Seven key issues to be addressed at the Paris climate summit

The U.N. climate conference in Paris is the most anticipated meeting of the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since the convention’s inception over 20 years ago. Following on agreements at past summits, the Paris meeting is supposed to generate the comprehensive long-term global agreement for addressing climate change.

The good news is that the negotiators are not starting from scratch. In meetings over the past year, the parties to the UNFCCC have already worked out a 54-page official draft of the Paris deal. Those pre-meetings are often less actual negotiations between countries about text of the agreement than lobbying by countries or groups of countries for inclusion of text in the agreement. The optional passages and square bracketed text in the draft therefore provides a good guide to the most contentious issues.

Based on the draft text, and my work on these issues, here are seven of the most contentious issues that need to be resolved in Paris:

1. What form will the agreement take?

A central question is whether whatever deal emerges from Paris will have teeth. The desired words most often used in the media and by activists is a “legally binding” treaty. Such wording is contentious but also very vague. “Legally binding” can mean a lot of different things and, as this terrific dissection of the legalese posted at Carbon Brief concludes, may be largely irrelevant given how easy such rules can be to evade.

In the end, some aspects of the deal like the reporting structure may be what people consider “legally binding.” But don’t expect legally enforceable penalties for non-compliance with greenhouse gas targets – no major emitting countries are open to that, nor would they agree to pay even if a deal were in place.

Frankly, even more contentious than “legally binding” may be the use of the word “treaty”. The U.S. negotiators don’t even want the Paris deal to be called a “treaty,” because anything called a “treaty” needs to be ratified by the Republican-controlled and increasingly unhinged Congress. Be prepared for whatever emerges from Paris to be called anything – deal, agreement, understanding, accord, eye-wink, drum circle – except a “treaty.”

2. Mitigation targets

In advance of Paris, each country has submitted an action plan known as an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC). The system is a huge improvement on the past vacuous system of naming emissions targets without any explanation as to how it may be met.

However, the collected action in all the INDCs still falls well short of meeting the goal of limiting global warming to 2 °C above pre-industrial temperatures. A key unresolved question will be whether the final agreement includes stated global greenhouse gas emissions targets and whether there are any “enhanced” national contributions made to help meet those targets. Just to get a sense of the discord on this key subject, here is the first of three options under the conditional heading “Collective long-term goal” in the draft text:

Option 1: Parties aim [to achieve the global temperature goal], in accordance with the best available science [and the principles of the Convention], through [long-term global [low-[carbon][emission] transformation] [[climate][carbon] neutrality]], [and the peaking of their [net] emissions] [by 2030][by 20XX][as soon as possible], [with a [x]40–[y]70 per cent net emission reduction below the 2010 level by 2050][according to the global carbon budget distribution based on climate justice], and [overall reductions][[net] zero emissions] [over the course of the resent century][by 2050][by 2100]

A follow-on question is how progress will be measured and policed. One success at Paris may be mandating a standardized national system for reporting progress towards emissions targets. A minor victory would be simply forcing country submissions to (finally!) all use the same baseline year.

3. Temperature thresholds

Despite the tacit acceptance of 2 °C as the “safe” climate threshold in the western media, neither the world’s governments or the world’s scientists ever agreed on that threshold. The Small Island Developing States and Least Developed Country parties continue to argue fervently for a 1.5 °C target on the basis of the difference between projected long-term sea-level rise and the impacts on coral reefs at 1.5 °C and 2 °C warming. This is reflected in the still unresolved language in front-and-center Article 2 of the draft text:

The purpose of this Agreement is [to enhance the implementation of the Convention and] to achieve [its][the] objective [of the Convention] as stated in its Article 2. In order to strengthen and support the global response to the urgent threat of climate change, Parties [shall][agree to] to take urgent action and enhance [cooperation][support] so as to:

(a) Hold the increase in the global average temperature [below 2 °C][below 1.5 °C][well below 2 °C][below 2 °C or 1.5 °C] [below 1.5 °C or 2 °C][as far below 2 °C as possible] above pre-industrial levels by ensuring deep cuts in global greenhouse gas [net] emissions;

The likelihood of staying below an even more stringent temperature threshold aside….this issue is not going to disappear. Countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Maldives see this as a matter of life and death, not to mention a matter of respect. (There’s a PhD thesis out there for someone who wants to tackle the geopolitics of the ongoing argument over temperature thresholds).

