Climate action – the time crunch

So much carbon; so little time. 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 be only a down payment on future action. And shamefully for the last 10 years, Canada has provided cover for other countries to do less, knowing that its aggressive sabotage would excuse its own shrinking ambitions.

That can change on March 3, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sits down with the First Ministers to talk about climate change.

But meanwhile, scientific evidence is mounting that the rapidly accelerating threat of climate destabilization exceeds terrorism as a threat to global security. That global understanding – that failure to act to limit global average temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degree Celsius 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 Celsius was than 2 degrees Celsius, he replied that if we wanted a reasonable probability of avoiding seven- to eight-metre sea level rise, we should avoid going above 1.5 Celsius. 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 a seven- to eight-metre sea level rise.

We have no time left for procrastination. The Paris Agreement does not include binding targets and instead adopts a global goal of avoiding more than 1.5 Celsius warming while definitely holding temperature to no more than 2 Celsius. 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 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 of the previous government. The Liberal platform promised a national plan, based on provincial consultations, within 90 days of the Paris talks, which is March 12.

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 3. 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 by increasingly betting 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. We must not show up with the weakest G7 target, the one left behind by the Conservatives. Time is running out for climate action and for Liberal promises.

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen.