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Paris COP21 – Are We There Yet? Not by a Long Shot but There Is Progress


It’s been a surreal two months in Canada. The longest election campaign in recent memory, but on 19th October Canadians elected a new Parliament. While the Liberals had appeared to be edging ahead of the Conservatives and New Democrats, even on the final weekend the outcome was far from clear. However, once results began to come in a clear tone was set – the Liberals, under Justin Trudeau, swept Atlantic Canada. And things just continued from there. The CBC declared the election for the Liberals not long after polls closed in the bulk of the country (from Alberta through Quebec), and not very long after that declared it would be a majority parliament. Prime Minister Stephen Harper had lost, because Canadians simply got tired of his controlling, secretive, manipulative ways, and were not convinced by the fear-mongering that characterized the Conservative election campaign.

Thus endith one of the less memorable decades in Canadian history at least from an environmental perspective. Time will tell whether the new guys are going to do what they said they would and bring a better behavior to the Paris climate talks in December. In that light, I offer the following comments on the inadequacy of Canada’s proposal for emissions reductions, submitted in May. Maybe Justin Trudeau’s government can propose something more appropriate for a leading nation with the 9th highest emissions on the planet. I’ll be watching.

Truth is that Stephen Harper never really wanted to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions as much as he wanted to build an Alberta economy based on extraction of dirty tar sands bitumen. He’d do whatever it took to make the need to act on climate go away.
Cartoon © Lorne Craig.


Getting Ready for Paris in December

The great majority of countries have now submitted their INDCs, their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions to the reduction of GHG emissions to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The good news is there has been progress. The disappointing news is that the progress made will not be sufficient to reach the goal.

The INDCs are individual, voluntary commitments to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. COP21, in Paris in December is the climate conference at which an agreement, based on the INDCs, is expected to be completed. That agreement will frame the global response to climate change through 2030. UNFCCC had asked countries to submit their proposals by the end of March if possible, and certainly by the end of September. True to form, like students handing in assignments, few made the early date.

Switzerland was the first on 27th February, followed by the European Union, Norway, Mexico and the United States during March. Russia reported in on 1st April and Canada managed to submit its proposal in mid-May. China (June 30th), Japan (July 17th) and several smaller countries got theirs in by end of July. Australia (11th August) and five smaller emitters reported during August, while 72 countries reported in September (nearly all in the final three days). Sixteen more including India reported on 1st October, and seven more had reported by the 16th, for a total to date of 122 submissions representing 150 countries (the single EU submission included the 28 member nations plus Latvia). Still to report are countries such as Nepal, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates. Nepal, at least, has a pretty good excuse for being slow.

Each INDC report sets out what goal the country has chosen, and some information on how it expects to get there. The presentations are typically quite short; some are self-serving, while others simply provide the data and the intentions. All are available for downloading from the UNFCCC website.

Canada’s embarrassing INDC

Canada’s report is one of the self-serving ones and begins with a lament that we are a northern country with harsh winters and big distances between settlements. It also notes our resource-based economy, basically suggesting that because we choose to dig up vast quantities of dirty oil and sell it overseas we should be allowed to pollute the atmosphere. On the first page it shows that the authors think we can have it both ways because it begins by extolling Canada’s praises for having an electricity sector that is predominantly carbon-free. Canadians should apparently be congratulated for their forethought in having a country with an abundance of hydro power, but commiserated with for having a big country with long winters, or for having chosen to build a dirty, oil-extracting economy. This kind of thinking is not unique to the authors of this report, of course. I recently read in my local newspaper the musings of one of my neighbors with reference to Canada being entitled to its “fair share” of “natural resource revenues”. It’s the same argument that kept Canada blocking UN efforts to label asbestos a hazardous substance for decades, right up until the closure of the last asbestos mine in Quebec – we apparently needed to extract and sell our “fair share” of that dreadful product.

Canada’s report includes a graph showing what is intended by 2030. The graph suggests that the intended 2030 emissions will be well below those in 1990. Not so. Unfortunately, that graph is inaccurate. It correctly shows the intended 2030 target as emission of 524 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent (Mt CO2eq), but that is a target based on an economy-wide assessment of emissions including those from land use changes (chiefly in forestry and agriculture), while the black line depicting historical emissions is for all components of the economy except land use.
Canada emissions from INDC

Canada’s emissions reduction plan as detailed in the INDC submitted to the UN in May.