4. Climate finance

The contention over finance is not to be underestimated. There may be as much or more discord over financing, especially for climate change mitigation and adaptation in the developing world, than over emissions targets.

The developed country parties have previously agreed to “mobilize” US$100 billion/year by the year 2020 to help the developing world respond to climate change. Yet many of the key details, which my colleagues Milind Kandlikar, Hisham Zerriffi, and I describe in a 2011 article in Science, remain unresolved. Here are just some of the outstanding questions:

  • Is the $100 billion/year a ceiling, or a floor, such that financing is expected to increase beyond that level after 2020? [an unresolved accounting issue – is this in 2020 dollars?]
  • What will count as finance? Depending on what counts, the world may be up to 70% of the way to the goal.
  • How will the UNFCCC ensure that finance is “new” and “additional” to existing development aid?
  • What fraction of funds will be funneled through the new U.N. Green Climate Fund, which disbursed its first grants this fall?
  • What fraction of contributions may be private investment?
  • Are middle-income countries like China expected to be “donors” in this system?

5. Loss and Damages

This is another seemingly intractable issue. At the 2013 meeting in Warsaw, the parties agreed to set up a legal mechanism for providing compensation for “loss and damage” due to climate change. No one really knows how this will work. The obstacles are many, from the reluctance of developing countries to assume legal responsibility for any damages, to the chances of developing countries agreeing to more financial transfers when existing aid goals have yet to be met, to the basic scientific challenge of calculating the fraction of damage (e.g., from a storm surge) that can be attributed to climate change, let alone to specific parties to the convention.

It is therefore not surprising that the two options under Loss and Damages (Article 5) in the draft text are a) a long set of legal text, and b) “No reference to loss and damage (no Article 5)”

6. Recognizing different responsibilities

Underlying the first five issues is the core ethical question of how to appropriately address the inequality of climate change. Some countries are historically more responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions, better equipped to adapt to climate change, and better able to reduce emissions without hurting economic growth or overall well-being. Language surrounding “common but differentiated responsibilities” and “respective capabilities” is contentious at every UNFCCC meeting; the phrases each appear 12 times in the draft text, always in square brackets or as options.

While the targets and mitigation plans may be more important than the language recognizing the basic inequalities of climate change, the decisions around such language could symbolize how committed the developed country parties are to their mitigation targets and the agreement as a whole.

7. How will the agreement enter into force?

International agreements do not officially come into effect the day the meeting ends. There are usually provisions which mandate that the agreement comes into effect only after it is ratified by some fraction of the governments of the countries involved. A game of legislative chicken ensues.

Delays can be deadly. The Kyoto Protocol is case in point. The parties agreed it would not come into effect until ratified by countries representing >55% of the industrialized world’s greenhouse gas emissions. That took eight years. By the time Kyoto came into force in 2005, Canada’s emissions had ballooned to 30% above the agreed-upon target.

The parties are far from agreement on this key issue. From the draft text:

This Agreement shall enter into force on the thirtieth day after the date on which at least [X] number of Parties to the Convention [and] [or] on which Parties to the Convention accounting for [x] per cent of total [net] global greenhouse gas emissions in [[date][1990][2000][2010][2012]] have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession [whichever occurs first, coming into effect not earlier than 1 January 2020][.][, with such Parties to the Convention accounting for X per cent of total [net] global greenhouse gas emissions [in [date] [1990][2000][2010][2012]] [but not earlier than 1 January 2020].] [placeholder for starting and ending date of the Agreement]

How this problem will overlap with the Obama Administration’s push to avoid ratification by Congress is unclear. One thing is certain: the choice of X in the above paragraph could end up being as important as anything else that happens in Paris!


Four steps to rebuilding Canada’s reputation on climate change

The Trudeau government comes into power after years of, in the assessment of climate policy expert Marc Jaccard, the federal government doing “virtually nothing” to meet its greenhouse gas targets.

With a little over a month before the UN Climate Summit in Paris, the government must act fast to demonstrate to the world that Canada will be an active part of the global effort to address climate change. It also needs to show Canadians what the experts all know – that addressing climate change is not a choice between the environment and the economy, it is a choice between the future and the past.

Here are four steps the government could take in advance of Paris to win back trust on climate change in Canada and abroad.

First, the new government must be honest with the public about what is possible. As much as it pains me to write this, that means holding firm against calls for more aggressive emissions targets.

