Earth Day at the United Nations

Knowing how many Island Tides readers are keen observers of the climate issue, as well as the impressive number of you who are climate activists, I wanted to give you a more in-depth report than that found in the mainstream media about the special United Nations signing ceremony for the Paris Agreement.

Why the ceremony?

The Paris Agreement is not the deal that saves the world from climate chaos.  It is the deal that gives us a chance to save ourselves.  And we know that all current commitments by all nations, in aggregate, if achieved in full and on target, spell global disaster.  We shoot right past the Paris Agreement goal of holding global average temperature to no more than 1.5 degrees C what it was before the Industrial Revolution.  We shoot right past the outer limit target of 2 degrees.  In fact, if all countries achieve their current targets we end up 2.7-3.5 degrees C above the global average pre-Industrial Revolution temperature.

So, there is a huge risk in accepting an agreement that is so dependent on ramping up, ratcheting up and pushing for more.  Anyone working on the climate issue know how fickle the media is and how short-lived the attention span of the average politician.  So, to keep up pressure in the aftermath of Paris, the decision of the COP (a different document than the Paris Agreement itself) called for the UN Secretary General to organize a high-level signing ceremony at the United Nations headquarters in New York to be held on April 22, 2016.  No doubt about the plan- Earth Day at the UN with heads of government was intended to keep focus on climate and pull all governments back into the spotlight to report on their plans. Our only enforcement mechanism is global peer pressure, exposure and the risk of political embarrassment.

What did it achieve?

The April 22 signing ceremony event broke records for United Nations agreements.  By opening it for signature with pressure to get as many countries as possible to commit to the treaty, the Paris Agreement is launched and appears headed for speedy ratification.  Contrary to a disturbingly large number of reports in Canadian media, the treaty is legally binding.  To enter into force, countries must first sign and then ratify.  The ratification formula is the same us under Kyoto: 55 countries must sign and ratify and their total emissions must be equal to 55% of current global GHG emissions. 

The record of 175 nations signing an agreement on the first day it was open for signatures was big.  More significant were the number of countries tabling with their signatures the articles of ratification.  The first up on ratification were, movingly, the low-lying island states such as Tuvalu, Maldives, Marshall Islands, etc. The biggest news was likely that the Peoples’ Republic of China committed to ratification before the G20 Summit in September.  The USA committed as well, with Secretary of State John Kerry signing the agreement with his granddaughter in tow. Our Prime Minister committed to table the treaty soon before Parliament with the goal of a ratification vote within the year.  (As a note to parliamentary procedure wonks, it is not technically necessary to take the treaty to parliament.  Recall former PM Harper ratifying the Canada-China Investment Treaty by Order-in-Council with no vote in Parliament at all.  Treaty-making powers are “Royal Prerogative” and could be done by a secret Cabinet vote.)  The debate in parliament is helpful.  It should help keep the attention of Canadians and media on what is at stake.

What did Trudeau say? 

Canada is very popular at the UN these days.  I think us winning a seat on the Security Council in the next vote is looking like a sure thing.  Trudeau’s speech was interrupted by applause more often than any other speaker in the General Assembly. His willingness to embrace basic principles of climate justice resonated as he explained Canada was committed to assisting developing countries, “since they should not be punished for a problem they did not create.”

On the other hand, our target remains the one tabled last year by the previous government – 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.  There has been a weak environmental movement response to this sad reality.  I get it.  After ten years of Harper, the movement is grateful to have a new Liberal government that is in favour of climate action.  Meanwhile, mainstream media has been falsely reporting for months that Trudeau adopted that target in Paris. Internally, the bureaucracy is pressing the Environment Minister that even the Harper target will be hard to reach.  The worrying line in Trudeau’s speech was that Canada “will meet or exceed our target.”  That sounds really good, but it is the first time the Prime Minister has associated himself at all with the Harper target.  To keep our commitment to avoiding 1.5 degrees C we need to make our target reflect doing our fair share in the world.  And that isn’t it.  It cannot be “meet OR exceed.” To keep our promises in Paris, it can only be “exceed” – and by a lot.

In response to my questions in Environment Committee, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna confirmed she will be recommending a new target to the Prime Minister after six months of consultations with the provinces and territories wrap up.  I understood her answer to be six months from early March when those talks started: September.

The other news is that the government is now asking Canadians for solutions and ideas.  The website is open for your comments until June.  Let’s get busy. Sharpen pencils.  Fire up your calculators.  We cannot hit our targets if we expand the oil sands or build an LNG industry.   And remember to point out to our new government that we can invest in developing countries to reduce GHG at far lower costs per tonne than what we can manage domestically.  We can at least reduce 30% below 2005 levels and do it 5 years earlier.  Move 2030 to 2025 and we’ve got a move that can help push other countries to start replacing weak targets with stronger ones.

Originally published in Island Tides.