Canada: Historic, Durable And Ambitious? UNFCCC Member Nations Adopt The Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement is a monumental triumph for people and our planet. It sets the stage for progress in ending poverty, strengthening peace and ensuring a life of dignity and opportunity for all.

– United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (December 12, 2015)

On December 12, 2015, after two weeks of marathon negotiations at the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP 21), 195 member nations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – including Canada, the United States, and a number of powerful developing countries including China and India – adopted the Paris Agreement (the Agreement) to cut global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and implement actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts.

As discussed in a previous post, the Agreement stands in contrast to the anticlimactic Copenhagen Accord of 2009 which had originally aimed to achieve similar results to the Paris Agreement, but did not deliver. Hailed as being "historic, durable and ambitious", the Paris Agreement will enter into force 30 days after the date on which at least 55 parties to the UNFCCC (there are currently 196 parties to the UNFCCC, including 195 states and one regional economic integration organization), accounting for at least 55% of total global GHG emissions, deposit their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has invited world leaders to the United Nations on the next Earth Day – April 22, 2016 – to a formal signing ceremony for the Agreement. It has also been announced that the United Nations will organize an "action summit" on May 5-6, 2016 for governments, business and civil society to focus on implementing the deal.

Key outcomes of COP 21 are embodied in the Agreement and include both binding and non-binding commitments in all areas identified as essential for a successful landmark conclusion, including mitigation, adaptation, "loss and damage", transparency, finance, and technology development and transfer.

Highlights of the Paris Agreement

  • Temperature Limit: All countries have agreed to hold the global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degree Celsius.
  • Long-Term Emissions Goal: To complement the temperature limit, the Agreement also includes a long-term emissions goal of peaking global greenhouse gas "as soon as possible" to achieve balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removal of GHG emissions by sinks in the second half of the century. This means reaching net zero emissions after 2050, however there is no corresponding timeline or details about how the delayed peak by developing countries will be balanced. In 2018, member parties will convene a facilitative dialogue to assess their collective efforts in relation to their progress towards the long-term goal. The outcomes of this dialogue will likely inform future climate policies and actions.
  • Mitigation: While member nations are required to put forward "Nationally Determined Contributions" (NDCs) (plans which set out what post-2020 climate actions countries intend to take under the new international climate agreement), the pledges by countries to reduce emissions are voluntary and there are no legal requirements around how – or how much – countries should reduce emissions. Starting in 2020, countries will be required to update their commitments every 5 years. Parties are encouraged to increase the level of ambition with each update of their plans. Developing countries are encouraged to move toward stricter goals.
  • Adaptation: The Agreement establishes a global goal of "enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change". The agreement also recognizes that greater levels of mitigation can reduce the need for additional adaptation efforts, although the current need for adaptation is significant.
  • Loss and Damage: There is an express acknowledgment of "the importance of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change." For the first time, language relating to "loss and damage" has been included in an international agreement. However, the wording of the Agreement is such that while "loss and damage" from climate-related disasters was acknowledged, there was no accompanying linkage of compensation and liability to such events. During the negotiations, Canada, the United States and other developed countries rejected the notion of any kind of legal liability for loss and damage resulting from adverse climate impacts.
  • Transparency: The Agreement establishes an enhanced transparency framework for action and support, with built-in flexibility which takes into account parties' different capacities and builds upon collective experience. Parties will be required to account for progress towards their NDCs, including monitoring, verification and reporting. Reporting will be completed in accordance with standardized guidance adopted by the parties.
  • Finance: The Agreement places a legal obligation on developed countries to continue to provide climate finance to developing countries. It also encourages other countries to provide voluntary support. The issue of funding for developing countries was hotly debated during negotiations. Although multiple developed countries have announced commitments to finance such efforts (including Canada, which announced a commitment of over $2.65 billion prior to COP 21), strong resistance was raised during COP 21 to a legally binding financial commitment. As a result, many of the climate finance details are not set out within the legally binding provisions of the Agreement and the goal of at least $100 billion per year in contributions from developed countries is mentioned only in the non-binding preamble of the Agreement.

What does the Agreement mean for Canada?

In May 2015, Canada submitted its intended NDC to the UNFCCC Secretariat, pledging a 30% reduction from 2005 levels – approximately 523 Mt – by 2030. In its Sixth National Report on Climate Change, Environment Canada projected Canada's emissions to be 815 Mt CO2e, or 11% above 2005 levels, with current measures in place. Given the overall increase in Canada's emissions over the past two decades and continuing upwards trajectory, achieving Canada's NDC will require ambitious federal and provincial policies. The new federal Liberal government has indicated that it will meet with provincial and territorial premiers within 90 days of COP 21. Following consultation with the provinces and territories, the federal government is expected to update Canada's NDC. This was confirmed by Canada's Environment Minister in November 2015 when she stated that the current NDC will be considered a floor for future action. As a result, it is widely expected that a new federal climate change strategy will call for more stringent targets and actions. However, the provinces and territories will have the flexibility to design their own climate change policies to meet Canada's commitments, including their own carbon pricing regimes.

Now that the Paris climate talks have reached a successful outcome, Canada's first legislative step will likely be to table the Agreement in the House of Commons prior to the executive taking steps for the ratification and other preliminary matters such as the introduction of legislation. In terms of policy, a Canada-wide climate change strategy may include some or all of the following (as set out in the federal Liberal Party's election platform):

  • policies providing federal funding for provincial and territorial climate change programs, including adaptation measures and investments in green infrastructure;
  • creation a new $2 billion Low Carbon Economy Trust that will provide funding to projects that materially reduce carbon emissions under a new pan-Canadian framework;
  • actions to phase out subsidies for the fossil fuel industry in the medium-term, including restricting the availability of the Canadian Exploration Expenses Tax Deduction; and
  • efforts to negotiate a clean energy and environment agreement with United States and Mexico.

At the provincial level, the first half of 2016 will be a busy one as both Alberta and BC look to finalize the details of their climate change strategies and Ontario looks to release the final design parameters of its cap-and-trade program, which is expected to come online in 2017. For more information on provincial and territorial climate change programs and regulations, please refer to our Climate Change Essentials guide.

The process for renewing Canada's climate action plan is only just starting now, but Canada has already expressed its support for more ambitious climate action by endorsing the global goal of keeping rising average temperatures to within 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. How this ambition will translate into federal, provincial and municipal climate action remains to be seen. One thing is clear: in 2016, federal and provincial/territorial policy makers, businesses, non-governmental organizations and individuals will come together in a collective conversation about the kinds of policies and actions that will be needed to bring Canada closer to meeting its commitments under the Agreement.

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