What to expect from Canada’s trip to the Paris climate talks

Brokering an international deal on climate change may be the easy part. Next up: provincial harmony.

Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna speaks at Canada 20/20 in Ottawa November 20, 2015. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna speaks at Canada 20/20 in Ottawa November 20, 2015. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Only a few weeks ago, Marlo Raynolds was an Ottawa outsider. During more than seven years as the head of the Pembina Institute, an environmental group that calls for Canada to cut its reliance on fossil fuels, Raynolds was hard-pressed to get a hearing in the pro-oil Conservative corridors of power. But the Liberal election win instantly turned Raynolds into a prominent member of a new cluster of powerful insiders, as new chief of staff to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.

“That was a very important signal,” said Thomas Pedersen, a professor at the University of Victoria and the chair of the Canadian Climate Forum. “It’s not just that he’s familiar with the climate science and the need to act, but he understands the economic potential.”

The first test of how Raynolds, and of course McKenna herself, wield their fresh clout will be the United Nations climate talks in Paris from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11. Raynolds is emblematic of the new order, which also includes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, who used to head up the World Wildlife Federation in Canada. But the change amounts to more than a few top advisers. Trudeau has thrown open the delegation he’ll lead to the Paris climate talks, inviting every premier, plus federal opposition leaders, and a small but influential chorus of voices from environmental groups.

That’s a return to a practice in place before Stephen Harper’s Conservatives took steps to limit delegations in their majority government days. The Liberals have staked their reputation on doing the opposite of the Conservatives on a range of files, so when McKenna went to Edmonton for a pre-conference meeting with Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips, she also had sessions with environmentalists and the oil and gas industry.

The climate talks in Paris are intended to set world targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions over the next 15 years. Those emissions cause global temperatures to rise, which scientists say will cause massive changes to the world’s climate if the warming isn’t held to two degrees over pre-Industrial Revolution temperatures.

While the previous Liberal government signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, they did little to limit emissions, which continued to grow. The Conservatives, too, were unenthusiastic about the protocol’s goals.

“There is no denying that we are in a tough spot. Governments both Conservative and Liberal have given too little in terms of concrete action,” McKenna said in a Nov. 20 speech. “No more delays. No more denial. We need to act.”

But the Liberals’ eagerness isn’t the only factor that will make the climate conference worth watching. Trudeau and McKenna will take on a challenge that has stymied more experienced politicians: agreement among Canada’s provinces and territories.

Fortunately for them, one of the hurdles is already cleared. Alberta now has an NDP government that brings with it an enthusiasm for limiting carbon emissions. That leaves Saskatchewan, where mining, oil and gas make up one-fifth of the provincial economy, as the lone voice to argue that policy should favour the economy over the environment.

Related: Alberta pitches a big-bang climate plan

David McLaughlin, former head of the National Roundtable on Energy and the Environment, will watch what happens inside the Canadian delegation rather than on the floor of the international deliberations.

“For the first time in the country, we actually have as close to a political, societal and economic consensus that this issue can’t be put off any longer,” said McLaughlin, who served as chief of staff to former finance minister Jim Flaherty in the early days of the Harper government. “That also gives Mr. Trudeau a lot of opportunity. He’s going to have to run with that opportunity while managing it to a reasonable, safe landing.”

That almost certainly means some kind of national consensus on carbon pricing. Canada is one of the worst emitters per capita, at 14.1 tonnes per person (compared to 9.2 tonnes per person in Norway or 6.7 tonnes per person for China), and while only two per cent of the world’s emissions originate here, that still puts the country on the top 10 highest-emitters list (China, the U.S. and India combined account for half the world’s emissions). On provisions to cut emissions, the federal government lags several provinces: British Columbia and Alberta both have carbon taxes, and both plan to strengthen those policies. Quebec has a cap and trade system, with Ontario to follow suit in the near future. Even Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall recently said the province will more than double its reliance on renewable sources by 2030, although that will still mean getting half its energy from high-emitting coal and natural gas.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall. (David Stobbe/Reuters)

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall. (David Stobbe/Reuters)

Still, Wall, who faces an election in the spring, isn’t likely to make forging a national plan easy, given the potential impact on Saskatchewan’s economy. A recent report by the Ecofiscal commission, a group of economists that aims to increase economic and environmental prosperity, found a modest carbon tax would have a limited effect on all provinces but Alberta and Saskatchewan, where a significantly larger chunk of their economies would be at risk.

Erin Flanagan, an oil sands analyst at the Pembina Institute, says because Saskatchewan and Alberta have significantly higher per capita emissions, other countries will be watching their contributions in Paris. “What comes out of those two jurisdictions is going to matter a lot in terms of our credibility on the international stage,” she said.

One thing that won’t come out of Paris is a specific plan to lower Canadian emissions. That’s something the Liberals say will only happen after Trudeau meets again with the premiers within 90 days of the international talks. McKenna says the Conservative government’s targets—which many consider to be too low—are the floor, not the ceiling, of what Canada will attempt. Those targets stand at a 17 per cent reduction from 2005 emissions by 2020 and a 30 per cent reduction by 2030. Few, if any, think it will be possible to hit the 2020 targets with only four years to go, and it’s debatable whether the government can meet the 2030 goal without buying international carbon offsets.

But Canada isn’t the only country far from meeting its commitments to limit global warming, a point Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion (a former environment minister) made prior to the climate conference. “It’s very unlikely that Paris will deliver a two-degree Celsius agreement. Because we know already what the large emitters have committed to do and the assessment of the United Nations is [it will mean] 2.7 [degrees] of warming,” he said at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Manila.

Still, expectations for this summit are running high. John Drexhage, a former Canadian negotiator who is now a senior advisor to Quebec-based organization Coop Carbone, points out that 150 countries have submitted their plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the UN. “The dynamics and the hubris of negotiations could easily brush that all aside,” he said. “But it has more potential to try and change the architecture of addressing climate change than what we’ve seen anywhere heretofore.”

For keen Canadian observers, what matters will be what comes after the watershed international conference. Paul Boothe, the former deputy minister of Environment Canada, says Canada’s promised goals are ambitious enough. “What I think they need to do when they’re in Paris is be clear that they are going to take significant action.”

The real challenge, he says, is not the international talks: it’s whether the federal government can co-ordinate the provinces afterward.

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