COP21 – What’s next!?

As I type this blog entry, the Paris-COP21 discussions are in a holding pattern – at least ‘on the surface’, they are. Behind closed doors, negotiators are – after having caught a few hours’ sleep – working on the latest draft text to try to take the agreement across the finish line. Depending upon whom you talk to, issues like ‘finance’, ‘ambition’ and ‘differentiation’ are amongst the key points outstanding. A ‘best case scenario’ is that the French diplomats work their magic over the coming 18 hours, and they bring to the Plenary an ‘ambitious agreement’ on Saturday morning, securing unanimous agreement on it. We should all be crossing our fingers that they achieve this.

What is clear, however, is that regardless of the specific details of the agreement that is reached, activities in Paris during the past two weeks have clearly illuminated the fact that ‘there is much to be done’ after Paris! For Canadians, that is certainly the case, and that phrase should probably be triple-underlined.

Some of the debate here has focused upon whether we – the world – should be aiming for a 1.5 degrees Celsius ‘ceiling’ or a 2 degrees Celsius ‘ceiling’ for temperature increases. Regardless of which is chosen, that means substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – indeed, it means a complete reconsideration (and reconfiguration) of our energy economies.

Recognize that the so-called ‘INDCs’ that have been submitted – that is, the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – themselves contain plans that divert from our ‘business-as-usual’. It has been estimated that, collectively, these plans – if successfully implemented – would result in global emissions of the order of 51 Gt to 61 Gt (carbon dioxide equivalent) in 2030; this, in turn, would result in global temperature increases of 2.7-3.7 degrees Celsius (as compared to 4-5 degrees Celsius in a business-as-usual scenario). Even though this is ‘better’, it is clearly not enough.

Given that current global emissions are approximately 46 Gt, and that we need to be somewhere around 42 Gt in 2030 in order to be on a path towards 2 degrees Celsius (and even lower for 1.5 degrees Celsius), these INDCs must be definitely be revisited downwards.

Canada’s INDC – which was crafted by the Government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper before the October 2015 election – committed the country to a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. There was not, however, any clear plan advanced to show how that target would be met. In any case, it may well be that that target should now considered to be inadequate, because it is recognized that countries, collectively, need to do ‘twice as much’ as the INDCs suggest could be done (e.g., the UNEP Emissions Gap Report). (For Canada, there are multiple ways to think about what ‘twice as much’ would mean. For instance, it could be ‘twice the difference between Canada’s business-as-usual 2030 emissions and Canada’s INDC 2030 emissions’, which would mean a substantial reduction, perhaps of the order of 90%. Alternatively, the ‘doubling’ could more simply an increase in Canada’s 30% target to a 60% target. In either case, the new target would certainly be transformative.)

Prime Minister Trudeau committed to action on climate change – in concert with the provinces – within 90 days of the end of COP-21. Therefore, when climate-committed parties return to Canada early next week, what is clear – regardless of what happens in Paris this weekend – is that there is much work to be done. Amongst the issues immediately on the agenda are the following:

  • How does the ambition embodied in the climate change agreement (whatever it ends up being) translate into a Canadian commitment, in terms of emissions reduction?
  • How do recently-agreed (and older) provincial commitments fit with this newly-determined ambition?
  • How can the Canadian federation effectively manage its federal-provincial dynamics in order to meet this new national commitment and in order to ‘ratchet up’ decarbonisation activities?

What is clear is that ‘Paris’ is the start of a completely-new process – a process that is no longer about ‘greenhouse gas stabilization’ or ‘greenhouse gas eco-efficiency’; instead, it is about a ‘step change’, a move towards a decarbonized society. Thus, we need to think about our respective roles. Moreover, given the timelines, we need to act quickly.

Thus, returning from Paris and back in Canada, it will be time to replace frites with poutine and wine with beer, and it will be time to translate the ambitious Paris agreement into efficient, effective and equitable policies and programmes chez nous. Let’s get to work!

ian rowlands

This piece was written by Ian Rowlands
Ian is a Professor and Associate Dean, Strategic Initiatives in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo

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