It took four years of preparation and two intense weeks of talks, sometimes lasting through the night, but nearly 200 countries finally reached agreement at the Paris climate conference. Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna seems satisfied with the agreement, as do the small island states at risk of some of the worst effects of climate change. The agreement includes the hard goal of no more than two degrees of warming above preindustrial levels and refers to the softer goal of aiming for 1.5 degrees instead. And it contains the ratcheting-up clause McKenna wanted in the text, in which countries agree to revisit their targets every five years to set tougher goals.
After two weeks of negotiations with 194 other parties, the next step should be comparatively straightforward: McKenna will lead the charge to design a national plan to lower greenhouse gas emissions, one that includes all 13 provinces and territories. But the Liberals have given themselves a quick turnaround time for one of their highest-profile benchmarks in the process, promising a first ministers meeting in the next 90 days.
So far, they’ve been coy about exactly what will come out of such a meeting, pledging “a framework to combat climate change” at some point but stopping short of guaranteeing it will land at the conclusion of that gathering. Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, who chairs the cabinet committee on the environment, told Maclean’s in Paris last month that there is a clear plan to cut emissions in the Liberal platform (funding for green technology and transit, improving energy efficiency standards and phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, for example). But there’s a lot left to be fleshed out. “All these things [would] definitely fit in with what a plan would be, but they’re pieces right now,” said Dale Marshall, manager of Environmental Defence’s national energy program, who was at the Paris talks.
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Say, for example, the federal government wants to increase the number of electric cars on the road. It needs to work with the provinces on building codes to make sure parking and charging stations are available, as well as the storage units for that energy (building standards are set by the provinces). But the federal government can also offer incentives, like money for building retrofits and public transit, to provinces and territories that adopt its model building code. What the Liberals have now has to be more strategic to count as a framework, Marshall said. “And then you fill in the details and then you have a plan.”
Along with the other promises to which they attached the modifier “ambitious” comes a pledge to try to get a deal with the U.S. and Mexico to coordinate mitigation and resiliency policies and align their international negotiating positions. The Conservatives had discussed a similar idea several years ago, even setting up a blue-ribbon panel and naming a special envoy on climate change and energy to the Canadian embassy in Washington. But those efforts seem to have dissipated some time after then-Conservative environment minister Jim Prentice left federal politics.
That kind of co-operation is still necessary to be able to introduce more restrictive limits, and even vital for the businesses that have to compete across borders. It’s also necessary to stop carbon leakage, or companies pulling out of one country to head to a competing jurisdiction with more lenient rules. “It doesn’t do the environment any good, nor does it do an economy any good, if you set the bar too high and a company just decides, okay, we’re going to jump ship and go down to another jurisdiction,” said Ed Whittingham, executive director of the Pembina Institute.
The U.S. and Mexico will be either the biggest customers or biggest competitors for Canadian companies, giving Canada even more incentive to get everyone on the same page. “Companies that are adapting to sell their existing products or manufacture their existing products will be put at less of a disadvantage if their competitors face the same constraints in our biggest trading partners,” said Andrew Leach, an associate professor at the University of Alberta and chair of Alberta’s climate panel.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and McKenna are also expected at some point to unveil new targets for lowering Canadian emissions, beyond the goals set out by the Conservatives. McKenna has talked about being more ambitious and using the existing goals, a 17 per cent cut over 2005 levels by 2020 and 30 per cent by 2030, as the least this government will do. But acting on those ambitions will take some serious work, since almost nobody seems to think Canada can hit the 2020 target.
The Paris agreement aside, McKenna now faces rounds of deal-making with the premiers and territorial leaders, as well as with the U.S. and Mexico. Never mind figuring out what can be done to improve the last government’s much-maligned targets. With all of that awaiting McKenna, it’s a wonder she returned from France. The history agreement made in Paris is just the beginning. The real work starts at home.