Environmental activists are upset that the target set by the former conservative government – a 30% reduction below 2005 levels by 2030 – is not in line with the global goal of minimizing global warming to less than 2°C. They are correct.

However, the fact is we are far off the pace to meet even this “weak” target. Experts on the emissions will roll their eyes if Canada promises a more ambitious target. After years and years of empty promises, it is better to strive to meet an underwhelming goal then yet again fail completely to meet an overwhelming goal.

Second, announce an action plan for holding provincial meetings to negotiate carbon pricing either in advance of, or ideally at, the Paris climate summit.

During the campaign, the Liberals smartly recognized that, like it or not, the federal government cannot shove a carbon price down the province’s throats. The ideal compromise is an opt-in plan, whereby each province agrees to either use a federal carbon price, established via a British Columbia-style tax or a cap-and-trade system, or employ its own system with at least an equivalent price.

Third, signal intent to reinvigorate an environmental assessment process compromised by the Harper government. That includes eliminating changes that were made to environmental legislation like the Navigable Waters Act, and also requiring that greenhouse gas emissions must be considered in all National Energy Board decisions.

The combination of carbon pricing and a return to Canada’s once- rigorous environmental assessment will take the decisions about carbon-intensive infrastructure out of the hands of lobbyists. Rather than the Prime Minister promising a yes or a no to individual pipelines, the Prime Minister should make sure Canada has an assessment system equipped to make the right decision for the climate, the environment and the economy.

Finally, bring Canada’s federal scientists back out of the dark. The world has watched as the Harper government undermined Canada’s long-standing reputation as a scientific leader. Labs were closed, libraries were destroyed, funding for pure research was cut, and government scientists were blocked from speaking to the media. While the damage to Canada’s research capacity and environmental monitoring cannot be undone in the few days before our federal delegation embarks for Paris, a symbolic step can be taken right away.

What better way to show Canadians that the government trusts data and is serious about addressing climate change than to include one or some federal government climate scientists as official parts of the government delegation to Paris.

These are only the first of many important steps for Canada. There’s much to be done on research and innovation, green infrastructure, and climate aid to the developing world, which one could argue belong here as well.

The good news, as this election has demonstrated, is that a change in direction is possible.


Invitation to participate in climate blog research project

Guest post by Giorgos Zoukas

I am a second-year PhD student in Science, Technology and Innovation Studies (STIS) at the University of Edinburgh. This guest post is an invitation to the readers and commenters of this blog to participate in my project.

This is a self-funded PhD research project that focuses on a small selection of scientist-produced climate blogs, exploring the way these blogs connect into, and form part of, broader climate science communication. The research method involves analysis of the blogs’ content, as well as semi-structured in-depth interviewing of both bloggers and readers/commenters.

Anyone who comments on this blog, on a regular basis or occasionally, or anyone who just reads this blog without posting any comments, is invited to participate as an interviewee. The interview will focus on the person’s experience as a climate blog reader/commenter.*

The participation of readers/commenters is very important to this study, one of the main purposes of which is to increase our understanding of climate blogs as online spaces of climate science communication.

If you are interested in getting involved, or if you have any questions, please contact me at: s1357656-at-sms.ed.ac.uk or G.Zoukas-at-sms.ed.ac.uk (Replace the -at- with the @ sign)

*The research complies with the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Sciences Ethics Policy and Procedures, and an informed consent form will have to be signed by both the potential participants (interviewees) and me.


The Canadian emissions quandary: Has this ship sailed?

Climate scientists often say stopping climate change is like stopping a supertanker. The ship has a lot of momentum, so you can’t just slam on the brakes at the last minute.

The analogy is referring to the physics of the climate system itself, but also holds true for the sources of greenhouse gas emissions. The technology exists to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions but we can’t implement it all today over lunch.

In Canada, the emissions supertanker has been charging along despite repeated warnings of the iceberg ahead. After years without serious coordinated federal action, a promise to meet an ambitious emissions target, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how grounded in scientific analysis, now looks unrealistic.

Here are the emissions since 1990 together with the Environment Canada projection to 2030, the various proposed emissions targets, and some coarse reduction scenarios.

Cdn emissions with Bill C619

Most analysts argue that the current government’s policies and plans are not close to sufficient to reach the existing target (17% below 2005 levels by 2020) or the new target (30% below 2005 levels by 2030). The emissions target from the “Climate Change Accountability Act” Bill C-619 (34% below 1990 levels by 2025, now 2025-2030), which the NDP pledges to reintroduce if elected, is even more unrealistic. Again, this is not about the scientific value of the target – Bill C619 would put Canada in line with the global goal of reducing emissions sufficiently by 2050 to avoid a high probability of 2 degrees C warming.

