“First Enlightenment, then the Laundry”: What the Paris Climate Agreement Means for Canada

If you’ve been watching headlines about the historic signing of the Paris Agreement this past weekend, you may be understandably confused.

Does the world’s first climate treaty represent the beginning of the end for fossil fuels or a mere free-market cop out?

Both arguments hold some truth. That’s because the agreement is more form, less substance. That’s what it was intended to be. The real meat of the deal remains entirely undetermined because it has yet to grow on the bones of the treaty.

What countries like Canada actually do to implement the intended outcome of the Paris Agreement — to keep temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by eliminating greenhouse gas emissions — will determine whether the torrent of analyses we’re seeing, dire or otherwise, have any merit.

There’s this Buddhist idiom that says: first Enlightenment, then the laundry,” Glen Murray, Ontario’s Environment Minister, said at the climate summit in Paris. “This has been the Enlightenment and now we all have to go home and do the laundry to make sure this happens.”

Same Finish Line, Different Starting Lines

Ontario received praise in Paris for its complete phase out of coal-fired power plants in 2014 and Murray spent time advising other jurisdictions, including Alberta, how they could do the same.

Yet, Ontario’s bold climate move — more than 25 per cent of the province’s power previously came from coal — and Alberta’s new climate plan highlight just how disparate efforts to limit wildly different amounts and sources of emissions are from province-to-province.

According to Environment Canada, between 1990 and 2013 Canada’s absolute emissions increased by 18 per cent, primarily from the growth of fossil fuel industries in Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C. Emissions from the oil and gas sector are responsible for nearly one quarter of all national emissions.

During that time, Alberta’s provincial emissions grew by 53 per cent, Saskatchewan’s by 66 per cent, B.C.’s by 21 per cent and Manitoba’s by 14 per cent.

The absolute emissions of Ontario, Quebec, the Atlantic provinces and the territories all fell during this same period.

As the saying went in Paris, we’re all trying to get to the same finish line, but don’t all have the same starting line.

Feds Need to Implement Harmonized GHG Targets

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to meet with the premiers within 90 days of the Paris climate talks to discuss how Canada will move forward in a post-Paris Agreement world.

The federal government has promised both to work with the provinces but also to implement a pan-Canadian framework for addressing the country’s growing emissions profile.

According to Erin Flanagan, policy expert from the Pembina Institute, how the federal government will wrangle the provinces together under a national climate framework is still a complete mystery.

In large part, the federal government has been highly cooperative and collaborative with provinces in these first few weeks,” Flanagan said, adding she doesn’t think Ottawa will be unfairly prescriptive when it comes to establishing a policy pathway.

At the same time,” she said, “if Canada makes good on that commitment of a pan-Canadian framework within 90 days of Paris, one of the things they talked about is instituting harmonized targets.”

Tensions Likely to Emerge Between Provinces

Differing opinions on what that harmonized target should be and what each province must do to achieve it could mean troubled water between premiers and the federal government.

Flanagan said Alberta’s much celebrated climate action plan did not include specific emission reduction targets.

Alberta promised to phase out its 18 coal-fired power plants, introduce a carbon tax to match B.C.’s $30/tonne price to put a cap on oilsand’s emissions.

But they didn’t frame any of that in terms of what Alberta should do to reduce its emission between now and 2030,” Flanagan said. “So there will be an additional conversation now about what Alberta’s contribution to a national target will be.

I think that’s where some of the challenges over the next little while will emerge.”

What steps the federal government might take if a province like Alberta fails to meet its targets will also form a part of that challenging conversation, Flanagan added.

B.C. is often celebrated for its climate leadership after instituting the country’s first carbon tax. Yet at the Paris climate talks, B.C. was on the hook for freezing that carbon tax back in 2012 and now working to build a carbon-heavy liquefied natural gas (LNG) empire.

I don’t want to pick on the west too much,” Flanagan said, “but B.C. is a good example where you’ve got a world-winning carbon tax…but if you look at modeling coming out of that province they’re not likely to hit their 2020 or 2030 climate targets.”

So how do you penalize a jurisdiction that has a carbon tax but isn’t doing enough to actually contribute nationally?”

That’s going to be a tough one,” she said.

As much as subnational climate action has been exciting — that’s the best climate story coming out of Canada right now — it does pose the risk of fragmentation. None of these conversations have been about what Canada’s emissions look like in a climate safe world. They’ve been about what it means for Ontario or Quebec or B.C. to be a climate leader.”

Living Up to Paris Agreement Means Quick Transition Off Fossil Fuels

Those are important conversations, but they need to be brought into the context of Canada’s contribution on the global stage.

If Canada is to do its fair share to keep global temperatures from increasing beyond 1.5 or even two degrees Celsius, it must reduce its emissions 80 per cent by 2050.

According to Mike Hudema, climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Canada, that charts a clear course for decarbonization.

In order to live up to this deal we must, as a country, quickly transition off fossil fuels and usher into the renewable age,” he said. “This means saying no to tarsands pipelines and other carbon infrastructure.”

In Paris, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna avoided commenting on specific projects like the TransCanada Energy East pipeline, proposed to carry 1.1 million barrels of oil a day from Alberta to ports in New Brunswick.

I don’t like just looking at one particular development,” McKenna said in Paris when asked about the climate impacts of Energy East. “We are looking at how we are going to make progress towards a low-carbon economy.”

Last month, President Barack Obama rejected the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline, saying the project’s climate impacts were intolerable. Now many onlookers from within the climate movement are saying Canada should evaluate energy projects and infrastructure according to a similar “climate test.”

Feds May Have to Step in and Reject Projects

Critically, Canada’s position within a global context must be drawn into the national decision-making process, Flanagan said. This may mean rejecting oilsands projects, natural gas extraction or coal-fired power plants at the federal level.

Canada’s overall climate targets should not be up for negotiation with the provinces, Flanagan added.

You let climate scientists at Environment Canada determine what that trajectory looks like and you then negotiate with the provinces how you share that burden,” she said.

Ultimately if they want to achieve these goals they have to be bad cop and good cop — not just good cop.”

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