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In December 2009, only a few days before the start of the Copenhagen climate conference, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper traveled to China for meetings with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao. They issued a Canada-China joint statement that included the following: “All parties should build on the progress already achieved and work together toward an agreed outcome at the Copenhagen Conference.” 

In diplomatic terms this was a weak statement, devoid of real commitment. We may never know what Mr. Harper and the Chinese leaders actually agreed on climate change during their meetings. But history shows that neither Canada nor China played a positive role in Copenhagen. 

While Mr. Jiabao attended the Copenhagen conference, one participant reported that he did not participate constructively; indeed China may have been largely responsible for the failure of negotiations to yield a binding agreement (see “How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room“). 

Mr. Harper also attended the Copenhagen conference. He pledged that by 2020 Canada would cut greenhouse gases by 17 per cent compared to 2005 levels. But this was a step backward — a weaker target than Canada had already agreed under the Kyoto Protocol.  In 2011, two years after Copenhagen, Mr. Harper announced Canada’s withdrawal from Kyoto. Today, unless significant new action is forthcoming, Canada is on a path towards higher greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 than 2005, missing even the weak Copenhagen target by a wide margin.

Countries did agree in Copenhagen on a “long-term goal of limiting the maximum global average temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, subject to a review in 2015.” However, as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) website notes, there was “no agreement on how to do this in practical terms.”

After their failure in Copenhagen countries met in Durban, South Africa in 2011 and set a deadline of 2015 to complete negotiations of an agreement with “legal force.” This agreement is intended to include all countries. It will come into effect in 2020 after the expiry of the Kyoto Protocol. Negotiations of this agreement are done by an “Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” (ADP for short) composed of all 195 UNFCCC “Parties” (194 countries plus the European Union).

The ADP has not yet finished its negotiations and will meet again during the Paris summit. What are the prospects for success? If countries do conclude an agreement, will it halt climate change? What role could Canada play? What impact, if any, might last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris have on the meeting?

Last week, French President François Hollande traveled to China and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two leaders issued the China and France Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change. Its 21 paragraphs include a pledge to “work together and with leaders of all other countries to reach an ambitious and legally binding Paris agreement.” The joint statement goes on to say “China and France emphasize that the Paris agreement must send out a clear signal for the world to transition to green and low-carbon, climate-resilient and sustainable development.”

With China on side, prospects for a legal agreement in Paris are far greater than they were in Copenhagen.

The two leaders also agreed on “taking stock every five years and in a comprehensive manner of overall progress made toward reaching the agreed long-term goals.” Observers feel that these five-year reviews could help avoid a scenario where laggard countries set targets, fail to meet them, and suffer no consequences.

Will a Paris agreement halt climate change? No. Global warming and extreme weather events are a reality. Additional climate change is “locked in” through accumulated greenhouse gas emissions to date and their long residence times in the atmosphere. But could UNFCCC Parties at least agree in Paris to avoid “dangerous” disruption of the climate system?

Proposed targets for the post-Kyoto climate regime have been submitted by 147 countries (including those in the European Union which submitted as a group). These countries accounted for 86 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2010. As requested by Parties, UNFCCC staff have compiled their targets and assessed their adequacy in limiting global warming to the agreed 2 degrees Celsius threshold.

This assessment shows that proposed national targets are not nearly enough. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to stay within the 2 degree Celsius threshold, the cumulative total of carbon dioxide emitted after 2011 (essentially forever after) cannot exceed 1,000 billion tons. With pledges made to date, annual global emissions would continue to rise throughout the 2020-2030 period, totalling 750 billion tons by 2030. Limiting post-2030 emissions to only 250 billion tons would be essentially impossible. Current pledges would allow average global temperatures to increase by at least 2.7 degrees Celsius, possibly much more, completely bypassing the 2 degree Celsius “danger” threshold.

Stronger action taken sooner (“enhanced ambition,” in UNFCCC-speak) would avoid dangerous disruption of the climate system in a much more cost-effective manner. Conversely, delay would raise costs and danger levels.

Are Canada’s projected future emissions included in these estimates? Surprisingly, yes. Without consultation, and with essentially no media attention, the Harper government submitted Canada’s post-Kyoto target on May 15th: to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels in 2030. 

The Climate Action Tracker rates this as inadequate. It notes that: “The accounting options Canada proposes using are fraught with difficulties, including substantial potential for double counting, asymmetric accounting (counting sinks and omitting sources), and other issues.” In simple language, one way Canada proposes to “cheat” is to take credit for carbon dioxide absorbed after trees are planted, while ignoring carbon dioxide released after trees are cut down. 

Canada’s new government clearly does not have time to prepare a bold new climate change plan with the support of provinces and territories in advance of the Paris meeting. Other nations will not expect this. But they will welcome signs that after a decade of disgrace, Canada is prepared to play a more constructive role in international environmental affairs.

The attacks in Paris last week will create a sombre tone for COP 21. The contrast could not be starker between a global community working to address the planet’s biggest environmental challenge, and individuals who seek to divide the world into opposing ethnic and religious factions, thereby promoting war and its attendant environmental destruction.

Our new prime minister can help set a positive tone for the Paris climate summit. France has invited heads of state to speak at the opening of the meeting, rather than near the end as has been customary in the past. Mr. Trudeau has clearly signalled that he will attend and has invited provincial leaders as well. 

Canada’s delegates to the Paris summit will find it a valuable learning experience. Delegates should fan out and attend as many as possible of the hundreds of side events featuring world-leading thinkers on climate solutions. 

Then, when they return home, they can roll up their sleeves and develop a truly ambitious national plan.

Ole Hendrickson is a retired forest ecologist and a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

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Keep Karl on Parl

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson is an ecologist, a former federal research scientist, and chair of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation's national conservation committee.