What to expect when the neighbours come to town

It says a lot about Canada’s relations under the previous Conservative government that the annual meeting with our NAFTA partners was delayed by a year because the Conservatives didn’t think the meeting was worth having.   The corny slang of the “Three Amigos Summit” wasn’t working as “two amigos and the other guy.” I still find it a bit absurd that we all buy into this Three Amigos nomenclature, but there it is. Our continental identity, Turtle Island, North America becomes a bad photo op in sombreros.

There is clearly a lot of business to be done in any meeting between the Canadian Prime Minister and the Presidents of Mexico and the United States.  Ever since the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement we have hard-wired our economic futures to each other.  But we also have natural inter-dependencies, especially for our shared environment. The North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation (NACEC) – a side-agency created out of NAFTA – had been doing good work until the doldrums of the last ten years.  It surprised many environmentalists when NACEC was first created that it was useful at all. But NACEC established strong programmes to protect biodiversity and to imagine greater exchange of renewable energy to avert the climate crisis. NACEC developed shared strategies to help Monarch butterfly recovery, held workshops to explore renewable energy potential, and published studies on air quality in the maquiladora zone. But that was all a long time ago.  Now it’s time to re-engage.

What do I expect from Barack Obama’s last North American Summit and Justin Trudeau’s first?  A large focus on climate and a North American strategy to avert the worst. In that they will have an ally in Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto whose national goals eclipse those of the US and Canada.  Mexico has emerged as something of a climate leader.  Mexico City has gotten very serious about climate. As one speaker from Mexico pointed out at Paris in COP21: “We have to adapt to those levels of climate change which we cannot avoid; and we have to avoid those levels of climate change to which we cannot adapt.”

And it is literally true that Mexico is now a climate leader. The incoming Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will be Mexico’s former minister of Foreign Affairs, Patricia Espinosa. As President of COP16, Ambassador Espinoza rescued the climate negotiations following the disaster of Copenhagen.  Without her extraordinary diplomacy in re-establishing trust in a process broken by the bad-faith bargaining of Copenhagen, we could never have achieved an agreement in Paris.  Mexico will be very likely to press for Canada and the US to improve our climate targets.  Canada’s target, set under the previous government, is the weakest in the G7.  And while our target is weak, all targets of all countries so far pledged – if achieved – take us to a level of climate disaster two-times higher than that established as the long term goal in the Paris Accord.  In other words, current INDCs collectively take us to global catastrophe. And everybody knows it.  The whole architecture of the Paris Accord requires pulling back weak targets in order to ratchet up.  A commitment at this summit to ratchet up would help stimulate similar moves around the world.

Meanwhile, moving from global to regional, there is much that can be done.  As mentioned, more than a dozen years ago the NACEC ran a major commission to investigate how wheeling electricity across national borders could help push a fossil-fuel-free electricity grid.  Time to get back to that.

As NAFTA partners we are also Montreal Protocol partners.  That 1987 treaty has really delivered in reducing ozone-depleting substances, but also greenhouse gases (GHG). Time to get back to that.

Shared emission reductions can be made building on the commitments made when Prime Minister Trudeau was in Washington for the March meetings.  Work can be accelerated on methane, energy efficiency, vehicle emission standards and promotion of renewable energy.   And while a Canada-US focus on the Arctic makes sense, so too does a Three Amigos Arctic focus make sense.  Mexico understands the climate science.  And globally, everyone understands that year-round ice cover over the Arctic is a global climate regulator.  Extreme weather events from drought in California to Superstorm Sandy to floods in Mexico have been linked to the loopy jet stream created by a warming Arctic.   Keeping the top of the earth frozen is a matter of life and death whether you live in a circumpolar nation or not.

The leaders of the three North American neighbours have a full agenda. And while we are at it, don’t forget the butterflies.

Originally published in the Hill Times.