Concerns Heading into Paris

“Sunny ways” are no substitute for greenhouse gas emissions targets.

The posture of the new Liberal government heading into next week’s climate negotiations in Paris is very welcome. Gone is the antagonistic approach of the Harper regime. Prime Minister Trudeau will be attending himself, along with a gaggle of premiers, ministers and others in the Canadian delegation.

Over 90% of the world’s fossil fuel resource will need to stay in the ground. Source: Nature.
Over 90% of the world’s fossil fuel resource will need to stay in the ground. Source: Nature.

But optimism over the federal government’s “sunny ways” should not blind Canadians to worrisome signs.

The goal in Paris is to hammer out a legally-binding agreement to succeed the Kyoto protocol. Less than one tenth of the world’s remaining fossil fuel resources can be burned if global warming is to be limited to 2℃. All nations have submitted emissions-cutting pledges to the UN, but it is already known that they are not enough to prevent dangerous climate change. Everyone will be pushed to do more. The stakes – both economically and ecologically – are incredibly high. Canadians, in particular, will come under fire for allowing our emissions to grow after the Kyoto agreement.

Given the challenges ahead, one would expect that we would have a seasoned veteran leading Canada’s delegation in Paris. But that will not be the case. Instead, it will be Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, a newly-elected MP with no political experience or background in the climate change problem. I do not doubt for a second that McKenna is very capable. However, appointing a newcomer to what is probably the most difficult ministry in advance of a crucial high-stakes negotiation seems unwise.

McKenna will have support, including from Stéphane Dion, our Foreign Affairs Minister and past Environment Minister. But Dion is already trying to lower expectations:

“We know already what the large emitters have committed to do and the assessment of the United Nations is 2.7 [degrees] of warming, instead of two,” he said, “But if we have no agreement, we may go to three or four.”

This is very troubling. Canada should be pushing for better, not suggesting at the outset that initial pledges pushing climate into dangerous territory may have to do.

Unfortunately, Canada is not in a strong bargaining position. The Liberals did not include greenhouse gas emissions targets in their election platform, and are headed into Paris with targets proposed by the Conservatives – targets that the Liberal platform called “inadequate”.

Just how inadequate were the Conservative targets? As I previously showed, they proposed to reduce emissions to 14% below 1990 levels while the US promised to do nearly twice as much and the EU nearly three times as much.

The current plan is to hammer out new targets after Paris. This clearly isn’t going to work. The whole point of the Paris meeting is to forge a new global agreement with legally-binding targets. McKenna’s statements to the media suggest that she doesn’t appreciate this.

Again, there is much to be positive about in the Liberal stance. Proposed policy measures, the recent premiers meeting, and in particular the new commitments from Alberta are reasons for considerable optimism. But the new government’s “sunny ways” are no substitute for serious greenhouse gas emissions commitments in Paris. We can and must do better.