It’s clear from the emissions inventory that to reach even the less ambitious current targets, Canada would need to reign in emissions from the oil and gas sector and ramp up efficiency in transportation, buildings and other intensive industries (not to mention forestry – not included in this analysis). Many of the necessary innovations are possible, and some may be encouraged by resource prices and other global factors. It will still be difficult to meet the new 2030 target, let alone the ambitious and likely politically impossible Bill C-619 target.

After twenty years of political rhetoric, the plans are more important than the targets. Canada may not meet the proposed targets but it can at least make some progress and show a serious commitment to addressing climate change.


Has climate change played a role in the Syrian conflict?

This is re-posted from exactly two years ago. Since then, the Syrian refugee crisis has worsened.

20120424_syriadroughtThe Syrian conflict has become a humanitarian tragedy incomparable to others in recent history. Over 2 million people, 10% of the country, have fled during the ongoing conflict according to the UN.

While the proximate drivers of the Syrian conflict are a reaction to an oppressive government, the wave of Arab Spring protests, and other political, social and economic factors, a number of experts have argued that climate change, or at least climate, has served as a “multiplier”.

Links between climate change and the Arab Spring have been suggested for the past couple of years. High wheat prices in 2010-11, driven by droughts in Russia and China, may have contributed to the unrest in Egypt and the overall timing of the Arab Spring protests. In Syria, add on the fact that a severe drought over the past decade has devastated farmers.

From a UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction report:

Poor and erratic rainfall since October 2007 has caused the worst drought to strike Syria in four decades. Approximately one million people are severely affected and food insecure, particularly in rainfed areas of the northeast – home to Syria’s most
vulnerable, agriculture-dependent families.

Since the 2007/2008 agriculture season, nearly 75 percent of these households suffered total crop failure. Depleted vegetation in pastures and the exhaustion of feed reserves have forced many herders to sell their livestock at between 60 and 70 percent below cost. Syria’s drought break point was the season 07/08 which extended for two more seasons, affecting farming regions in the Middle north, Southwestern and Northeastern of the country, especially the northeastern governorate of Al Hassakeh. 

The drought drove internal migration to the cities, depopulating some rural areas:

The drought is causing a high drop-out rate, families left in the area who cannot afford, or do not want, to move are suffering. Some figures estimated the people lifted their villages to be more than one million people. Thousands of Syrian farming families have been forced to move to cities in search of alternative work after two years of drought and failed crops followed a number of unproductive years. The field survey that conducted by ACSAD/MoLA/UNDP in January 2011 showed that most of the houses on villages are left empty and less than 10% are occupied by old people and children, The younger generations left for thousands of kilometers seeking work.

While the Syrian drought, like any individual event, cannot be definitively attributed to climate change, the Middle East and the Mediterranean region is one place where climate models agree that drought is becoming or will become more frequent due to human-induced climate change. From Hoerling et al. (2012):

The amplitude of the externally forced [ED-meaning “human-caused”], area-averaged Mediterranean drying signal (estimated from the ensemble mean of CMIP3 simulations) is roughly one-half the magnitude of the observed drying, indicating that other processes likely also contributed to the observed drying.

 Naturally, these connections need to be viewed with caution. Climate change is not solely responsible for the Syrian drought, as natural climate variability and ill-conceived land use and agricultural policy clearly also contributed. And the drought itself is only one of many stressors that led to the crisis in Syria. The fact is we will never be able to precisely calculate the contribution of climate change to a geopolitical event or a humanitarian crisis.

Does the inability to provide a precise answer – the drought is 44% due to climate change – matter?

Inability to attribute events to climate change may make adaptation seem impossible. A solution is to not view adaptation as separate from other development activities. For example, the large aid institutions  recommend marrying climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. In other words, when working on a program or system to reduce future droughts, consider how climate change may alter the likelihood and nature of future disasters.

Right now, any of that would be a luxury in Syria. Dealing with the everyday humanitarian crisis is paramount. Hopefully, in time the crisis will abate enough to work on rebuilding people’s lives and improving the capacity to deal with future droughts.


