A New Direction for Canada at Paris and Beyond

The election of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal team has brought a sense of excitement and anticipation across the nation, even reaching beyond Canada’s borders, with many observers and national governments expecting Canada to play a more proactive role on a host of international issues – not the least of which is the upcoming climate change conference in Paris.  The challenge for the government is not only to show a new ‘face’ at Paris, which I am sure they will be able to accomplish without too much trouble.  After all, thanks to the entirely cynical, defensive and non-transparent approach of the previous government, they have a very low bar to hurdle.

Nor should it be exclusively focused on whether, and by how much, Canada should increase its current ambition of reducing its GHG emissions 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.  There is an oddly schizophrenic discussion taking place on Canada’s INDC: on the one hand, it is being roundly criticized as being one of the least ambitious targets of any developed country, while on the other, all serious economic modeling has shown that the costs in reaching such a target, particularly if this target is to be met through domestic actions alone, would be amongst the highest of any other nation’s INDC.  My view is that the government should first focus on a feasible plan for how Canada can reach its current commitments (including the purchase of international credits), implement it and be relatively assured that it is on course to meet that goal, before we consider adopting more ambitious reductions.   I am not saying that Canada should stay there, but that the first priority is to establish credibility.  To agree to even more stringent targets at Paris when we have no clear idea how to meet our current ones will do the opposite.

In any case, simply addressing Canada’s INDC will not be enough in ‘righting’ Canada’s place in the UNFCCC negotiations.  It needs to be appreciated that Canada had already been criticized for its performance in these negotiations well before the Harper regime took the helm – too often Canadian delegations focused on finding ways to ‘play’ the international climate regime to meet its Kyoto target rather than actually putting in place effective climate legislation in place back at home (to be fair, this state of affairs was more the case during Jean Chretien’s term as Prime Minister than it was under Paul Martin).  So it’s not only a matter of assuring the world that the Liberals are back, but that a very different sort of Liberal regime has taken the helm: one that will demonstrate serious intent at home and be a constructive contributor internationally.

It is on the last consideration that I wish to focus: what, beyond targets and financing, can Canada do to play a long lasting formative role in the UNFCCC negotiations AFTER Paris?  As I have noted in my previous blogs (see drexhage.ca website) Canada, along with Australia and Norway, is unique amongst OECD countries for its reliance on natural resource development for its economic prosperity.  While Canada may be a relative minority amongst OECD countries in that respect, it is very much the opposite dynamic with non-OECD, or developing, countries.   Virtually all the major economic players in the developing world rely, and will continue to do so over the foreseeable future, on the extraction and refinement of their resources to meet economic goals.

What about Canada recognizing and embracing this state of affairs and use it as a bridge building tool with developing countries?  Norway has already embarked down the path of recognizing the global debt it owes as a result of the wealth it has accumulated from the development of its gas and oil fields by embarking on, and implementing, aggressive domestic GHG reduction targets, while providing significant financial resources to help developing countries address climate change, for example in developing the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and (Land) Degradation (REDD) program.  Canada could do some of the same by, for example, helping developing countries (particularly Least Developed Countries) pursue opportunities in the agricultural sector to build soil resilience/productivity while also mitigating related GHG emissions.

But even more of a  game changer would be Canada taking charge in leading a global discussion on how resource based economies, covering developed and developing countries, can play a more effective role in significantly reducing global emissions through the contributions of natural resource development.  In other words, how can we develop our resources in such a way that they help to provide the tools required to reduce global emissions?  We have tried to address this issue from a lens that simply cannot square the circle of growing resource based economic development while simultaneously expecting absolute GHG reductions from those same activities.

For instance, the sustainable production and application of fertilizers will be a much more effective tool in reducing global GHG emissions by stemming pressure for deforestation than in a narrow approach that would look to simply mitigate GHG emissions by halting fertilizer production processes.

Another illustration: most analysts recognize that a net zero carbon future will require the ‘decarbonization’ of the power and transportation sectors.  But that does not occur without the increased extraction and development of a wide range of resources: from copper to platinum to, yes, even metallurgical coal (the latter is a core element in the production of all wind turbines).

Of course, effectively addressing climate change by these countries cannot only be met by redirecting resource development to serve ‘net zero carbon’ goals.  Delinking GHG emissions from economic growth will be required and resource based economies will be strongly challenged to effectively manage these new directions.

At this point, the fact remains that the most rapidly growing economies in developing countries are fundamentally reliant on resource development for their prosperity, their development planners have no intent on limiting such opportunities but that it precisely these countries (including their counterparts in the OECD) that will be the most responsible for future global GHG emissions growth.   And for those who would claim that the submission of 150 INDCs is evidence that countries are ready to make the fundamental changes required, keep in mind that, according to World Energy Outlook, that significant, long term investments in low carbon technologies, such as large hydro, carbon capture and storage, or alternative vehicle fuels acceleration (advanced biofuels, electric vehicles etc.) are rarely mentioned.

