Representatives of 195 countries made an historic deal in Paris last December to reduce worldwide carbon emissions and ultimately limit global warming to less than two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. Will the Paris Agreement succeed? Scott Anderson asked Jutta Brunnée, the Metcalf Chair in Environmental Law.
Let’s start with the Kyoto Protocol. Why didn’t it work?
By design, Kyoto had set carbon-emission targets only for developed countries – in recognition of their greater capacity to reduce emissions and the greater pressure their economies had placed on the atmosphere up to that point. This was intended only as a first step, but it was read by developing countries as reinforcing their claim that they didn’t have to reduce their emissions.
Kyoto also set fixed targets for countries ahead of time, without sufficient information for how to achieve these goals. For example, Canada agreed to reduce its emissions by six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. But by the time the protocol took effect for Canada, in 2005, emissions were already 30 per cent above 1990 levels. It’s extremely difficult to predict how economies and technologies will develop, so it can be problematic to have an obligation cast in stone.
How is the Paris Agreement different?
First, every country is now expected to have an emissions-related commitment. Whereas Kyoto included countries that accounted for only a small share of global carbon emissions, the Paris Agreement already has commitments from 187 countries responsible for 95 per cent of total emissions. The principle of common-but-differentiated responsibilities (that some countries should reduce emissions more than others) still applies, but the emphasis is now more on the common, with recognition that differentiation is not just between South and North. For example, China and India are very different from Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso in terms of their capacity to reduce emissions and their impact on the global climate.
Second, the binding part of this agreement requires countries to have a commitment to reduce emissions, to update their goals regularly and to tighten them over time. Unlike Kyoto, the treaty does not enshrine specific targets for what Canada, or any other country, has to do. So what you have now is a bottom-up treaty architecture in which each country indicates what it is prepared to do. As a result, the targets can be updated much more easily, because changing them doesn’t require altering the treaty itself.
Countries incur no penalties if they don’t comply. So what’s the incentive?
Each party will have to measure their carbon emissions, report what action they’re taking to reduce them and have their reports reviewed. The approach to compliance is a bit like Weight Watchers. Nobody will put you into jail or make you pay a fine if you emit more carbon than you should, but the whole world will know and there will be pressure from climate experts and NGOs to meet your commitment.
The U.S. and China are the world’s two largest carbon emitters. Does the agreement safeguard their commitment to reduction, even if there are changes in leadership?
The Paris Agreement was designed, in part, to make it possible for the U.S. to join. That’s why the carbon reduction commitments don’t require the American president to go through Congress and the Senate. Is this vulnerable to changes in leadership? No more so than a formally binding treaty such as Kyoto. President Clinton signed Kyoto but President Bush never ratified it. In fact, the U.S. never would have joined the Paris Agreement if it had been structured like Kyoto because the Congress and Senate would not have approved it.
As for China, my impression is that for a range of reasons, including its domestic experience of air pollution, the leadership has thrown the entire machinery of the state behind low-carbon and green technologies. This won’t obviate the need for coal immediately, but there is going to be a systemic push for a transition to a low-carbon economy.
What if reducing our carbon emissions proves far more difficult than we thought? Does a change in public opinion put the agreement at risk?
I don’t think any form of an agreement could ever insure us against that. This is always an issue with environmental measures: you have cycles of concern. The difference now is that there is very little room for scientific disagreement. The science tells us that unless we take action soon, we’ll be in deep trouble. Governments have a responsibility to lead. If they do, we’ve seen that they can get people to come along.
Has Canada committed to anything yet?
The Canadian government said that within 90 days of the end of the Paris conference it would have a federal-provincial meeting to come up with a plan. This meeting occurred March 3, at which the prime minister and premiers agreed in principle to put a price on carbon. I think by being very visible in Paris and saying that Canada should be a leader on global climate policy, the Liberal government will face a serious reality check. What does being a leader on climate change look like? Will it even be able to meet the target the Harper government had set of a 30 per cent reduction in carbon emissions below 2005 levels by 2030 – a target that is generally considered to be inadequate?
What are the biggest changes the average Canadian will see as a result of this?
We’ll likely see higher prices on carbon and incentives to shift to alternate forms of energy and away from fossil fuels. The irony right now, of course, is the oil price is so low it sends the wrong signal; it says “Hey, drive some more.”
How do you feel about our prospects for success?
This is not an easy problem to solve. Acid rain and ozone depletion were discrete processes that we could isolate. With climate, we have to change the way we do almost everything. Germany has cast the coming change as part of the next industrial revolution. In Canada, we lost a number of years, but there will be opportunities. We need to take advantage of them.
A shorter version of this Q&A appeared in the print edition of the Spring 2016 issue.
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