The new Liberal government faces pressure to strengthen Canada’s climate change commitments at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, beginning Nov. 30. World leaders will meet in the French capital until December 11, in the hopes of reaching an agreement on a new global strategy to address climate change. Kathryn Harrison, UBC professor of political science, explains what’s at stake for Canada and the rest of the world.
What is significant about this conference?
We’ve had 25 years of international negotiations to try to address climate change, but we’ve also had 25 years of failure. Countries are gathering to try to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, and this time, the approach is much more bottom up. Countries are offering their own targets, or intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs). The 1997 Kyoto Protocol only included binding targets for advanced industrialized countries, on the understanding that those countries have higher per-capita emissions and account for the majority of the world’s emissions.
This time, both developing and developed countries are offering INDCs.
Developing countries have such large populations that any level of development using dirty energy has the potential to undo all of the reductions made by wealthy countries. Of course, it is essential that economic development continue in the developing world, but the planet can’t afford for them to take the same dirty path we did.
Have any commitments or targets been announced prior to the conference?
Most parties have announced their INDCs in advance of the meeting. The U.S. and China started with an agreement last fall: The U.S. agreed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025. China has said that they will level off their emissions growth by 2030 and thereafter start reducing their emissions. India’s target takes still another form, committing to a certain number of solar panels on roofs and developing renewable electricity, rather than an emissions target.
Canada’s target, submitted by the Harper government, was to reduce our emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. The new Liberal government, under Prime Minister Trudeau, seems to be sticking with that target. However, there will be pressure on Canada to do more. Just saying, “We’re back and we’ll be better” is not going to cut it. Other countries will need some convincing that we’re actually serious this time, and that will not be easy given the domestic political challenges that remain.
What is the biggest challenge for Canada when setting targets and a strategy?
I think the target that was set by the Harper government is pretty ambitious, given how little we’ve done to date. But many other countries have pursued more aggressive policies, and I think there’s likely to be pressure on the Trudeau government going into Paris to tighten that INDC.
The Liberals have said they’re committed to establishing a national carbon price in collaboration with the provinces, but there are huge questions about how the federal government would do that, and what commitments it would entail for different provinces. There are very large differences in the carbon intensity of the provinces’ economies. Alberta and Saskatchewan have per-capita emissions that are about six times higher than Quebec’s, and a significant majority of the emissions growth is coming from Alberta. It’s easy to say, “We will cooperate with the provinces,” but it’s hard to get such different provinces to achieve a common target.
Where does B.C. fit in?
B.C. is schizophrenic. The province has shown leadership in adopting a commitment to 100-per-cent clean electricity—that was feasible because we have abundant hydro power by virtue of our geography. The most important initiative has been our revenue-neutral carbon tax, which was adopted in 2008. It has been celebrated around the world: the UN, the International Energy Agency—everybody loves B.C.’s carbon tax.
But it’s not really enough, and if B.C. is successful in developing an export-oriented LNG industry, that could significantly increase emissions and undo the reductions that have been achieved. Of the provinces that are projected to increase their emissions without further policy change, the main one is Alberta. But the second one is B.C., despite our carbon tax.
Please note: Kathryn Harrison is available to speak to media between 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. on November 26.