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The Paris climate agreement is signed, now the hard work begins

December 12, 2015

An agreement has been reached in Paris, and myself and West Coast’s Community and Engagement Specialist, Anjali Appadurai, were present, and saw the back and forth of negotiations (or at least that part of it that occurred in public) first hand. It has been described by environmental organizations as anywhere from a “historic moment” (Climate Action Network Canada) to “a sham of a deal” (Friends of the Earth International).  Our own view is somewhere in between: the agreement could help us transition from a fossil fuel economy to a more sustainable future, but only if countries all around the world, and especially Canada, work really hard.

West Coast Environmental Law recently released a blue-print for how Canada might practically do so through a carbon budgeting approach, which has become increasingly important in light of the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement

First, the positives associated with keeping global warming under control in the Paris Agreement:*

  • The Agreement sets a global goal of keeping global temperature increases “well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels” and commits to “pursue efforts” to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C;
  • To achieve that goal, the parties recognize that global greenhouse gas emissions should peak as soon as possible, and that greenhouse gas neutrality (with the planet absorbing as much greenhouse gas as is emitted) should be achieved in the second half of this century;
  • Developing countries are to play a lead role in achieving these reductions, although all countries have a responsibility to work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Countries commit to periodically review their targets for greenhouse gas reductions and, where possible, to strengthen those targets;

The fine print

Some of the more positive media coverage of the agreement seems to imply that this agreement will keep global temperature increases below 2 ˚C, and possibly as low as 1.5 ˚C. But this ignores the fact that these strong international goals do not directly translate into nation-level greenhouse gas reduction targets, and still less into plans to achieve nation-level targets. Rather, it’s left to each individual country to determine what targets are compatible with their “national circumstance,” and needless to say, that leaves a lot of wiggle room in setting “nationally determined contributions” – or targets.

The idea that national targets should have to be consistent with the agreed upon international goal makes total sense, but, unfortunately, has been abandoned in the international negotiations for the past several years. Currently the nationally determined contributions that nations have pledged would still see a global temperature rise of over 3 ˚C – about double the much-hailed 1.5 ˚C goal.

While the parties to the Paris Agreement do commit to improving their nationally determined contributions over time, the question of how much and quickly these nationally determined targets can be increased, and whether we collectively have any chance of staying below a 1.5 ˚C, or even 2 ˚C, temperature increase, is largely a political question for each nation to answer.

The hard work in Canada

So with the signing of an international agreement that commits Canada to play a leadership role in seeking to keep global warming to 1.5 ˚C, the hard work involved in setting a new national target becomes that much clearer. 

The Canadian government refused to set a national target before Paris, citing its campaign promise to consult with the provinces before doing so. It has promised to meet with the provinces within 90 day of the end of the Paris negotiations, and to develop a new national framework to address climate change, including a new national target.

Protesters dressed as polar bears stroll beside the Seine River in Paris. 

Thus, the path ahead of should be clear: A new national target should be based on Canada’s fair share towards achieving a 1.5 ˚C target, and the national and provincial plans should reflect that new goal. This appears self-evident: If Canada will not work towards that goal, having just played a leadership role among developed countries in accepting it, then how can we expect other countries to do so?

And yet there are signs that the provinces are balking at the hard work that the new goal involves. Alberta Environment Minister insisted that Alberta was doing enough and would not re-open its just announced climate change plans in light of Canada’s duty to work to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 ˚C.  The reality is that if Canada is do its fair share in working towards a 1.5 ˚C or even 2 ˚C future, all provinces will need to revisit projects based on fossil fuel economics that are politically and economically popular in some circles. Proposals for pipelines and tanker infrastructure, increases in natural gas produced by fracking, expansion of highways etc. all need to be re-evaluated in light of our need to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. 

Whether Canada does its fair share towards a global temperature increase of 1.5 ˚C (or, despite its international leadership on the lower target, were to focus on avoiding a 2 ˚C temperature increase), the reductions required from Canada are formidable. The new national framework must be based on the best available science and on real ambition. 

In this regard,our recent proposal for the creation of a national climate science committee to advise both federal and provincial governments on setting carbon budgets, and on developing plans to achieve those budgets, may be a key tool.  As we wrote in that report: “Climate change is a politically charged, highly technical issue which calls out for [independent scientific] advice.”

As Canada’s politicians sit down to develop a new national approach to tackling climate change, the decisions they make will show whether Canada actually meant it when it told the world that we would strive to achieve 1.5 ˚C, or whether we were only interested in positive media coverage from a high profile international conference. 

By Andrew Gage, Staff Counsel

* - This list focuses on measures directly concerned with the reduction of greenhouse gases (known as “mitigation”). The Paris Agreement also includes measures related to finances, adaptation, loss and damage, and other issues, which are often hard to separate from mitigation.