Ecojustice Blog – Climate change Posted on November 24, 2016 (updated: March 29, 2017)

Reconciling international commitments with domestic policies: The experience of a Canadian delegate at COP 22

Melissa GorrieLawyer
Ecojustice lawyer, Melissa Gorrie at COP22

I recently returned from COP 22 in Marrakesh, Morocco. What is COP 22 you ask? It’s not the 22nd instalment of the infamous police academy movies. It is the 22nd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – an international environmental agreement that parties from around the world signed in the 1990s to address climate change. While the UNFCCC sets guiding principles for international action on climate change, it leaves the details to other instruments such as the Kyoto Protocol, which the Harper government pulled out of in 2011.

Last year, nearly 200 countries (including Canada) negotiated a new agreement under the UNFCCC, called the Paris Agreement. In January, Ecojustice lawyer Scott McAnsh described what the Paris Agreement means for climate change commitments. Its central aim is to keep global temperature rise well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 C. To support that aim, parties to the agreement are required to submit information on the action they intended to take domestically to curb emissions, referred to as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

COP 22 was a forum for parties to establish rules for implementing the Paris Agreement

Nations have been rushing to ratify the Paris Agreement, with 112 countries having done so to date. As a result, the threshold number of ratifications needed for the agreement to come into effect was reached in early November – and years earlier than expected. The early entry into force of the Paris Agreement signaled a global recognition of the urgent need for climate action. It also meant implementation plans for the Paris Agreement needed to be expedited. Fortunately, COP 22 provided an opportunity to start developing rules and procedures for implementation.

COP 22 has been dubbed the “action COP” because of its focus on implementing the Paris Agreement.

Of particular note, COP 22 provided an important forum for parties to start discussing how the first “facilitative dialogue” will take place in 2018. The facilitative dialogue is a crucial piece of the international climate puzzle because it gives the parties an opportunity to take stock of initial progress and to begin developing more ambitious NDCs – and more ambition is definitely needed.  

According to the latest United Nations Environment Programme Gap Report, the contributions countries proposed to curb warming won’t achieve the objectives set out in the Paris Agreement. Rather, they put us on track for a 3-degree world. The scientific evidence is clear that countries need to submit more ambitious NDCs, if there is any hope of the global temperature rise staying below 1.5 C.

With that alarming information looming overhead, the parties discussed their implementation agenda extensively during COP 22. Some of the outcomes of those discussions included the adoption of work plans and a decision to ask the COP 22 and COP 23 presidents to jointly undertake consultations on how to organize the 2018 facilitative dialogue, and to report back at COP 23.

Though it might seem like progress at COP 22 was slow, it was still an important step towards meaningful international action on climate change. It was also inspiring to watch negotiators from countries all over the world discuss how the Paris Agreement should be implemented. The need for urgent action was acknowledged numerous times, including by the Canadian government. My hope is that the urgency of the situation will be reflected in an increase in the pace of the negotiations over the next few years so that the parties can develop clear and meaningful rules and procedures to ensure that the Paris Agreement is implemented quickly and effectively.

So what does Canada need to do?

As a party to the Paris Agreement, Canada was required to submit its domestic contribution to reduce emissions. Unfortunately, the NDC it submitted was identical to what the Harper government put forth years ago: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels, by 2030. This target has been rated as “inadequate” as it will not ensure that Canada does its fair share to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Nonetheless, the federal government has been silent on whether it will beef up its contribution.

We also have a government that is steeped in contradiction. On the one hand, the federal government has signalled the importance of acting on climate change by ratifying the Paris Agreement. To some extent, it has walked the talk. The federal government announced its plans for  a pan-Canadian price on carbon last month. It also recently announced an accelerated national phase-out of coal-fired electricity by 2030 and submitted its strategy for a low-carbon future by 2050 – albeit, without outlining a specific strategy of policy pathway to achieve it.

On the other hand, the federal government continues to approve major greenhouse gas emitting projects – most recently the Petronas Liquid Natural Gas terminal. The federal Minister of Natural Resources also said last week that an approval of the recently revived U.S. Keystone XL pipeline would not change the need for more pipelines in Canada, such as the Energy East and Kinder Morgan pipelines currently awaiting a federal decision.

It is puzzling and inconsistent for Canada to speak about climate leadership and the need to move towards a clean energy economy while simultaneously promoting the narrative that Canada needs high emitting infrastructure projects. Approval of such projects locks us into a carbon-intensive future – and put into question our commitments to climate reform.

Let’s hope that by COP 23 the federal government stops sending mixed messages, and ensures that its laws and policies align with our current (though inadequate) targets. That means no more pipelines and other carbon-intensive projects, such as oil sands.  Let’s also hope that in the near future Canada ups its game and commits to a more ambitious climate target that aligns with what science and global equity dictates is necessary for Canada to do its fair share to avoid a three-degree world.

Melissa Gorrie is an Ecojustice staff lawyer. She recently traveled to Marrakesh, Morocco as part of the Canadian delegation to the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP 22) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Build the case for a better earth

Thanks to the support of people like you, Ecojustice goes to court to protect what we value most — the air, land and water that sustains all life. Make your gift today and support bold litigation for a brighter environmental future.

Join our newsletter

Get updates on the most pressing environmental issues delivered straight to your inbox.

Join our online community

Follow us on social media