Climate action: the time crunch

So much carbon; so little time…… By Elizabeth May.
It is true globally and it is true for Canada.  From Canada’s early entry as a climate action leader – hosting the world’s first international scientific climate conference in 1988 – until today, most governments have played for time.  Stalling tactics and procrastination, two steps forward and one step back, have typified climate strategies.  True, most countries in the European Union have met and exceeded their Kyoto targets.  But Kyoto targets were understood at the time, back in 1997, to only be a down payment on future action.  And shamefully, for the last ten years Canada provided cover for other countries to do less, knowing that Canada’s aggressive sabotage would excuse their own shrinking ambitions.

Meanwhile, scientific evidence is mounting that the rapidly accelerating threat of climate destabilization exceeds terrorism as a threat to global security.  That global understanding of the extent of the threat – understanding that failure to act to limit global average temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees C above what it was prior to the Industrial Revolution could spell the end of human civilization – drove 195 governments to negotiate a binding legal treaty in December 2015 at the Paris climate talks.
When I asked a leading IPCC scientist how much safer 1.5 degrees was than 2 degrees, he replied that if we wanted a reasonable probability of avoiding 7-8 metre sea level rise then we should avoid going above 1.5 degrees C.  That order of sea level rise will occur if we lose the Greenland ice sheet.  Similarly loss of the Western Antarctic ice sheet would result in 7-8 metre sea level rise.  Keeping global temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees C does not guarantee we avoid those threats, but it dramatically improves our odds.
We have no time left for procrastination.  The Paris Agreement does not include binding targets, instead adopting a global goal of avoiding more than 1.5 degrees warming while definitely holding temperature to no more than 2 degrees C.  And at the time of the Paris negotiations, the aggregate of all national targets – if achieved – would take the planet’s average temperature to somewhere between 2.7 and 3.5 degrees C.  The Paris Agreement sets up a system for repeatedly ratcheting up national goals against a backdrop of frequent global stock-taking.  In other words, our only enforcement mechanism is peer pressure.
For the Trudeau administration, the clock is ticking loudly.  Canada has still not replaced the weak target left behind by the previous government.  The Liberal platform promised a national plan, based on provincial consultations, within 90 days of the Paris talks – March 12.
Prime Minister Trudeau and Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna deserve huge credit for progressive negotiating positions in Paris.  And it is noteworthy that since 1988, there have only been two First Ministers Meetings dedicated to climate – both since Trudeau took office.  The first was the week before the Paris talks; the second is March 3rd.  What can we expect?
The First Ministers must set aside narrow self-interest to endorse a new and more ambitious target for Canada.  Other countries will feel the pressure from Canada’s increased target.  Peer-pressure will feed ambition.  The global market will respond; increasingly placing bets on renewables and the future economy.
Federal leadership is needed.  Provinces refusing to do more should meet generous willingness from other governments to take up their slack.  Canada will be expected to sign the Paris Agreement at a high-level signing ceremony on April 22, Earth Day, at UN headquarters.  We must not show up with the weakest target in the G7, the one left behind by the Conservatives.  Time is running out for climate action and for Liberal promises.
Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen.

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Elizabeth May – Paris Agreement accepted.

The Paris Agreement is an historic and potentially life-saving agreement. It does more than many of us expected when the conference opened on November 30.  It will be legally binding. It sets a long term temperature goal of no more than 1.5 degrees as far safer than the (also hard to achieve) goal of no more than 2 degrees.  In doing so, it may save the lives of millions.  It may lead to the survival of many small nations close to sea level.  It may give our grandchildren a far more stable climate and thus a more prosperous and healthy society. It clearly means the world has accepted that most known reserves of fossil fuels must stay in the ground.
It is absolutely true that Canada announcing support for 1.5 degrees mid-way through the conference made a huge difference in keeping that target in the treaty.  I heard that from friends and contacts around the world.
To avoid 1.5 requires immediate action.  Unfortunately, the treaty is only to take effect in 2020 (after it is ratified by 55 countries, collectively representing 55% of world GHG emissions).  We have built into the treaty mandatory global 5 year reviews – what is called the “ratcheting up mechanism.”
The mechanism to force all governments to assess the adequacy of their own plans only kicks in in 2023.  That gap from 2015 to 2023 could well foreclose any option to hold temperature to less than 1.5 or even 2 degrees.
So in addition to the Paris Agreement we also passed the Decision of COP21.  It includes some actions before 2020.  The language there is far from perfect but gives us a chance to increase targets before 2020.  In 2018, there will be a “facilitative dialogue” within the UN to assess the adequacy of targets and to prepare for new ones for 2020.  The decision document is actually longer than the treaty itself and includes many actions to be undertaken within the ongoing UNFCCC COP process.  Among them, the IPCC is requested to produce a report to COP spelling out what level of GHG emissions will lead us to holding global average temperatures to no more than 1.5 degrees C above those before the Industrial Revolution.
Canadians can be rightly proud of what our government did in Paris.  While I did not support our position on every single issue, I cannot be more proud of what we did on most issues, nor can I thank our newly minted (and now totally exhausted) Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, enough for her work.

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