Members of Parliament are poised to ratify the international agreement reached in Paris last year that addresses global greenhouse gas emissions.
Are you having a case of déjà-vu?
With a successful vote in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Canada will be officially obligated to meet the targets set out last year in Paris – reducing greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 30 per cent by 2030.
If this sounds familiar, it could be because 20 years ago the Liberals committed Canada to the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And then, in 2009 under a subsequent Conservative government, Canada signed on to the Copenhagen Accord … an international agreement with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Canada was nowhere near meeting its Kyoto targets, and with three years to go before the Copenhagen deadline, the country isn’t even close to its target.
Will Paris truly be another case of déjà vu? Or will Canada and the world benefit from this agreement?
“Paris is a realistic goal, so long as the federal and provincial governments take action,” said Clare Demerse, federal policy adviser with Clean Energy Canada. “That’s what was missing with Kyoto and Copenhagen.”
Key differences between pacts
On paper, there are a few major distinctions between the pacts drafted in the 1990s and in 2015. Paris, unlike Kyoto, is non-binding, includes a mechanism to enforce each country’s progress and does not include a broad global emissions target.
Under Kyoto, rich countries like Canada were expected to do more, Demerse explained. “There was a division between developed and developing countries … Paris recognizes this is a global problem and everyone should be pitching in.”
That detail is essential, said Dale Marshall, national program manager at Environmental Defence – and would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
“For the first time, virtually all countries committed to reduce emissions,” he said.
“In another first, industrialized countries made an ongoing, specific commitment to assist countries.”
‘The real world has changed’
While Paris represents a “crucial” step forward and has set “the right” long-term goals, Marshall cautioned the agreement isn’t perfect and the commitments not strong enough.
That said, the degree to which the global community is embracing the Paris agreement is unprecedented, he said. “With the EU set to ratify the agreement this week, we will surpass the thresholds and the Paris agreement will become international law less than one year after the Paris summit.”
Further, as Demerse puts it, “the real world has changed.” That is to say, an increasing number of countries are investing increasing amounts of money in clean energy.
China, for example, wasn’t even subject to an emissions target under Kyoto because it was considered a developing country.
Today, it is the biggest investor in clean energy, spending upwards of $110 billion in 2015. The United States, which dropped out of its Kyoto commitment, is the second-largest investor, spending $50 billion in 2015, according to figures provided by Clean Energy Canada.
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“The dynamic is now one where people are recognizing there’s money to be made in clean energy,” Demerse said.
At the end of the day, though, for Paris to truly become successful, Demerse said individual countries have to take the reins.
“Fundamentally, countries have to do it themselves,” she said. “They have to decide it’s in their interest. If a country doesn’t want to do it, they won’t.”
Canada’s first step
Making “marked policy moves” – something that was missing following both Kyoto and Copenhagen — is essential to Canada’s ability to meet its Paris target, Demerse said.
“If you’re serious about climate change, one of the first things you do is put a price on carbon emissions,” she said. “It’s a very important policy, but it doesn’t get us to our Paris target.”
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Still, the Liberal government’s move on carbon pricing is welcomed among environmental groups, taken as a sign the country will move in the right direction.
A brief history of Canada’s climate pledges
Under the Kyoto Protocol, Canada committed to reducing emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.
Almost as soon as Jean Chretien’s Liberals signed on to Kyoto, the opposition Conservatives started levelling criticism, condemning the government for setting targets that were too ambitious. Later, the opposition argued the Liberals failed to bring forward any measures that would help reach those lofty goals.
As it were, emissions grew during that period.
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Demerse notes that current Foreign Affairs Minister Stephan Dion, who was environment minister under Paul Martin, had pulled a “strong” plan together in an effort to make headway on Kyoto targets. But the Liberals lost the 2006 election to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
With their minority government, the Conservatives quickly began distancing themselves from Kyoto. In 2006, with a stated focus on domestic environmental policies, the Harper government introduced the Clean Air Act.
Under that legislation, Canada was to cut greenhouse gas emissions to approximately half their 2003 levels between 2020 and 2050 – a policy critics said would prove ineffective since companies were free to increase emissions until 2020.
A revised law was brought before Parliament the following year, stipulating emission reductions begin eight years sooner, in 2012. The party adopted a sector-by-sector approach to curbing emissions. Harper imposed regulations on coal-fired electricity plants and the transportation sector, but never made a move to regulate emissions from the oil-and-gas sector during his decade in power.
In 2011, the Conservatives announced their intention to drop out of Kyoto, officially withdrawing the following year. In 2009, The Conservatives represented Canada at Copenhagen, decreasing the emission reduction target to 17 per cent, falling in line with that of the U.S.