COP21 – A Few Thoughts

Chapter 11 of the book discusses Canada in an international context. An overview of past United Nation Convention of the Parties (COP) for climate change is provided. Since the book went to press in August 2015 there is only some speculation about COP21, which just took place in Paris (Nov 20 – Dec 12, 2015). So, what did happen in Paris?

A lot. And not much.

Canada sent more representative than ever before – over 300 people attended in an official capacity. The only country to send more representatives was France, and that was only because they were hosting the event! To make up for 10 years of metaphorical, and somewhat literal, absence at the climate summit, Canada sent everyone! Our Prime Minister went… and took Catherine McKenna (the new Minister of Environment and Climate Change) as well as Stephan Dion (the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, and past Minister of Environment under Prime Minister Martin). Trudeau also took the leaders of the opposition parties (Elizabeth May tweeted the whole experience) and the premiers of all the provinces and territories. This is a big deal since it is really the provinces that are responsible for the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions in the energy sector. Only the federal government can sign an international treaty, but in the case of climate change the provinces need to implement the treaty. So it is best to have them on board.

It is important to recognize that 195 countries did indeed sign an agreement. That is huge. At a time when there is so much to disagree about on the international stage, the fact that we can all come together and pledge to do something not just for ourselves, but also for each other, is significant.

So, what did Canada agree to at COP21? Officially, we pledged to cut our emissions by 30% below 2005 levels as of 2030. This was our “Paris Pledge” as submitted by the Harper government in May 2015. Minister McKenna did not spend much time focused on this target and has often referenced the need to create a reduction plan in each province that is not necessarily tied to a target.

Moreover, we need to keep it real here. No specific emission target is legally binding on a nation. That is to say, our pledges are essentially voluntary. Huh? Well, keep in mind that the UN is not a global leviathan. All countries are sovereign and no entity can force any country to do anything in a legally binding way. That is just the reality of international relations. Sure, there can be economic sanctions or other types of political sanctions (okay shamming) but there are no “legally binding” anything. Remember when Canada backed out of the Kyoto Protocol? There were no legal repercussions. Other than embarrassment, nothing bad happened. That is just the way the world works. So, all Paris Pledges are voluntary – don’t get too worked up about this.

And keep in mind the reporting and monitoring of emissions is legally binding. All countries have to do this – even developing countries. And emissions will be reviewed every five years to keep countries on track (starting in 2020). What does this mean? It means that Canada will have to report all its GHG emissions in an international arena. We will have to publically state what we are doing to cut emissions and what our progress to date has been. All countries will do this. What happens if we lie or if we are not cutting our emissions? See above. Shame and anger from other countries would be forthcoming. Trade or economic sanctions could be considered. But that is not really the intent. The intent of this clause is to keep everyone honest and on track. We want to have an open dialogue about earth’s shared future.

At COP21 developed countries agreed to spend at least 100 billion dollars a YEAR between 2020 and 2030 to help developing countries deal with any impacts of climate change. Canada is a developed country so we are going to have start saving some money to contribute to this fund. The Paris climate deal also encourages all countries to leave their forests intact (this is because forests sequester CO2 and help mitigate climate change). This is mostly a concern in the developing world where forests are being cut to make way for more profitable agriculture.

That is the crux of the deal. There is a lot there. At the same time, nothing is there – all countries have to actually implement their promises in their domestic arenas. The true test is in the implementation of this agreement. To this end, Prime Minister Trudeau has promised to meet with all premiers within the next 90 days to hammer out the hard details. How is Canada going to cut emissions specifically?

I will keep you posted.

In the meantime, check out these resources:

  1. Text of the Paris Agreement.
  2. Which countries have the most work to do after Paris?
  3. Paris Agreement as a “conceptual breakthrough.”
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