The Paris climate agreement and what it means to Canada

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[Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to students during a visit to New York University in New York on April 21, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri]

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will join world leaders in New York on Friday to sign the United Nations climate agreement reached in Paris.

But signing is one thing. Acting is another.

What does the Paris Agreement mean for Canada?

ACTION:

While there will be much celebration as officials put pen to paper on Friday, the accord doesn’t enter into force until 55 signatory countries representing at least 55 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions have legally ratified the agreement in their home countries.

“Photo op’s over. It’s time to roll up the sleeves and get to work,” says Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist and Green Party MLA in British Columbia. “There’s far too much talking and celebrating and far too little demonstrated policy being put in place, not only in Canada, but worldwide.”

EMISSIONS:

The agreement aims to limit the rise in global temperatures to “well below” two degrees Celsius, with an aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The Liberal government has not announced new emissions reductions targets for Canada. The existing targets put in place by the previous government – a 30 per cent reduction in emissions below 2005 levels by 2030 - are not sufficient to meet this goal.

“The problem with the climate system is it takes time for the oceans to warm, for example, so waiting around until later is not an acceptable option,” Weaver says.

“The warming we have in store, as a consequence of existing greenhouse gas levels, is going to take us above the 1.5 degrees warming level anyway, and we’re almost at two degrees because of the warming in store because of existing greenhouse gas levels.”

FOSSIL FUELS

The agreement includes a target for a carbon-neutral world after 2050 but before 2100. That means greenhouse gas emissions will have to be limited to no more than the natural world can absorb.

With the current technology, that will mean a sharp decrease in Canada’s oil and gas exploitation – the engine of the Canadian economy.

“If Prime Minister Trudeau’s actions matched his rhetoric, the Kinder Morgan and Energy East pipelines would be non-starters, yet he has given every indication he favours proceeding with these suicidal ventures,” says Larissa Stendie, of Sierra Club B.C.

Weaver agrees.

The transition away from fossil fuels must begin immediately, he says, including oil, coal and liquefied natural gas.

“It means no TransMountain; it means no Enbridge; it means no Energy East; it means no Keystone; it means no Petronas,” Weaver says. “It means we use our resources now to transition away from the fossil fuel-economy in the next couple of decades. That’s what they’re signing, if they really mean what they’re signing.”

HISTORY

It’s not the first time Canada has signed a global climate agreement. The Kyoto Protocol was signed, but Kyoto was abandoned when the government changed.

This time around, though, the United States and China have signed on to the agreement. The Conservative government under Stephen Harper cited the absence of the world’s two largest polluters as a fatal flaw in the Kyoto deal.

ACCOUNTABILITY

Signatory countries will have to publish greenhouse gas emissions targets and submit climate action plans to the UN every five years.

Weaver would like signatory nations to put a carbon tariff in place at their borders, in order to force all nations to cut emissions instead of undermining efforts at home. Countries that don’t put concrete measures in place would face the tariff on imports into emissions-cutting countries.

OTHER NATIONS

Developed nations whose economic activities over the past century created the excess greenhouse gas emissions driving global climate change are to help developing nations avoid a similar path and instead develop green economies, via a $100 billion annual fund to be in place by 2020.

In November, Canada pledged $2.65 billion over the next five years.

More than $10 billion was pledged to the Green Climate Fund in 2014, including $300 million from Canada. The fund is now up and running and approved its first projects last year.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada’s role in combating global warming “includes helping the poorest and most vulnerable countries in the world adapt.”

PROVINCES

The federal environment minister has struck a working group with the provinces. Canada will not announce new reduction targets until that group has come to some consensus on reducing emissions.

The working group has a vague six-month timeline but Erin Flanagan, director of the Pembina Institute’s federal policy program, says that working group is key.

“In order for Canada to have success on climate change, the provinces must also have success. We’ve had a disjointed conversation for too long,” she says.

An emissions reduction target on its own, however, won’t result in any change, she says.

“What we need are policies.”

LOW-CARBON ECONOMY

According to the most recent federal Greenhouse Gas Inventory, released a few days ago, oil and gas accounts for 26 per cent of the country’s emissions but transportation is not far behind, accounting for 23 per cent.

Flanagan says the federal and provincial governments must put in place polices well beyond fossil fuels.

Provinces need to move up their timelines to phase-out coal-fired electricity, and clean energy needs the financial tools to develop.

She’s suggested “green bonds” that would allow Canadians to invest in the climate-saving business.

With transportation being the second-largest emitter in the country, an investment in public transportation and zero-carbon vehicles is a priority, she says.

“We need a range of tools. We do need an economy-wide carbon price; we need to make sure that businesses and consumers are participating in climate change strategies,” she says.

“But we can’t forget about other tolls that we have access to, like regulations.”