Introduction

Ministers from 196 nations gathered on Dec. 12, 2015 to celebrate the signing of the Paris Agreement — a welcomed sight after two weeks of intense negotiations during the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference. Heralded by many as an extraordinary achievement in diplomacy, the general consensus is that the Paris Agreement, while not perfect, is a step in the right direction.  From a global perspective, one of the primary reasons for optimism is that two of the earth’s heaviest greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emitters, the United States and China, engaged in the negotiations and committed to specific GHG emission reduction targets.  From a Canadian perspective, optimism stems from what will come after the federal government meets with the provinces to develop a national climate change strategy, scheduled to take place in the next 90 days. 

To date, Canada does not have a national climate change strategy.  However, leading up to the Paris Conference several key provinces introduced new provincial strategies.  Notably, Ontario announced a cap-and-trade system and British Columbia announced a plan to implement more stringent GHG emissions reduction targets and increase its existing carbon tax.  Alberta’s new Climate Leadership Plan incorporates elements of both a cap-and-trade system and a carbon tax regime, with plans to phase out coal-fired power in the next 15 years.  At the Paris Conference, Manitoba signed an agreement of understanding with Ontario and Quebec to link its new cap-and-trade program with Quebec’s existing and Ontario’s proposed systems.  The spotlight is now on the federal government to work with the provinces and territories to capitalize on the Paris Agreement’s momentum in creating a strong and effective national strategy.

The Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement contains a number of notable provisions that have the potential to critically alter the landscape of a Canada-wide climate change policy.

Global average temperature

One of the most commented upon provisions is Article 2 of the Paris Agreement, which provides that the nations must ensure that the global average temperature does not increase beyond below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. It further encourages nations to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”. Commentators have noted that achieving even 2 °C above pre-industrial levels is an ambitious goal and will require serious and immediate actions.

Carbon markets

The Paris Agreement establishes a “mechanism to contribute to the mitigation of [GHG] and support sustainable development” that permits nations to earn credits, which can be used for compliance purposes, by suggesting strategies, projects, and efforts to reduce GHG and encourage sustainable development. It leaves open the possibility of expanding upon the already growing carbon market and may signal greater investment opportunities in this area.

Adopting nationally determined contributions (“NDCs”)

All 196 parties to the Paris Agreement are required to develop NDCs, which will “represent a  progression beyond the Party’s then current [NDC] and reflect its highest possible ambition”. Each nation must articulate its NDC before it may ratify the Paris Agreement. This, of course, requires that Canada articulate a higher NDC than that which currently exists.

Net zero emissions

The Paris Agreement further provides that the nations should “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”. Critics have noted that the “second half of this century” is vague and undermines the efficacy of this provision. Nevertheless, enshrined within the Paris Agreement are multiple provisions on collaboration, transparency, and accountability – all of which may have the effect of encouraging nations to take seriously the net zero emissions goal.

Forests as sinks

Article 5 of the Paris Agreement emphasizes the fact that parties should take action to “conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of [GHG]…including forests”. This is reflected in the overall tenor of the Agreement, which makes clear the importance of sustainable forest management and enhancement of forest carbon stocks. This may play a particularly important role in the management of Canada’s vast boreal forest.

Ambitious and early action

Throughout the Paris Agreement is an emphasis on ambition and early action, specifically the “enduring benefits of ambitious and early action, including major reductions in the cost of future mitigation and adaptation efforts”. The emphasis on ambition is noted at other points in the Agreement, such as Article 3, which provides that all parties are to “undertake and communicate ambitious efforts” as provided in the Agreement. For instance, Article 6 provides that some parties may “choose to pursue voluntary cooperation in the implementation of their NDCs to allow for higher ambition in their mitigation and adaption actions and to promote sustainable development and environmental integrity”.

The rights of indigenous peoples

The rights of indigenous peoples and, critically, a recognition of traditional indigenous knowledge, are explicitly provided for in the Paris Agreement. Article 7 provides that adaption action should follow a “country-driven, gender-responsive, participatory and fully transparent approach” and “should be based on and guided by the best available science and, as appropriate, traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems, with a view to integrating adaptations into relevant socioeconomic and environmental policies and actions, where appropriate”.

Funding for developing countries

Another key provision of the Paris Agreement is Article 9, which requires developed countries to assist developing countries in emissions-reduction and climate change adaptation. This translates into providing developing nations with $100 billion annually by 2020. Notably, in November of this year, Canada announced its intention to spend $2.65 billion over a 5-year period to assist developing countries in emissions-reduction and climate change adaptation.

Ongoing requirement to update

The Paris Agreement is not a static document. Instead, it requires nations to update their pollution reduction pledges by 2020, and then every five years thereafter, for an indefinite period. The first assessment of the nations’ progress will take place in 2023 at the “global stocktake”. This offers yet another level of accountability and provides structure to keep nations on track with the targets they have articulated.

Dates open for signature

The Paris Agreement will be open for signature from April 22, 2016 until April 21, 2017.

Coming into force

The Paris Agreement will enter into force 30 days after the date on which at least 55 nations to the Agreement, accounting for at least an estimated 55% of the total GHG emissions, have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession. Canada accounts for 1.95% of GHG, which translates into 726,051 Gg of CO2.

Withdrawing

At any point after 3 years from the date on which the Agreement enters into force for a party, that party may withdraw by providing written notification to the Depositary. Such a withdrawal takes effect after one year that the notification is deposited, or on another date if otherwise specified in the notification. Additionally, any party that withdraws from the Convention is considered to have withdrawn from the Paris Agreement.

A binding and non-binding agreement

The Paris Agreement not only formalizes the process of developing national plans, but provides a binding requirement to assess and review progress of these plans.  Although symbolic, the Agreement has been criticized for its non-binding provisions. For example, the Paris Agreement says that developed nations “should” commit to reducing GHG emissions, rather than “shall”, and the $100 billion a year commitment from developed nations is found in the non-binding preamble.  Nevertheless, the ambitious agreement is praised for being a marked improvement from former meetings of the Parties – including the last meeting in Copenhagen (COP 15), where no agreement was ultimately reached.

Moving forward

In approximately three months, Prime Minister Trudeau will meet with representatives of each province to develop a pan-Canadian approach for addressing climate change in keeping with the spirit of and goals articulated within the Paris Agreement. In particular, the federal and provincial governments will aim to settle upon national emissions reduction targets and develop a coherent and consistent strategy to combat climate change. It remains to be seen how, exactly, the Paris Agreement will affect both the pace of and the results of these negotiations.