First Thoughts on the Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement feels bittersweet. It’s a huge relief and a punch in the gut at the same time.

First, it’s good news. For those who don’t spend all their time thinking about climate change (do such people really exist?!), what is most encouraging for me is that this agreement takes a fundamentally different approach. We’ll all hear a lot in the days to come about the 1.5C target and Canada’s newfound ambition, which is all very nice. But don’t be fooled: the commitments in this agreement won’t get us anywhere close to that goal (more like 3 to 3.5C). This agreement has not fixed climate change! Rather, it has put in place a framework by which countries will make their own commitments, report on progress, and thereby apply pressure on each other. What’s binding is the process, not the outcomes.

To non-climate nerds, that undoubtedly sounds pretty feeble, and in many ways it is. But based on past experience I’m OK with that. Canadians more than anyone have seen that targets even 15 years into the future don’t mean much to governments elected for 4 year terms. It’s all too easy to put the hard stuff off, again and again. Given that, I see the commitment to revisit targets and progress every 5 years as the heart of the Paris agreement. The 5-yr timeline is also important given the unanticipated pace of technological change we’re witnessing in the clean energy sector.

The inclusion of all countries is also a critical element of this treaty. In the past, there has been an understandable expectation that the wealthy countries that created this problem, and prospered in so doing, should take responsibility for reducing global emissions. We now know that will not be enough. If developing countries do not achieve a clean development path, we are all lost. So the inclusion of commitments by developing countries, backed by recognition of the need for financial transfers from the wealthy, is also encouraging.

So, we’ve achieved an inclusive framework for progress and accountability, rather than a once-and-for-all solution. Which brings me to my other reaction. It’s a sobering reminder of just how much hard work lies ahead.

For Canada, the challenge will be particularly great. As a wealthy country, we bear a heavy burden of responsibility to financially support countries pursuing a clean development path, to say nothing of helping those countries, which tend to be more vulnerable, adapt to the inevitable climate change still to come. At home, not only do we rely more than almost anyone else on this planet on fossil fuels for our own comfortable lives, but our economy relies heavily on them for export. In that sense, this agreement is a road map for the disappearance of our current markets. Noteworthy that an agreement that implies phasing out fossil fuels over 50-60 years comes as we’re entertaining building new fossil fuel infrastructure that could operate for that same length of time. The decisions we make today will cast a very long shadow.

That brings me back to the 1.5C, and even the interim 2030 target. Canada joined the “high ambition coalition” in supporting the 1.5 C aspiration. Our job, as citizens will be to hold our governments to all that implies, and to back them up when they adopt politically challenging measures needed to launch a fundamental and just transition of our economy.

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