The 2030 target is for 524 Mt CO2eq in emissions from all sources, except natural events such as forest fires.  The authoritative website, CarbonBrief, which pointed out this discrepancy in May, provided a revised, more accurate graph. Not a good beginning for Canada!

Canada emissions trajectory from Carbon Brief

The corrected graph provided by CarbonBrief, using UNFCCC data. Here the red line is the historical pattern of emissions including those due to land use and land use changes (as does the 2030 target).

When the (quite variable) net emissions due to land use are added in, we see Canada’s history has been substantially more erratic with lower net emissions in 1990 (because land use practices resulted in a net sequestration of CO2 that year), and substantially higher emissions in subsequent years because we have been losing forested land at a high rate due to a combination of over-harvest, disease outbreaks (notably the mountain pine beetle), and fire. CarbonBrief reports that Environment Canada, by e-mail in late May, confirmed the 524 Mt target, and agreed that this target represented a 1% increase on 1990 emissions including land use effects, but an 11% reduction from 1990 levels if land use is not included.
Canada’s submission has other problems, and a number of parties beyond CarbonBrief were quick to point them out. Parties such as the Globe & Mail, the Guardian, and the World Resources Institute, which, noting Canada is the world’s 9th largest emitter, stated,

“Canada’s proposal stands in contrast with its peers’. Canada should reconsider this position, building on its 2020 pledge, and demonstrate to the world that it is serious about combating climate change.”

A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists looked carefully at how land use emissions were treated in the INDCs of China, Canada, Ethiopia and Morocco. It noted that, in general, INDCs from developing countries were more transparent about mechanisms to be used than were those from developed countries!  It found Canada’s report deficient in terms of its transparency, specificity and ambition for the land use sector. Canada’s INDC barely mentions land use, yet emissions due to forestry and agriculture are typically 21 to 24% of the global total emissions each year, and feasible changes to land use practices in Canada, if implemented effectively over all agricultural and forested land, could achieve savings of 600 Mt CO2eq in 2020 and 800 Mt CO2eq in 2030 if fully implemented, bringing the country close to net zero emissions! Why does Canada’s INDC not even consider such approaches?

Canada’s INDC not only says little about land use emissions, but specifically excludes emissions due to natural events – emissions that could be reduced by more effective land management to reduce fire and insect outbreaks. The INDC also reserves the right to use “international mechanisms to achieve its 2030 target” – in other words to buy carbon credits from countries that are doing a decent job of reducing their emissions. (Dare I suggest that any such purchases would be financed through a shell game moving part of our paltry support for international aid towards green projects overseas, rather than by actually investing new money.) Perhaps most disappointing of all, Canada’s target for 2030 requires a reduction in emissions of just 1.7% per year, just 60% of the rate of reduction being proposed by the US and the EU to reach their own targets. Canada could do far more, and one cannot help but believe this is an INDC developed by a government that has never really wanted to reduce emissions at all. We can hope for a substantially revised submission before the Paris talks convene, and given promises made during our election, Canadians should expect, and demand such revision.
Table ranking INDCs from Carbon Action Tracker

Table showing 19 countries, and the relative merit of their INDCs as evaluated by Carbon Action Tracker. Canada is not alone in being judged as not pulling its weight, but that does not absolve Canada of the responsibility to do a lot better. None of the countries evaluated received the ‘Role Model’ ranking that CAT was hoping to award.

Do the INDCs Do Enough?

Overall of course, even with the efforts proposed by countries such as the US, the EU, and China, which are taking the process much more seriously than Canada, the pledges received to mid-October will not be sufficient to reach the 2oC warming target, let alone a more aggressive 1.5oC target by 2100. The Carbon Action Tracker, on the basis of analyses of INDCs from countries representing about 75% of global emissions, estimates the gap between what is proposed, and the emissions reductions required if the target is to be reached. That gap is 11-13 Gt CO2eq in 2025, growing to about 15-17 Gt CO2eq in 2030. This level of global emissions reductions is equivalent to a global temperature increase from preindustrial times of 2.7oC, definitely not good enough. Climate Interactive, another non-governmental group, using different assumptions concerning what would happen after 2030, reported that the INDCs submitted to late September would result in a global temperature increase of 3.5oC compared to 4.5oC if these new pledges did not exist. Regardless of who is most correct, it is clear that the nations of the world are not yet grappling with climate change the way they need to. Ban Ki Moon has (relatively ineffectively) pleaded with national leaders to try and do better.

