Leading Up To COP21: A Canadian Perspective

Posted on Monday, November 30, 2015

Blog Post

Canadian Governments have a history of setting unrealistic and disjointed targets for greenhouse gas emissions. Too often, provincial governments have been left out of the process, including a particularly striking case when in 2002 the Chretien government agreed to implement the Kyoto Protocol without so much as a phone call to Alberta’s Environment Minister. Politics aside, setting targets of this magnitude without the input of the provinces is a recipe for inaction. 

Although the hostility toward climate measures was a defining issue for the last government, they did not hesitate to set their own targets. In 2009 Mr. Harper agreed in Copenhagen to reduce Canada’s emissions by 17% over 2005 levels by 2020. Hitting those targets is another story.  According to Environment Canada figures, we will be lucky to be halfway there with current measures.

The Trudeau Government is (a lot) more activist in this area. It is also eager to redeem Canada’s diplomatic reputation, which has been badly bruised by a long period of inaction or obstinacy. But they have smartly avoided setting a premature target. The delegation will have to concentrate on changing Canada’s “brand” in the negotiation without producing yet another unrealistic target.

The decision to consult with the provinces is the right one but that will take time. Most of Canada’s modest “progress” on GHG emissions has come from BC’s carbon tax and Ontario’s decision to close its coal fired power plants. And Alberta has just made the federal government’s job much easier with its announcements on Sunday but implementation remains a mystery and negotiations between producers, their lobbyists and government will now ensue.  Meanwhile, cap and trade systems in Quebec and Ontario in addition to the BC tax promise to be world class but are just that at this stage, good intentions.

The government has made a good start by adding opposition MPs, and presumably other stakeholders, to the delegation. Just turning up in Paris and announcing that “I am not the other guy” is a good start. And everyone in the room – though perhaps not the media - will understand that the new government is still very new.

So does all of that leave Minister McKenna in a bind? Presumably the government has to hit the 17% target? After attacking the Tories on climate policy, it seems the least they can do. And few believe that this is possible without purchases of credits from overseas.  Expectations are rising.

But what else can Canada do in Paris?

The Paris conference will be heavily dependent on a set of satisfactory financial arrangements with the developing countries for its success. The Harper Government has already promised Canada’s fair share to the Green Climate Fund, a UN body. Stephane Dion has stated that sustainable development should become one of the major hallmarks of Canadian policy. And Mr. Trudeau referred to the importance of help for developing countries just this week.

Turning this into action, or at least a solid commitment, is critical. One area where Paris could provide the new government with a platform is in the support necessary to help developing economies transition to a low carbon economy. This could become the cornerstone of Canada’s approach to international development program across relevant departments.

Norway provides an interesting example for Canada. Norway has a similar energy economy to ours, with a heavy dependence on oil and gas exports and an electricity sector which is all hydro, removing the “easy win” of phasing out coal. After imposing sky high carbon taxes and making certain kinds of cars very expensive to buy (the Tesla market in Norway is booming), they could still not make their numbers. So they became a major funder of the one successful program to come out of the climate negotiations. REDD encourages wealthy countries to help developing countries to reduce deforestation through financial transfers, technology exchanges and development assistance. It has helped to reduce net deforestation in the Amazon to almost zero and seems to be working in other countries such as Peru. In exchange, the Norwegian government receives carbon credits toward its Copenhagen target.

And there are other ways in which Canada can align its development priorities with its climate priorities and with the new Sustainable Development goals. An announcement of a new approach to international development would be very encouraging.

-  David Runnalls is a visiting Professor at the Insitute of the Environment, and a member of Sustainable Prosperity’s steering committee. 

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