Climate Change 2016

Canada entered 2015 internationally condemned as a climate laggard, and enters 2016 with a new government that received praise for its role in the Paris Climate negotiations. But the country’s work on climate change is far from done. The government has promised, within 90 days after the Paris talks, to sit down with the Premiers to develop a national framework on climate change.

In this post we review the Paris Agreement, its strengths and shortcomings, and what it means for Canada.

Evaluating the Paris Climate Agreement

In December the nations of the world gathered in Paris to negotiate a new climate treaty. Years in the making, the resulting agreement was described by the U.S. Secretary of State as “a victory for all of the planet and for future generations,” while world-renowned climate scientist, James Hansen, on the other hand, has said that it is “a fraud really, a fake.

U.K. journalist, George Monbiot, captured well the sense of ambiguity around the meaning of the agreement when he wrote:

By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.

How you assess this agreement depends, to a large degree, on what type of agreement you were hoping for.

If you wanted a good (if belated) first step – with the world coming together to acknowledge the urgency of climate change, to agree to strong long-term goals and to put in place some measures to help encourage future action by individual countries, then this agreement was a success.

If you were looking for an agreement that contained a realistic map or plan on how to achieve those long-term goals and avoid dangerous climate change, and recognized that solving the problem would require countries to make hard choices, then it wasn’t.

The agreement, of course, addressed a range of important topics beyond achieving these goals – from how countries can adapt to climate change, to financing for developing countries to shift to renewable energy. However, this post focuses on where the rubber really hits the road: the provisions related to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and avoiding the worst climate change.

How to achieve the Paris targets

Canada received a lot of attention in Paris when it endorsed calls to “strive” to keep global temperature increases below 1.5˚C (and below 2˚C at all costs). But what does that ambitious goal mean for Canada’s own national obligations and climate change plans? There’s nothing in the agreement that explicitly requires Canada (or any other country) to do more to achieve that goal.

Rather, the Paris Agreement is premised on each country choosing its own goals for reducing greenhouse gases, through intended “nationally determined contributions” (INDC). Canada’s current INDC was submitted in May 2015: a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. Other countries have submitted their own intended nationally determined contributions, but collectively they would see global temperature increases of 2.7˚C – 3.7 ˚C – well above the Paris goals.

The … studies that assess temperature increases suggest that with the INDCs, we will witness 2.7-3.7 degrees C (median chance) of warming compared with pre-industrial levels. This is an improvement over business-as-usual trends, which would lead to 4-5 degrees C of warming, but falls short of the goal to limit warming to below 2 degrees C. Since temperature impacts are calculated out to 2100, the studies’ findings depend significantly on assumptions about what happens to emissions after the target date specified in the INDC — 2030 for most countries, and 2025 for the United States.

The Paris Agreement does commit to a “global stock-take” every 5 years, to evaluate progress towards achieving the 1.5˚C/2˚C goals, and it does require countries to update their Nationally Determined Contributions from time to time, but other than peer pressure, the Paris Agreement contains nothing that will ensure that the 2˚C promise, much less the 1.5˚C goal, will actually be achieved.

Equally concerning is that there are no real consequences for failing to meet those nationally determined commitments. Canada is, unfortunately, one of several countries with a record of failing to achieve its own targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Canada’s role in Paris

With two West Coast Environmental Law staff present in Paris, it was encouraging to see first-hand Canada’s new government’s more collaborative approach to the negotiations. Certainly, daily briefings for Canadian stakeholders by negotiators, and the inclusion of environmental representatives in the official Canadian delegation, were all appreciated.

Also appreciated were Canada’s commitment of new climate-related funding and (although more symbolic) its leadership on the 1.5 ˚C stretch-goal and on keeping Indigenous and Human Rights in the agreement. However, we were disturbed to see Canada associated with some of the more regressive positions of the U.S. and allies on other key areas in the negotiations (notably, seeking to undermine efforts to create a forum for examining strategies that help those climate vulnerable countries that experience climate-related “loss and damage”).

Canada’s role going forward

As noted above, the Paris Agreement does not legally require Canada to re-work its national target for greenhouse gases to reflect its commitment to strive to prevent global temperature increases of 1.5 ˚C, but morally we hope that Canada was not speaking out of both sides of its mouth in calling for a more ambitious international target.

Canada’s new government has said that it cannot finalize a new international commitment until it has sat down with the provinces to develop a new national framework on climate change. It has also said that as country Canada will “do its part” to achieve international climate targets.

Translating international targets into national, and then provincial, targets is going to take a new, transparent and science-based approach. During the Paris talks, West Coast Environmental Law released a proposal for such an approach – A Carbon Budget for Canada: A collaborative approach for federal and provincial leadership on climate change – recommending that Canada’s provincial and federal governments:

  • Establish “carbon budgets” setting out how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases each jurisdiction can emit over a defined time period;
  • Together with the provinces, create a national climate science committee to assist in setting greenhouse gas budgets, plan how to meet those budgets and to evaluate progress towards those targets;
  • Develop plans on how to meet the carbon budgets; and
  • Develop requirements and incentives to fully implement the carbon budgets.

The Paris Agreement is a starting point, not an end point, for Canada – and for all countries of the world. Here in Canada, we need to work out our “fair share” in meeting the Paris Agreement’s goals, develop a real plan on how to deliver on that contribution and get going with some action. Paris is just the beginning.

This column was co-authored with my colleague Andrew Gage. Andrew is a staff lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law and the author of A Carbon Budget for Canada: A collaborative approach for federal and provincial leadership on climate change.

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