Is it possible that Canada might be able to show that it is finally ready to walk the walk by submitting a revised INDC that goes beyond what any of the other major countries have yet done? We’d need to submit a proposal that was a) realistic, and b) resulted in sufficient emissions reductions to do better than achieve a 2oC target. It is possible and our INDC offers lots of avenues for improvement. It is very good news that, the day after the election, PM-elect Justin Trudeau confirmed to reporters that he will be going to the Paris climate conference. Between now and then, Canadians need to watch to ensure he takes stronger proposals with him. I for one do not want Canada awarded yet another fossil award for poor performance on climate.

As time counts down towards the Paris meeting, it’s not as if we need more evidence that climate change is becoming ever more serious. As I detailed in September, we are currently in the middle of what may turn out to be the strongest el Niño on record, and the third global coral bleaching event in history as a direct result. The media are using the word ‘unprecedented’ so often in reporting environmental news that it is in danger of losing all meaning – ‘unprecedented’ literally means ‘never before experienced’ so having unprecedented floods, droughts, storms, or heat waves every week begins to wear a bit thin. And yet, there is a real sense that 100-year weather events are happening far more frequently than that term implies. Even Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, in a speech on 29th September to Lloyd’s insurance group, told them that insurers were heavily exposed to climate change risks and that time was running out to deal with global warming. He argued that keeping temperature increases within the 2oC target will render a vast majority of fossil fuel reserves “stranded” – oil, gas and coal that will be literally unusable without expensive carbon-capture technology, which itself alters fossil fuel economics. In his view, businesses needed to get ahead of the financial disaster that will come when this situation is fully understood. Climate change hits us in many different ways.

So How Do We Get There?

What we need right now is better understanding of how multiple independent nations can be brought together to solve difficult common problems effectively. The present climate process is weak because it relies upon each nation to choose what it will do, and then announce this to the group. There is far too much self-interest at work and far too little awareness that we really are living in unprecedented times that demand real action to forge real solutions. Rather than approaching emissions reductions as a zero-sum game in which reductions incur economic costs for the nation choosing to reduce emissions, we perhaps need a system in which nations invest in emissions reductions, and those that fail to invest sufficiently are penalized in some real way. A global carbon market would be one way of achieving this.
Syrian-refugees-landing Angelos Tzortzinis-Getty

The root cause of the Syrian refugee crisis is a climate-change exacerbated and pernicious drought. Here, refugees come ashore at Lesbos, Greece. Photo © Angelos Tzortzinis/Getty.

Along the way, as the world struggles to come to grips with how to forge a real climate treaty, we need also to bring the topic of population back into the discussion. Our global struggle to rein in GHG emissions is made far more difficult than it otherwise would be by our rampant population growth. And before anyone dismisses this mention of population as a red herring, let’s pause briefly to remember the Syrian refugees flooding into neighboring countries and on to Europe. Yes, the refugees are fleeing anarchy and violence, terrorism and war. But the mess that is Syria began with a pernicious drought that was exacerbated, if not caused, by climate change – a warming and drying trend that has been occurring for 30+ years and is projected to continue, clear across North Africa and the Middle East, leading to the collapse of rural economies and mass migration of people. If we do not bring climate change under control, the massive societal disruptions that will occur will make the current Syrian refugee crisis seem tame.

How dare countries like my Canada, as well as Australia, Japan, Russia, South Africa, and others, continue to treat the climate conferences as ‘just another multinational negotiation’ in which the goal is to give as little as possible, and preserve economic self-interest at all costs and beyond any other considerations. If we are not careful, if we do not become more responsible real soon, climate change may become to humanity what that asteroid that formed the Chicxulub crater was to the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. I imagine they watched it hurtle through the sky, and wondered, in a dim, reptilian way, whether they needed to do anything about it. At least they suffered for only a short time.
Cretaceous Dawn 1996 GeorgeArthurBush

End of dinosaurs due to massive volcanic eruptions? Figure © George Arthur Bush