Canada signed the U.N. Paris accord last week, but what will it mean to deliver on that promise?

Trudeau and premiers

The Paris agreement is the first global accord on climate change that fully acknowledges the science of climate change. The signatories committed to keep global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and went even further by agreeing to work for the global warming limit to be 1.5 degrees.

The agreement in Paris, and its subsequent signing in New York, is huge. But there’s still a lot of work ahead. The sum of pledges made in Paris would lead to three degrees of warming, which means those pledges need strengthening. And, more importantly, actions must be taken to cut emissions in keeping with those strengthened pledges.

Compared to the world stage, a similar dynamic exists in Canada:

  • Emissions rose for the past five years, as the previous federal government failed to implement any meaningful policies to reduce emissions.
  • Canada’s Paris commitment is one of the weakest in the developed world. It’s not in line with what science says is needed to keep warming to 2 degrees, let alone 1.5 degrees.
  • Canada is not on track to hit even this weak target. The Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) issued a report just last week, which concluded that to meet Canada’s target of a 30 per cent reduction in GHGs by 2030, Canada must reduce emissions by 208 million tons (MT).

Sounds daunting, but it’s not as bad as it looks.

When the previous federal government was missing in action, many provinces stepped up to fill the void. Many reduced emissions in recent years, and in the last year alone, many  – Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, and Saskatchewan even – have committed to taking further action. The federal government is now working on a plan to reduce emissions too, and has already committed to addressing methane emissions in the oil and gas industry.

When we take all these provincial and federal actions into account, it’s not as bad as the PBO report suggested. If one looks at all the policies already implemented at the federal and provincial levels, and adds in policies with firm commitments (e.g. Alberta’s climate leadership plan, a federal carbon price floor, Ontario’s cap-and-trade program) the gap between expected emissions in 2030 and Canada’s current reduction target is quite manageable at 91 Mt. It’s not 208 MT, as the PBO indicated. Electricity, in particular, is on a trajectory of deep emission reductions if the promises of coal phase-outs and renewable targets are fulfilled.

The implications of this analysis? First off, the promises made by the provinces and the federal government will need to be fulfilled if Canada intends to keep the promise it made in Paris. And more will need to be done, both at the federal level and by the provinces.

By and large, we know what needs to be done. Canada needs a price on carbon across the entire country. We need to electrify transportation and space heating by moving to geothermal and district energy. We need to continue to decarbonize the electricity sector, and do more about the emissions from the oil and gas industries, one of the main culprits behind the increase in emissions over the last many years.

The good news is that the federal government is up for the challenge. In New York, while signing the Paris agreement, the Prime Minister gave his word “that Canada’s efforts will not cease,” and that “climate change will test our intelligence, our compassion and our will. But we are equal to that challenge.”

The Vancouver Declaration agreed to by the federal and provincial governments in March gives the federal government the mandate to act. And if it takes real leadership on climate change, Canada could go well beyond its weak 2030 target and live up to the commitments made in Paris.

We’ll be working to make sure that happens. You can help too. Tell the federal government to live up to the promise of the Paris agreement.