The world would be well served by a Canada that dares enter into and facilitate these sensitive issues – the first step being initiating an informal dialogue amongst the many major economies that comprise the resource based economies club.    The fact that the vast majority of these nations have already submitted INDCs indicates their intent to want to play a constructive role.  Initiating such a dialogue with an overtly positive intent to address climate change while being realistic about current economic and development realities and prospects for ‘net zero’ directions would demonstrate to the world that we indeed are on a truly transitional path forward.

Karl Popper and Climate Change: Chapter 3

Following off my two previous blogs on Popper’s approach to public policy, what would be the implications of his approach for tackling climate change at the global level?   Climate change has been accurately branded as one of the most complex and challenging environmental and economic issues facing the international community today, and the typical approach has been to try and find solutions through a mega-deal involving all nations, addressing a vast array of issues.  The United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has become the sacrosanct home for reaching such a ‘mega-deal’, usually with limited results.  In fact, since the Kyoto Protocol, this multilateral approach has been unsuccessful in finding a viable way forward.

Is such a course the only way forward?  What if Paris collapses under the weight of unrealistic expectations?  Looking through the lens of Popper, I would submit that continuing to rely on the expectation of some sort of politically contrived  ‘mega-deal’ is a way forward fraught with risks and follies.  Even if such a global, comprehensive agreement were to be reached, it would soon unravel at the implementation stage, with too little consideration having been given to the unintended consequences from trying to engineer such a complex pact.

Nor should we forget the accumulation of negotiating ‘hubris’ in these negotiations over the last twenty years, in no small part, fueled by the founding principles of the UNFCCC.  Under most circumstances, principles are helpful ‘markers’ that can work to provide a useful framework for developing effective agreements.  The principles established in the UNFCCC, for the most part, have done the very opposite.

The three related principles of common but differentiated responsibilities, recognizing the ‘special circumstances’ of developing countries and the right to sustainable development in reality has resulted in paralysis in the negotiations:  developed countries state they cannot take on deep, unilateral mitigation targets for competitiveness reasons, while developing countries (led by China and OPEC in particular) hide under the ‘cover’ of the G-77 and China negotiating bloc to absolve themselves of any international obligation to reduce their emissions.  Even the fifth principle, expressing support for the international economic and trading regimes, is mostly invoked to deter any discussions on best practices for fear it may used as a ‘Trojan Horse’ for protectionism on the part of developed countries. Sadly, the one principle left standing and which is actually a constructive contribution to the process – the precautionary approach, which states that the lack of certainty should not be used a rationalization for waiting to take actions to address climate change, is the principle least raised in the negotiations.

Let me be clear – for the purposes of this discussion, I am completely agnostic as to the normativity of these principles. My lens is effectiveness, and from that perspective no objective analysis could conclude that the principles have been a useful starting point for addressing climate change. And I left out the one overriding tenet that while not formally part of the UNFCCC founding principles is a core precept of the negotiations: namely, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, meaning that even where progress has been made – for example in the terms of reference for Reduced Emissions for Land Degradation and Deforestation (REDD) – it cannot come into effect without a ‘mega-deal’ covering dozens of contentious issues that have avoided any solutions for the last twenty years.

So what then might be the way forward?  In a word, simplify: simplify the actors, the issues and the mandate of the UNFCCC.  First of all, on the issue of actors, while the issue is undoubtedly global, the responsibility (in terms of emissions) can be easily identified.  There can be no prospect of an effective global treaty without first having China and the U.S., the two largest economies and greenhouse gas emitters, showing leadership in the process.  So in effect, we should cease to continue multilateral discussions on defining mitigation targets (and the terms for how such target can be determined) until such time that we first have a G-2 agreement on their respective contributions.  At Copenhagen, we saw a tentative agreement between the U.S. and major developing economies, led by China, setting national voluntary targets as the outcome of those talks. For Paris, we should look to the U.S. and China to first come in with national targets and a platform for co-operation on an outcome that then opens the door for other major economies and emitters to submit their contributions.

On issues, the process should treat topics as discretely and concretely as possible, allowing for agreements to be reached on areas where progress can be made with mandates for implementation prior to the conclusion of any ‘mega-deal’.  The Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice (one of the two major bodies established under the UNFCCC) should actually reflect its name and follow the example of the Montreal Protocol in providing a platform for providing expert advice around those issues.  Obvious candidates for immediate implementation include, inter alia, REDD, black carbon, methane mitigation, adaptation, technology co-operation and reporting modalities.

Finally on the UNFCCC itself, a significant ‘re-boot’ is in order.  In terms of institution building, it has undoubtedly been one of the most successful UN bodies over the last 20 years.  One might almost conclude that the lack of substantive progress in the negotiations has been absolved, in the minds of Parties, by establishing a myriad of ‘sub-secretariats’.   The UNFCCC needs to rediscover its roots and exclusively focus on being the home for negotiations and reporting on Parties’ progress in meeting their commitments.  Areas of implementation, such as market based mechanisms, climate financing, technology cooperation, adaptation and REDD, should find homes outside of the UNFCCC and the proclivities of politicized negotiators.

In the next blog, I will examine the implications of Popper’s lens of ‘limited engineering’ on public policy for nationally based actions to address climate change.  Until then, please feel free to express your views!

Here’s to a future climate regime that is actually effective.