2015: The Year of Climate Challenges

It’s crunch time. The science of the climate crisis is clear. We are running out of time to reduce global emissions. This year Canadian policymakers must accomplish two goals – ensure Canada adopts a meaningful plan to cut carbon pollution while also preparing for the upcoming critical negotiations for a new global treaty.

I learned climate science from Environment Canada scientists back in the 1980s when I worked for the federal Minister of Environment. No one thought there was controversy about the basic science as we organized the first major international conference on the threat in Toronto in June 1988. The myth of doubt had not yet been invented, nor heavily financed to delay action.

Procrastination, corporate lobbying and lack of political will has led to a tragic loss of more than two decades when actions would have been easier, greenhouse gases could have been reduced before hitting the current 400 parts per million (ppm), before condemning glaciers and sea ice and coral reefs and other ecosystems to dangerous levels of damage. Over the previous one million years, carbon dioxide concentrations never exceeded 280 ppm. Humanity has already changed the chemistry of the atmosphere, just as carbon dioxide mixing with ocean water is changing the acidity of our oceans.

The process of negotiating a treaty to move the world to a low-carbon future has been on-going since 1992. The third Conference of the Parties (COP3) took place in Kyoto, giving the protocol its name. Kyoto in its second phase still exists, but Canada dealt it several mortal blows.

The next big negotiation deadline was 2009 at COP15 in Copenhagen. That COP was a train wreck of an event. It sowed deep seeds of distrust as President Barack Obama took a handful of big industrialized countries, plus China, into a hotel room – outside the integrity and transparency of the UN process – and cooked up the bogus “Copenhagen Accord.” The targets were not legally binding but “politically binding.” It was accompanied with a blatant attempt to bribe the developing world into not protesting rising seas and droughts by providing a new Green Climate Fund, with promises to ramp up to $100 billion/year by 2020.

Prime Minister Harper personally attended Copenhagen, although he was not present as Obama crafted the back-room deal. Harper agreed to adopt the same target as the United States – 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. This amounted to the second weakening of Canada’s pledge since Harper became prime minister.

While Obama has delivered the US pledge, sadly, Canada has totally missed the target. Using Environment Canada’s own figures, Canada is set to miss its Copenhagen target of 126MT reductions by 116MT. With only five years left before Harper’s pledge falls due, his administration has failed to establish any plan to meet it. It will be challenging for any government to meet that target now.

Meanwhile, the world’s scientific body reviewing climate action, the IPCC, found that even if all Copenhagen targets were met, the world would shoot past 2 degrees risking far more catastrophic impacts.

Much more dramatic action is required. In fact, the IPCC is now calling for the world to cease using fossil fuels for energy entirely by the end of this century. The ramping up of renewable and green sources of energy is urgent.

The global negotiations continue. The deadline for the acceptance of the treaty that failed in Copenhagen will be next year at COP21 in Paris. COP20 last December in Lima was supposed to create an ambitious agenda propelling the last phase of negotiations forward. The Peoples Climate March and UN Climate Leaders Summit last September were all about injecting momentum into Lima. Still, COP20 fell far short of what is needed.

The tensions created by Copenhagen are still with us. At COP20, industrialized countries wanted the developing world to accept texts leaving out the litany of broken promises from industrialized countries, while giving the rich a weak set of self-selected targets of dubious enforceability. The Lima negotiation’s overtime hours only slightly improved a weak decision. References to assistance to developing countries and a call for more action for industrialized countries were mere sops to the chorus of complaints.

Before next year’s COP in Paris, Canada’s elections will likely deliver a new Prime Minister with a Parliament with a greener hue. It is my hope that the new Parliament, post-2015 election, will place Canada in the lead. We can be the country that saves the Paris talks. We know how to do this. Canadian negotiators, given proper instructions to negotiate the clear, aggressive and equitable climate treaty the world needs, can do it.

Between now and December 2015, we have to focus on the parallel challenges – get our own house in order by implementing meaningful climate action domestically while being prepared to play the role of global leader we once delivered for the world. Greens will ensure that climate is a key issue in the upcoming election.

Originally published in the HillTimes.