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Did Canada Show Up at the Paris Climate Talks With Its Pants On?

Alex Guibord / Flickr.com

Andrew Gage of West Coast Environmental Law was a member of the Canadian observer delegation in Paris. Here’s an excerpt from the update he posted December 11.

During the recent Canadian election a spokesperson for the Conservative Party said that if Justin Trudeau arrived at a key debate with his pants on he would have exceeded expectations. In fact, Mr. Trudeau not only found his pants, but impressed a great many Canadians and was elected Prime Minister on October 19.

There was a similar feeling about Canada here in Paris at the start of the international climate negotiations. Canada has been so long a laggard in these talks that if they could avoid being awarded a “fossil” award by the environmental community, they would have exceeded expectations.

Unfortunately, Canada received its first fossil award on Wednesday for its position on loss and damage (discussed below), and a second today for blocking ambition.

As a lawyer I’m supposed to be able to give a pundit’s opinion on just how well Canada is doing, and whether we are working towards a strong and fair international agreement.  But the reality is that it’s surprisingly difficult to tell, even here in Paris. That’s partly because I’m still learning, partly because key discussions about what countries are offering and giving up are occurring behind the scenes, but mostly because everything is intertwined and constantly in motion.

In general, Canada is doing well in some very important areas. However, it is difficult to give an unqualified endorsement. The new government seems not to have grappled with some more challenging questions of fairness and Canada’s contribution to climate change. As such is aligning itself with unhelpful and aggressive positions—especially in its efforts to limit discussions about how to help the world’s most vulnerable communities.

Pants on!

For the most part, Canada did show up with its pants on.  Its negotiators are engaged—often helpfully. Catherine McKenna, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, was given a key facilitation role in the process.

Canada has made a number of positive announcements, and it seems to me that the coverage at home makes the new Canadian government sound, unequivocally, like a leader…Our colleagues at Equiterre summed up this “pants on” view in a Climate Action Network Canada press release Wednesday, stating:

“The good news is that Canada is back,” said Steven Guilbeault, Équiterre. “Canada has pushed for the inclusion in the Paris Agreement of the rights of Indigenous peoples, a fair transition for workers, and the goal of limiting temperature increases to 1.5° Celsius…all that in a week’s work.”

However, these are also issues that—if dealt with in a superficial way in the agreement—do not guarantee any major change in Canada’s approach to addressing climate change.

Take Canada’s new willingness to strive to ensure that global temperature increases stay below 1.5˚C, for example. Don’t get me wrong: truly achieving a 1.5˚C goal at this point (if it is, indeed, achievable) would require truly dramatic reductions in greenhouse gases (as well as reforestation and other efforts) in every country around the world—Canada included. However, since the Paris Agreement lets each country individually decide how aggressively to work towards a global goal, and the proposed text only says that parties should “pursue efforts” limit warming to 1.5 ˚C, the Paris agreement would not by itself force a particular national Canadian greenhouse gas reduction target.

That’s why Canada, having already refused to commit to a new Canadian target before consulting the provinces, had no difficulty endorsing a global goal of striving to stay below 1.5˚C, and it’s why Alberta’s Environment Minister can tell reporters that a 1.5˚C does not require that province to rethink its climate plans. Canada could promise that its own greenhouse gas reduction targets will be based on its fair share to help achieve 1.5 ˚C, but it has not…

Pants Off!

Many of the most contentious issues in the negotiations relate broadly to ways to fairly apportion responsibility for addressing climate change between countries. In the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Canada agreed that the countries which had played a larger role in causing climate change needed to play a larger role in solving it and avoiding dangerous climate change (a concept known as Common But Differentiated Responsibility, set out in Principle 1 of the Framework Convention). Canada, along with many other developed countries, has failed to do its part—with our greenhouse gas emissions in fact rising over the same period.

Canada has been reluctant to face the consequences of its high-fossil-fuel-pollution diet, and this COP is no exception. While everyone recognizes that all countries need to take action, Canada has been siding with the U.S. in downplaying the responsibility of developed countries.

A particularly troubling example of this is Canada’s efforts to include language in the Paris agreement to limit future discussions on loss and damage to exclude possible discussions of compensation. “Loss and damage” refers to a wide range of issues and strategies related to helping climate-vulnerable peoples who suffer loss and damage from climate change, from disaster relief and aid to displaced peoples to insurance and compensation. We can hopefully all agree that ways to help communities devastated by storms, or displaced by rising sea-levels, should be on the table.

Canada has endorsed the idea of Loss and Damage (which is an improvement over its position in Warsaw, when it strongly opposed the inclusion of Loss and Damage in the agreement), but only in a limited way. Behind closed doors, and finally publicly on Tuesday, Canadian negotiators are insisting that the agreement needs to explicitly rule out future development of mechanisms that might impose liability and compensation (a position that won it the 2nd place fossil award from the Climate Action Network on Wednesday).

Canada (along with the U.S. and other allies) is scared by a bogey-man. There is nothing in the draft agreement which could even theoretically lead to liability and compensation without further negotiations and Canada’s agreement. It is not appropriate, in international negotiations, to rule out future topics of negotiations on issues of broad concern to many countries…

Canada’s unreasonable position on loss and damage even casts some of its leadership on other issues in a new, and much less flattering, light. An unnamed negotiator suggests that in private negotiations between countries, the global goal of 1.5˚C is being linked to the exclusion on future discussions of liability and compensation:

The countries that are looking to compromise on [litigation and compensation] with the U.S., the question is what will they seek in the bargain? I would conjecture it would likely be a reference to keeping global temperature rise to 1.5° by the turn of the century and not 2°C. It could be the face-saving-trade off, however notional.

We cannot confirm that Canada’s sudden willingness to “strive” towards limiting global temperature increases to 1.5˚C is the result of quid pro quo negotiations on loss and damage, but it is striking how quickly a number of developed countries, including Canada, have dropped their longstanding opposition to this goal…

Pants on, but shoes missing?

The Canadian government came into these negotiations only weeks after their election, and it is understandable that they are finding their feet and still working out how best to engage constructively at a global level on these issues. We don’t even have our act together within Canada yet—and that’s a much simpler playing field.

Canada has been constructive on a number of crucial issues, and deserves praise for doing so.

However, Canada needs to engage fairly on the issues that raise hard questions for Canada. Canada’s previous government withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol rather than face the consequences of our country’s past inaction on climate change. I want to live in a country where we’ll at least discuss our moral and legal duties to help people and countries that have been hurt by fossil fuel pollution from our country.  I don’t want my country to tell them that they just need to shut up about it.

Tell us what you think in the comments below – are Canada’s pants on or off?

1 Comment (Open | Close)

1 Comment To "Did Canada Show Up at the Paris Climate Talks With Its Pants On?"

#1 Comment By Jim Whitworth On October 9, 2018 @ 10:53 AM

Canada’s pants are definitely off and gone as Ottawa gave approval for deep water offshore oil drilling which is a very sketchy proposition given the climate in the north Atlantic. Trudeau bought a pipeline for us which is sixty five years old which will be use to transport the worlds dirtiest and most abrasive oil and will be shipped off to south eastern countries to create plenty of pollution. The giant gas fracking project in B.C. is another example of Ottawa’s/Trudeau indifference to climate change which will create huge air pollution problems and will destroy trillions of gallons of water in the process, which cannot be cleaned. Ottawa/Trudeau’s focus is money the bottom line and they/he don’t care about or realize the the real bottom lines are potable water, breathable air and healthy soil.