The Paris Agreement 101

Climate change has become an increasingly important topic on Canada’s political agenda. In the Liberal government’s 2016 budget, they earmarked a considerable sum for environmental initiatives, promising to spend almost $7 billion over the next five years on greening Canada’s infrastructure, developing a clean economy and protecting the environment (CBC). Most recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed the Paris Agreement on climate change, joining more than 170 countries from around the world at the United Nations in New York City. If you, like me, are interested in learning more about the Paris Agreement and what it entails on both a domestic and international level, we have pulled together a Paris Agreement 101 breakdown just for you!

What is the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement is the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal, adopted by 195 countries at  the Paris climate conference (COP21) in December 2015.The agreement was made within the framework of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and sets out a global climate change action plan that will enter force in 2020 (European Commission). According to this article from TIME Magazine, “The Paris Agreement is meant to signal the beginning of the end of more than 100 years of fossil fuels serving as the primary engine of economic growth and shows that governments from around the world take climate change seriously.”

On Friday, April 22nd (Earth Day) 175 countries signed the Paris Agreement at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York City. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called it a “historic day” as it marked “the largest number of countries ever to sign an international agreement on a single day (United Nations).”

What does the agreement require?

Here are some of the agreement’s key points:

  • Mitigation: The agreement includes a commitment to keep the increase in global average temperature from pre-industrial levels to “well below” 2°C. At the same time, the agreement hopes to limit the increase to 1.5°C, as this would significantly reduce the risks and impact of climate change.
    • FYEI (For your extra information): Scientists consider 2°C the threshold to limit “potentially catastrophic climate change” (CBC).
  • Helping poorer nations: In order to help poorer, developing countries meet their emissions targets without compromising economic growth, the agreement calls on developed nations to give $100 billion annually to developing countries by 2020 (CBC). These funds would be used to invest in green energy among other things.
  • Transparency: The agreement requires countries to come together every 5 years to review and revise their emissions targets. Countries will also be tasked with preparing, maintaining and publishing their own greenhouse gas reduction targets (CBC).
  • Carbon neutrality: The deal also sets a goal for a carbon neutral world sometime between 2050 and 2100 (CBC).

What countries have signed the agreement?

175 countries (representing 93% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions) signed the Paris Agreement at the United Nations on Friday (TIME). One particularly unique aspect of this agreement is its universality, as the inclusion of both developed and developing countries demonstrates an unparalleled level of international solidarity with respect to this issue. Under the previous emissions treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, developing countries were not mandated to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (CBC).

In addition to signatories, “at least 55 countries representing 55% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions must ratify—not just sign—the agreement for it to be implemented” (TIME).  For added context, the difference between signing and ratifying an international treaty lies in the nature of its’ obligations. Signature of a treaty on part of a state does not establish consent to be bound, but rather is more a means of expressing the states’ interest and willingness to engage in the treaty-making process. Ratification, on the other hand, indicates the consent of a state to be bound to a treaty. Furthermore, it “…grants states the necessary time-frame to seek the required approval for the treaty on the domestic level and to enact the necessary legislation to give domestic effect to that treaty” (United Nations).

What is Canada’s position on the Paris Agreement?

True to their green-friendly party platform, the Liberal government have placed their full support behind the Paris Agreement and the targets it sets out.

With respect to the treaty’s commitment to keep global average temperatures 2°C above pre-industrial levels, Canadian officials announced in December, 2015 that they will support a long-term goal of limiting temperatures to within 1.5°C – the treaty’s ‘pipe dream’ so to speak (CBC).

With respect to helping poorer countries, the Canadian government announced a promise in November to spend $2.65 billion over the next five years to help developing countries fight climate change (CBC). In his speech to the United Nations on Friday, Trudeau spoke specifically about the challenges facing these countries, saying: “They shouldn’t be punished for a problem they didn’t create, nor should they be deprived the opportunities for clean growth that developed nations are now pursuing (Global News).”

Despite the Liberals’ highly praised proactive stance on the Paris Agreement, they have received criticism from domestic political opponents. Conservative critic Ed Fast has argued that the Liberals are “misleading Canadians” by not accounting for the “true economic costs” that would result from the government’s emissions targets. A finding from the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) indicates that hitting the 1.5°C target could shave 1-3% off the Canadian economy by 2030 (Global News). These criticisms, if warranted, are completely fair. Honesty and transparency with respect to the economic costs of these targets is absolutely imperative, and Canadians have every right to demand this of the Liberal government.

How realistic is the Paris Agreement?

While the framework of the Paris Agreement is legally binding in nature, it “won’t actually force countries to hit their emissions-reductions targets (National Post).” In short, the UN cannot “police” what countries are doing. Countries will, however, be legally bound to set an emissions target, to commit to transparency and accountability provisions surrounding reporting, and to improve on their targets every five years (National Post).

Although the lack of a police-esque enforcement mechanism certainly raises questions, the framework itself is strategic, realistic and promising. As many have argued, a crucial aspect of this agreement is actually getting countries to jump on board – if countries are not willing to adopt, sign and ratify an agreement because of the legal ramifications it includes, then the goals it has set out are completely lost at the outset. Through its’ provisions I believe this agreement encourages the necessary cooperation for adequate ratification while mandating action and credibility.

At the end of the day, the Paris Agreement will be as successful as the countries of the world make it. I am optimistic about the enthusiasm and international cooperation that have defined it thus far, and can only hope that it continues to act as a catalyst for change – both in the court of public opinion and through the political leadership of countries around the world.

Authored by Emma  McKay, Co-Founder

Paris Agreement
PM Justin Trudeau signs the Paris Agreement on climate change – Source: AP Photo, Mark Lennihan)

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