Canada’s moving climate target: the numbers

The Canadian government committed to reducing GHG emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by the year 2030. It was immediately derided by some observers as weak and others as ambitious. It is both: weak in terms of international equity, but ambitious given existing Canadian emissions policy, or lack thereof.

But there’s an even more fundamental problem.

Just what is the actual target?

Here’s the chart from Canada’s official submission to the United Nations, technically called an INDC:

The Carbon Brief brought attention to some confusion with the submission. The data in that graph does not include the key category of “land use, land use change and forestry”. Now, it is not that unusual to plot emissions without “LULUCF”, which can fluctuate from year-to-year based on forestry practices, weather, etc. However, the submission states that Canada intends to include LULUCF in calculating future emissions:

Canada intends to account for the land sector using a net-net approach, and to use a “production approach” to account for harvested wood products. Canada will exclude emissions from natural disturbances.

But that’s only the first problem with the data in the Canadian submission.

The graph uses historical data from the national emissions inventory completed in 2014, which includes data from 1990 through 2012 (data available from the UN). The latest Canadian inventory report, however, was published in April. Every time one of these reports is compiled, the historical emissions are recalculated based on changes in national and international methods.

Here’s the comparison of old and new, straight from the report (red line is the newest data):

Figure 8-1 Canada 2015 NIRLet’s be clear — the recalculation is not subterfuge. Revisiting past calculations is standard practice and takes legitimate effort.

The problem is Canada’s own INDC did not use Canada’s own most recent data. Given the recalculation and the confusion about whether LULUCF is included, the 2030 target is a bit fuzzy.

Here’s a comparison of the possible interpretations of 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.

UntitledThe target could be from 515 to 552 Mt. Semantics? No, the difference is more than half the current emissions from the oil sands. The government itself seems to be confused. Just today, the Environment Minister’s communication person stated the target based on the latest data (749 Mt – 225 Mt = 524 Mt) but excluded LULUCF, which seems incorrect.

There seems to be a basic gap in quality and effort between the very professionally done National Inventory Reports and the seemingly haphazard INDC prepared for the United Nations.

Given how challenging it will be for Canada to meet its target, and how little credibility Canada has right now on climate policy, the federal government needs to straighten all this out.


Weather, climate and the “limiting” nutrient in waterways

Nutrients are a good thing. They promote growth of cells in plants and animals. Food manufacturers love to advertise that their products, like breakfast cereals, are chock-full of “key” or “vital” or “healthy” nutrients.


In waterways, however, you can have too much of a good thing. Load a lake or an estuary with too much of the nutrient that limits productivity and you might choke the system with algae – the process that scientists call eutrophication because we stink at naming things. All that algae eventually decomposes, or is consumed by other organisms that eventually decompose,  which uses up oxygen crucial to other organisms. That’s a rough explanation of what has happened in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Nutrients, particularly nitrogen, leach off agricultural fields and empty into the continental shelf, driving the development of a large “hypoxic” or “dead” zone each summer.

The key issue for the algae is the stoichiometry (again, we stink at naming things) or the ratio of the nutrients: the relative availability of key chemical players like nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and silica (Si). Say the ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus in the water is greater than what most algae need; they typically 16 nitrogen”s” for every phosphorus. Then phosphorus becomes the “limiting nutrient”. Add more phosphorus and you should get more growth because there’s already enough nitrogen available. Add more nitrogen, no dice, as there’s not enough phosphorus to match the existing nitrogen levels.

Now, past research has shown that thanks to things like fertilizer loading agricultural soils and groundwater full of nutrients, the key determinant of how much actually ends up flowing down a agricultural river is the weather. For example, a study by myself and Don Scavia showed that a wet fall (which “recharges” the groundwater) in the Midwestern U.S. followed by a wet spring means a large flux of nitrogen down the Mississippi, and all else being equal, a large “dead” zone. But most of that type of runoff and nutrient analysis has focused on individual nutrients, when what really matters to the algae, is the ratio between the nutrients.


Mississippi Delta and northern Gulf of Mexico

A recent paper led by my former student Doris Leong looked sensitivity of the nutrient ratios to variability in runoff, and hence rainfall. The idea was that, since N, P and Si come from different sources and have different solubilities and adsorptive properties, the flow of each nutrient in a watershed may respond differently to a change in rainfall and runoff*. We hypothesized that in an agricultural river basin, where there is a lot of nitrogen in a soluble form in the soils and groundwater, the N:P and N:Si ratio in the river should increase during wetter periods. An analysis using data from across the Mississippi River Basin confirmed the hypothesis, particularly for N:P:

A doubling of the discharge by the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers to the Gulf of Mexico is found to increase the N:P by 10% and the N:Si by 4%. Analysis of data from upstream stations indicates that the N:P increases with discharge in subbasins with intensive row crop agriculture and high fertilizer application rates.

