COP21: What is Canada’s role?

Will a new Liberal government translate rhetoric into substance at the upcoming Paris climate summit?

By: /
November 23, 2015
A man takes a picture with his tablet in front of a COP21 summit poster at the entrance of the Quai d'Orsay Foreign Affairs Ministry in Paris, France, September 8, 2015. Paris will host the World Climate Summit, called the COP21, from November 30 to December 11, 2015. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Over the past decade Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol and received several dishonorary “fossil awards,” but in October’s federal election, Canadians voted for change. On the climate file, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has signalled a shift in priorities by adding the phrase “Climate Change” to the Minister of Environment title and by inviting Green Party MP Elizabeth May and the Premiers to the upcoming climate summit in Paris. Decisive action beyond gestures will be essential to addressing the single greatest challenge of our time.

Here are four key potential commitments some Canadian scientists would like to see Canada bring to the 21st UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Council of the Parties, known as COP21, in Paris this November:

Be clear

Canada, with its federalist system, struggles with the same challenges international climate action poses: how to corral widely different political players – its diverse provinces – towards a stringent emissions target. Importantly, Trudeau has yet to establish a national greenhouse gas emissions target, emphasizing the desire to consult with provinces. To ease the process, Trudeau has indicated that he will allow the provinces to work with their own carbon-reduction schemes. Some economists, such as Kevin Milligan at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics, think this makes sense given that individual carbon taxation and cap-and-trade structures are already in place in four provinces. It also allows provinces to do as they wish with their carbon-pricing revenue. 

Too much freedom, however, risks fragmentation. Efficiency requires that the policies align through some form of standardization. It’s the kind of counterintuitive relief that comes from a strict teacher. Freedom is great, but boundaries are even better. Strong leadership could involve a minimum carbon-price-per-tonne, for example, $30, which could be reassessed and ramped-up over time. Other economists suggest a federal cap-and-trade system would be better. An in-between approach would allow provinces to opt-out if their provincial systems meet certain criteria.

As global oil and gas prices fluctuate and adjust to these global carbon-capping and pricing schemes, Milligan warns of government investment in the oil and gas sector: “If private sector agents are willing to take that risk, it’s great, but we want to be cautious of having the public sector bear the risk.” 

Overall, the more clear and stable the policy framework, the easier it will be for the private sector to make informed decisions and adapt accordingly.

Offer carrots…and sticks

Federal leadership on emissions must involve strong investment to help assist provinces and municipalities in developing alternative energy sources and investing in green infrastructure. The new government has pledged $2 billion for a “Low-carbon Trust,” a welcome relief given the urgency of climate disruption and the delays of the past. The larger these carrots, the more quickly Canada can reach its yet-to-be determined emissions targets.

But carrots alone are not enough. Only the federal government can ensure there are stringent repercussions for non-compliance on the climate file. In UBC political scientist Kathryn Harrison’s opinion, Canada needs Trudeau to back up his words with substance and penalize slacking. Harrison stressed that clear targets with a broad plan for reaching it are central to success.

One concrete opportunity for leadership by Trudeau would be to press for a quicker review process. COP21 will implement a five-year renewal process for escalating emissions targets, but Trudeau could push for a three-year renewal process to ensure climate deadlines work within political deadlines, increasing much-needed accountability.

Contribute a fair share

As Harrison explains, “we also know that the impacts of climate change will be felt most in the Global South, though they contributed the least emissions.” Global climate funds have been set up to address this, and further details will be hashed out at COP21. Canada has contributed significantly to global emissions, and should help finance adaptation. According to Climate Action Network, a large coalition of various environment and labour groups, Canada’s “fair share” is $4 billion.

The honeymoon is over

For many concerned scientists and environmental groups, decisive leadership on climate change requires a dramatic shift in priorities. Canada is among the leaders when it comes to clean energy generation. Yet our heavy investment in dirty energy for export moves us in the opposite direction. Now considered “laggards,” our per-capita emissions are especially high. For climate scientist Karen Kohfeld, new research is indicating that curbing global emissions requires keeping the world’s most carbon-intensive reserves, the Alberta oil sands, in the ground. “Given that we are headed towards an ice-free arctic summer by mid-century…we have to be acting,” she said. When asked if we can breathe a sigh of relief with a new Trudeau government, Kohfeld cautioned, “The honeymoon phase is over and now we need to figure out how this marriage is going to work.”

Wendy Palen is one in a consortium of scientists who published their views in a June 2014 comment piece in the journal Nature. For them, “a key step is a moratorium on tar-sands development and transportation until better policies are in place.” This would require a departure from Trudeau’s ambivalent position on the multiple proposed Canadian fossil-fuel pipelines. Continuing to exploit and subsidize these carbon-intensive resources would use up all of what is known as our “Carbon Budget,” the amount of fossil fuel we can burn while staying within a two-degree-warming target.

Citizen advocates, such as the Council of Canadians, stress that the centrality placed on international trade negotiations by former administrations severely impairs Canada’s ability to legislate climate protection. Protective laws on water and farmland could wind up in third-party court arbitrations and cost Canada valuable time and money. Others, such as scientist Tim Flannery, stress that natural gas can no longer be considered a green alternative panacea, as some provinces such as British Colombia have promoted. Water activist Maude Barlow agrees:  “The truth is that fracking is a dangerously false solution to [North] America's energy challenges."

The bottom line: Canada is a young, innovative, resource-wealthy nation with a history of wielding soft-power on the world stage. How Canada commands its privilege will be our epitaph.