What Canada did — and didn't do — at the UN climate summit

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What Canada did — and didn't do — at the UN climate summit
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Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

Canadian officials made a flurry of speeches, announcements and declaration signings over the past two weeks at the UN climate conference in Glasgow, which concluded on Saturday.

But what exactly did they say, do and sign? And will it actually make a difference for the climate? Here's a closer look.

Commitment to end public financing of fossil fuel projects

Canada was one of 30 countries that signed a statement that they would "end new direct public support for the international unabated fossil fuel energy sector by the end of 2022, except in limited and clearly defined circumstances that are consistent with a 1.5 C warming limit and the goals of the Paris Agreement."

The countries also say they will "prioritize our support fully toward the clean energy transition."

"That was really significant," said Julia Levin, senior climate and energy program manager at Environmental Defence, a non-profit environmental advocacy group.

A report from the group found Canada spent $18 billion on financial support for the fossil fuel industry last year. Of that, $13.6 billion came from Export Development Canada, a government agency that offers services such as loans and insurance to the oil and gas industry.

However, EDC said it provided only $8.1 billion to the oil and gas industry in 2020 and just $2.7 billion in the first half of 2021.

Levin said most of that EDC support is for domestic projects, but the new agreement should eliminate about one-third of that financing.

While countries have previously committed to cutting financial support for coal, Levin noted this was the first time they have done so for oil and gas.

"That's an important turning point in the conversation," she said. "This is the first time that countries are really acknowledging that public financing to oil and gas is a problem."

WATCH | Canada joins COP26 pledge to halt investment in coal power:

Government agencies like EDC can offer competitive rates for loans; they can also be the first lenders needed to make private financial institutes comfortable with lending out the balance of the money.

"It is make it or break it for a lot of projects," Levin said. When commitments were made to end public financing for coal, she said, in many cases, "they didn't get the private financing either and [the projects] just didn't go forward."

Levin isn't the only one who thinks the fossil fuel financing announcement is significant. In a recent interview with CBC's The House, U.K. climate envoy John Murton said Canada's signing was "hugely important."

As part of the COP26 announcement, Canada also committed $1 billion to help other countries wean themselves off coal and reiterated an election promise to end exports of thermal coal by 2030.

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However, Levin noted that the language of the agreement does contain some loopholes, with the words "unabated" (implying exceptions for projects with carbon capture) and "except."

She also said Canada should also be ending domestic subsidies and support for oil and gas.

The agreement is "a significant first step," she said. "But it is just a first step."

Call for a global carbon tax

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged all countries to agree to a global price on carbon during a panel discussion organized by Canada that included representatives from the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and the European Commission.

Trudeau said he wanted to see 60 per cent of global emissions covered by a carbon tax by 2030 — up from the current 20 per cent.

Lauren Touchant, a postdoctoral researcher with the Centre on Governance and the Centre for Environmental Law and Global Sustainability at the University of Ottawa, attended COP26 as an observer for the Centre Québécois du droit de l'environnement (CQDE).

She said the call for a global carbon tax was "quite a major contribution" from Canada.

Levin agreed, calling it "encouraging" that Canada is showing leadership on carbon pricing. "It's important that, around the world, it isn't free to pollute, to use the government's words," she said.

But both Touchant and Levin expressed concern that Canada may be relying too heavily on carbon pricing at the expense of other tools available to cut emissions.

WATCH | Trudeau pitches global carbon prices at COP26:

Oil and gas emissions cap

Trudeau also told COP26 that Canada will impose a cap on oil and gas sector emissions "today" to ensure they "decrease tomorrow at a pace and scale needed to reach net-zero by 2050."

It was something the Liberals had promised during the fall election campaign.

Levin said the fact that the Liberals are reiterating the commitment while in government shows it's still a priority. It's also an acknowledgement that the oil and gas sector emissions are a problem that needs to be addressed, she said.

So far, however, the government hasn't said how this will work,.

"That's one commitment where the devil really is in the details," Levin said.

If the regulations are stringent enough, they could curb and ultimately reverse oil and gas expansion, she said. But alternatively, they could be "complete greenwashing and lead to nothing."

WATCH | Environment minister discusses cap on oil and gas emissions:

Commitment to end deforestation by 2030

Canada was one of more than 130 countries that signed a declaration to "halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030." The declaration covers more than 3.6 billion hectares of forest around the world.

However, 40 countries, including Canada, signed a similar agreement in 2014, The New York Declaration of Forests, and deforestation has increased 40 per cent since then.

Like the 2014 pledge, the new declaration is non-binding, although it has been signed by more countries. However, at least two Canadian ecosystem scientists say it's "less ambitious" because it aims only to end net deforestation, where forests aren't replanted.

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Environmental advocates say it's unlikely to address the main kind of deforestation and degradation happening in Canada: The clearcutting of primary or old-growth forests and replacement with single-species plantations of seedlings.

That's because countries, including Canada, tend to have definitions of deforestation and degradation that don't include that kind of activity, said Tegan Hansen, a forest campaigner with the advocacy group Stand.earth.

"So we really need to see clear commitments that include specific language," she said.

Global Methane Pledge

The U.S. officially launched the Global Methane Pledge at COP26 to cut emissions of the greenhouse gas methane by 30 per cent from 2020 levels by 2030. That could reduce global warming by 0.2 C by 2050.

It prompted Canada to confirm its support for the pledge, first announced in mid-October, which included a commitment to reduce Canadian methane emissions from oil and gas to 75 per cent below 2012 levels by 2030.

But Canada has yet to say how it will meet its targets, Touchant noted, other than to say the approach will "include regulations."

WATCH | 1st step in reducing methane emissions is measuring it better, scientists say:

Zero-emissions cars, trucks

Toward the tail end of the conference, Canada made some commitments relating to electric vehicles:

WATCH | Dundee, Scotland, leads the EV charge as the rest of the world tries to catch up:

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