The effect suggests that the weather could influence nutrient limitation productivity downstream. It may also subtly influence the relative abundance of different primary producers (e.g. algae) in river or in the coastal zone. For example, research shows that if N:Si reaches well above 1:1, there can be a shift away from the production of diatoms, which require Si to build their shells.

The results of the paper suggest that, if all else is equal, a wetter climate in the central U.S. would mean higher N:P and N:Si in Mississippi water. It is important to note, however, that all else is unlikely to equal. Changes in agricultural practices, river management, erosion control, etc. will also influence the availability and movement of nutrients. From the conclusion:

The flux of nutrient ratios depends on multiple environmental characteristics of a watershed, including land use, land management, climate and geology, and the river network, and it is difficult to determine the relative importance of these different effects. The dominant nutrient species, sediment transport, presence of dams, as well as in-stream uptake of nutrients, all play a role in controlling the movement patterns of nutrients over the landscape and within rivers. High-resolution data and models that incorporate sediment and dissolved nutrient cycling are needed to understand the multiple factors that influence how nutrient ratios respond to changes in discharge. As future climate change drives an increase in hydrologic variability, the predictability of the response of nutrient ratios to discharge may be important to understanding ecosystem responses to climatic change.

* Technically speaking, we modeled the relationship between river discharge and nutrient load as a power law. Thus the hypothesis was that for a given watershed, the exponent in the power law would be different for N, P and Si.


Emissions of Convenience: The other side of oil spills

The fear of oil spills on Canada’s west coast was heightened by the recent small spill of bunker fuel, basically fuel oil, from a container ship parked in Vancouver’s harbour. Amidst all the furor over the recent spill, one question was missing: What would have happened to that fuel oil if it had not leaked into English Bay?VCRD129_Oil_Spill_20150409

It would have been burned, adding CO2 and a number of air pollutants to the atmosphere.

Transporting goods around the world via ships represents around 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, roughly the same as air travel, or all of Canada. A recent study by Alice Bows-Larkin and others in Nature Climate Change concluded that shipping emissions are going to continue to grow at a rapid pace into the future despite the availability of technological advancements in ship design and energy sources.

The question of tackling greenhouse gas emissions from shipping will be up for debate at the upcoming meeting of the International Maritime Organization (IMO)’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (May 11-15th, 2015) thanks to a push from a surprising source: the Republic of the Marshall Islands. This small Pacific Islands country may sadly be best known to outsiders as the site of U.S. hydrogen bomb tests in the 1950s.

Why are the Marshall Islands leading the charge for regulation of shipping emissions?

Thanks to the weird system of international shipping in which vessels fly the flag of distant countries in order to avoid regulations, the Marshall Islands is legally the home port of 3,400 large vessels. If you live in Vancouver or another port city, look through some binoculars at the back of the supertankers and container vessels and you will likely see one of three names: Panama, Monrovia (the capital of Liberia), or Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands.

Unlike most economic sectors, shipping emissions are not part of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and thus not part of the emissions total for countries. Under the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, the responsibility for shipping emissions was handed to the IMO, similar to how aviation emissions were made the responsibility of the International Civil Aviation Organization.


Flooding in Majuro, 2014 (rtcc.org)

The Marshall Islands is using the leverage of its large ship registry to push for a sector-wide emissions target. With most land less than 2-3m above sea-level, the coral atolls of the Marshall Islands are highly vulnerable to climate change. The damaging “king” tides from last year gave a glimpse of the future of the Marshallese. Here’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Tony de Brum:

We are an island nation and shipping is one of our lifelines – we cannot survive without it.  At the same time, carbon emissions, including those from shipping, pose an existential threat to our people and our country.

Right now, the Marshall Islands and others are jockeying for support within the IMO, especially from neighbouring Pacific Island countries. They could use support from places like Canada, which pays attention to shipping fuel only when it spills into our waters.

The federal government has spoken of making Canada a world leader in oil spill response. The recent budget included $13.9 million to fund research on effective response to oil spills, as well as money to help establish an International Maritime Centre in Vancouver.

The next step is to deal with the oil that ships actually burn.