Paris Climate Agreement: Canada’s Return to Favour

On January 4, 2016, Posted by , In International Analysis,

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Adopted by consensus on December 12th, 2015 by the 195 countries represented at the 21th Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate change, the Paris Agreement kicks off the decarbonization of the global economy.

The Agreement sets an upper limit to global warming not to be exceeded, invites all countries of the world to contribute to that objective and provides for funding to help developing countries do so.  Its entry into force requires ratification by 55 Parties to the Convention accounting in total for at least an estimated 55 percent of total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and it is accompanied by a COP Decision that is immediately applicable.  The Agreement also signals the return to favour of Canada among countries leading the fight against climate change.

Canada and Global Warming

Recall Canada’s recent history in this area: ratification of the Kyoto Protocol by Jean Chrétien’s government in 2002, inaction at the national level under Paul Martin’s minority government from 2003 to 2006 and climate scepticism under Stephen Harper from 2006 to 2015, during which period Canada distinguishes itself by becoming the only one among the 192 States Parties to the Kyoto Protocol to withdraw from it.  During those nine years, the Canadian position in the international climate protection negotiations essentially consisted in trying to make sure that no new binding agreement emerged.  That obstructionism, contrary to Canada’s multilateral tradition, had contributed in particular to its humiliating defeat in the UN Security Council elections of 2010.  In the climate negotiations, Canada had marginalized itself and its views were no longer solicited by any of the main actors.

On the evening of his election on October 19th, 2015, Prime Minister-elect Trudeau sent a message to countries that no longer recognized Canada: “We’re back.” That message was heard by France, which invited Catherine McKenna, barely sworn in as Minister of the Environment and climate change, in itself a significant title, to a “Pre-COP 21” gathering of some sixty ministers in Paris on November 9th.  It had been years since Canada had been invited in this kind of preparatory meeting.

At COP 21 itself, Minister McKenna played a leading role, in particular after Laurent Fabius, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs and President of the Conference, entrusted her with one of 14 facilitator positions with a view to reaching a final agreement.  Halfway through the Conference, she caused surprise by supporting the goal of limiting if possible to 1.5 rather than 2 °C the rise of global average temperature compared to pre-industrial levels.  That was a key request of the poorest States of the planet, in particular small island States at risk of disappearing as a result of increasing sea levels, and it was reflected in the final text.  On the other hand, Canada and the United States opposed the inclusion of the notions of responsibility and compensation by countries of the North for loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change suffered by developing countries, and this position also prevailed in the Agreement as adopted.

Ambitious Objectives

History will tell if the Paris Agreement is indeed “historic”, as some claim.  What is certain is that the objective to “(hold) the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels” is ambitious, since according to some reports we are already at 0.8 °C or more.  What is also certain is that the intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) announced until now will not allow this goal to be reached, because they would lead to a warming estimated in between 3 °C and 4 °C.  That’s why the Paris Agreement provides that these contributions must be increased over time and that a global “stocktake” will be undertaken every five years starting in 2023.

The Harper government submitted Canada’s INDC on May 15th, 2015, a few months before going into elections, and set an economy-wide target to reduce our GHG emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. That government then put in place no new emission reduction measures, which led to the conclusion that it had in fact no intention of reaching that target, any more than it was going to reach the 17 % below 2005 levels by 2020 target that it had announced at the Copenhagen Conference in 2009.

The new Canadian government has stated that the GHG emissions reduction target that it will set will be no less ambitious than the one set by its predecessor. The latter is in fact already ambitious, as a result of both Canada’s past inaction and the fact that its GHG emissions will continue to increase unless strong measures are taken to reverse the trend.

Next Steps

It’s safe to assume that this will be one of the key issues at the meeting with provincial and territorial leaders that the Liberal Party’s election platform promised to hold within 90 days of the end of the Paris Conference, i.e., by March 12th, 2016, to establish a pan-Canadian framework for combatting climate change.  That meeting will be an important step in the elaboration of Canada’s national GHG emissions reduction plan, the first in 14 years.

For further information, please contact Paul Fauteux. A former diplomat, Paul Fauteux notably served, inter alia, as Director General of Environment Canada’s Climate Change Bureau and played a key role in the elaboration of Canada’s 2002 Climate Change Plan.

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