The Canadian delegation at the Conference of the Parties (COP21) held in Paris, France Nov. 30 – Dec. 11 was engaged in a different kind of way from its predecessors of the past 10 years. The big difference was that they were at the conference to participate and help get a climate action agreement not to obstruct the proceedings.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the leaders’ plenary on the opening day of the conference and told them that Canada was back. Whereas previous Canadian delegations had not engaged in any constructive way in the negotiations, Trudeau’s would be full participants.
Trudeau promised that his government would be doing more to address the global climate change problem keeping five basic principles in mind: applying the best of scientific evidence and advice; supporting the implementation of policies that contribute to a low-carbon economy including carbon pricing; working closely with the provinces and indigenous peoples in formulating climate action initiatives; providing assistance to the developing world as they deal with climate change issues; and building a sustainable economy based on clean technology while not sacrificing growth.
Trudeau ended his speech with a commitment. “We have an opportunity to make history in Paris, an agreement to transition to the low-carbon is necessary for our collective health, security and prosperity. Canada is back, my good friends. We’re here to help, to build an agreement that will do our children and our grandchildren proud.”
Key people at the conference are not ignoring Canada this time. Trudeau’s administration has offered commitments and action. $2.6 billion has been committed to assist small countries with climate action; called for a price on carbon; endorsed language around “decarbonization” of the world’s economy; and agreed to a limit change the temperature target from 2.0° C to 1.5° C.
David Miller, an advocate for strong action at many United Nations climate talks, recalls that Canada’s past delegations engaged in obstructionist tactics. The country earned the dubious honour of winning the Fossil of the Day award for a number of years. New Zealand and Belgium were first to receive the prize this year.
A positive sign that Canada was being taken more seriously at the talks was the appointment of the new environment minister, Catherine McKenna, to work as a “facilitator” with 13 others to help with the negotiating process. Facilitators are chosen for their skills with people and as negotiators. Canada hasn’t been involved in this way for a decade.
Liz Gallagher, leader of the Climate Diplomacy program for E3C, a sustainability NGO with offices in several countries, stated,
“Canada now has more skin in the game. Its position is not just about the obsession and prioritization of its (oil sands) industry. It can negotiate and leverage and get what it wants rather than just be bypassed.”
As usual the negotiations were not completed by Dec. 11 and the conference was extended by one day.
The workability of the agreement that comes out of the conference will not be known until each of the countries actually takes action to meet its commitments.
An agreement was reached, but what action can be taken to force government action them to live up to their commitments?
An article on Resilience.org by David Bollier suggests that resorting to the law to force governments to take specific, enforceable actions to reduce carbon emissions is reasonable. Bollier talks about enforcing the “public trust doctrine” and cites a case in Seattle, Washington where a superior court judge issued a ruling that recognized the doctrine as applying to the atmosphere. The ruling echoes a ruling in New Mexico that also stated that the public trust doctrine applies to the atmosphere.
According to the Seattle judge, under the doctrine, the state has the mandatory duty to “preserve, protect, and enhance the air quality for current and future generations.”
Resorting to the courts to hold Canada accountable for its climate change commitments is an option we should not hesitate to pursue.