urging them to sign, it suggests that there is a consensus emerging among informed public opinion that we have to do something before it’s too late. It is a beginning of a new chapter,” Holden commented. He explained that “coal and oil are on their way out,” and that rise of renewable energy suggests a shift towards less environmentally detrimental consumerism and demonstrates the growing general awareness of the magnitude of climate change as an issue.

With solar panels on its roofs, a very low carbon footprint, and a community that promotes conscious water and energy usage, Ruth noted that Urban, as a school, is already at the top end on the spectrum of environmentally conscious buildings. In addition to this, as the issue of climate change becomes increasingly prominent, especially among the younger population, Urban, defining itself in its mission statement as a school “committed to reflection, evaluation, evolution and innovation as means to improve teaching and learning,” has taken steps to tailor its classes towards better addressing the climate crisis.

In classes such as Science 2B, Advanced Chemistry, Environmental science, Ruth’s BlendEd class; Climate Change, and the Green Team club, students are educated on climate change and better equipped to make positive contributions. Climate change is arguably the biggest issue facing  the current generation of Urban students, making environmental education all the more important. “Having young people care about environmental issues and know about them is really what’s going to make a change,” Ruth added.

Littlejohn, who has taught at three different schools, noted that, although there should still be further conversation, Urban talks the most about climate change. However, she added that this level of education on climate change is not happening globally, or even across the country. “As we hear more about climate change in the news,” she said, “hopefully this increased awareness will prompt a shift in education” towards a greater emphasis on climate change in all schools.