It is past time for Canada to stop pretending that it has made binding Paris Agreement “commitments” that must be fulfilled regardless of what the other nations are doing. That implies that the Agreement is legally binding and still viable, when it was always merely voluntary, and is now effectively dead.
The planet’s population is approximately 8 billion. 1.5 billion live in developed countries that are hoping to reduce their CO2 emissions, albeit with little to no actual success so far. The other 6.5 billion live in developing countries doing the opposite: rapidly increasing their CO2 emissions by increasing their use of coal, the cheapest fuel available. They need to expand their economies to elevate their people from the short life expectancy and miserable living conditions caused by extreme poverty. The Paris Agreement has high aspirations, but has no requirement that the 6.5 billion – or indeed, even the 1.5 billion – must reduce their CO2 emissions.
What Type of Agreement is This?
The 2015 Paris Agreement is difficult to classify. It is not a treaty or a commercial contract, but, functionally, it is analogous to a multi-party contract signed by 195 countries. Each of these parties has provided a document setting out its “Nationally Determined Contribution” (NDC), which describes its current intention to take measures to reduce its future CO2 emissions.
The Agreement has no legal enforcement mechanism to make it binding. It is just the common hope that over the future decades each of the 195 parties will do its best to achieve what it said it would.
How the Agreement Works in Practice
This complex 195-party Agreement can be understood by first considering a simplified example: an ordinary two-party contract. Let’s say Bill promises to supply Joe with 100 widgets, in return for which Joe promises to pay Bill $100. If Bill fails to supply any widgets without a valid legal excuse he has breached the contract. Then Joe no longer has to pay anything. Now let’s bring this back to the Paris Agreement.
The Paris Agreement allows each nation to decide for itself what its future emissions will be. The two countries with the largest populations, China and India, and many other developing countries, didn’t offer to start to reduce their emissions until at least 2030, and actually indicated that they will be increasing their emissions during that period, without any specified tonnage limit.
Although the aspirational goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees C (later reduced to 1.5 degrees) is mentioned, there is no obligation, or commitment of the parties collectively, to reach that goal. Nevertheless, when all the countries had sent in their NDCs it became clear from their total emissions forecasts that the hoped for 2100 temperature reductions – the sole purpose of the Agreement – cannot be achieved. That’s because the majority of developing countries, led by China and India, will increase rather than decrease their emissions (on a tonnage basis). These increases overwhelm the much smaller total of the emissions reductions forecast by the developed countries. These NDCs were not made in isolation but collectively, each in the context of every other NDC. As the NDCs demonstrated a large net increase, the Agreement was, right at the beginning, obviously futile and effectively dead as a net reducer of global emissions.
The whole idea going into the Agreement was a sharing of the burdens of reducing CO2 emissions: “I’ll bear my part of the burden if you bear yours.” It was not supposed to be “I’ll bear my part of the burden while you can add your burden onto my back.” Yet that is how it has turned out. Because the parties, right from the beginning, intended to take opposite actions on emissions rather than similar actions there was no real meeting of the minds, hence no real agreement.
But that’s not the way it was and is still explained in the mainstream media. Most stories today still say that under the Paris Agreement the nations of the world promised to reduce their emissions to achieve the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C . Some government departments have also described it in that incorrect way. The result has been widespread public misunderstanding about the substantial emissions increase that was the actual result of the process. This misunderstanding has been exploited by politicians making the false claim that their climate change plans are mandatory under their Paris commitments.
The Disputes Among Nations
At the time the Agreement was signed the developing countries demanded, and the wealthier countries agreed, to provide at least $100 billion per year in financial support. That support has never reached that level, and has been called totally inadequate by the developing countries. At the November 2021 conference of the parties (COP 26) in Glasgow, the developing countries increased their demand from $100 billion per year to $1.3 trillion a year from 2026 to 2030, threatening that they would not reduce emissions unless the money was paid. There has been no agreement on whether, and by what amount, the $100 billion would be increased. Obviously, if the developed countries wouldn’t pay $100 billion in any year they will probably not pay $1.3 trillion each year.
Going further, at the November 2022 (COP 27) meeting in Egypt, the developing countries insisted that future meetings address the issue of “losses and damages”, based on the argument that the developed countries, with the highest historic emissions, should pay compensation or reparations to the developing countries for the current adverse weather events they were experiencing. These conferences thus have become more of a “pay me” hustle than a meaningful discussion about global emissions reductions.
Emissions Reduction Targets Not Even Close to Being Met
Since 2015 (when the Agreement was made) many, if not most of the 195 nation signatories to the Agreement, including Canada, have not been on track to meet the CO2 emission reduction targets proposed in their NDCs.
In 2005, the base year from which Canada’s reductions are to be measured, Canada emitted 741 million tonnes of CO2. In 2018, before the pandemic lockdowns, it emitted 740 million – virtually unchanged in 13 years. Yet our government has announced that by 2030, in just 7 years, our total emissions will be reduced by at least 40-45% below 2005 (and 2018 actual) levels. That is even more unrealistic than Canada’s previous unrealistic reduction target of 30% from the 2005 level by 2030.
Although the pandemic lockdowns resulted in greatly reduced energy use for a couple of years, the level of emissions in 2022 has recovered. There is no reason to believe that by 2030 Canada’s emissions will be reduced to 445-408 million tonnes when they have been in excess of 600 million every year since at least 1992.
Voluntary Reductions Regardless of the Agreement
Of course there is nothing in the Agreement that would prohibit any country from voluntarily reducing its emissions, regardless of the futility of the Agreement and the emissions increases that most other parties are actually providing. But it would be wrong for Canada to call such a voluntary reduction a binding commitment under the Paris Agreement. It would be a reduction made not because of the Paris Agreement, but regardless of it, that is, regardless of the lack of actual commitment to emissions reductions by most of the other parties, representing most of the emissions.
To explain Canada’s policy, let’s go back to our Bill and Joe example. It is as if Bill failed to deliver any widgets but Joe decided to pay him $100 anyway, because he had made a promise to do so. No country can “save the planet” all on its own by reducing its emissions, and no country committed to do so unconditionally, regardless of what all the others would do. Canada’s NDC was part of a global purpose, the viability or futility of which was contingent upon all the other signatories. That purpose has now been frustrated, and is clearly a past hope that is no longer even nearly achievable.
The Need to Change the Target Date
As the spread between the Paris goal and the actual achievement continues to increase, the West’s professed commitment to faster and faster emissions reductions has become, literally, incredible. We can already see this in Canada, as the forecast rate of emissions reduction keeps growing while actual emissions reductions aren’t happening, and thus, fall further and further behind. There has been much talk in past years about limits to growth, but in the Paris context we must become more realistic about limits to de-growth.
It’s well past time for Canada to admit that for all practical purposes the Paris Agreement’s days are over. Canada can stop pretending that it has made a binding commitment to save the planet by creating unaffordable prices for our home heating, transportation and food, as are being suffered in Europe, for no effect on climate change.
With so many Canadians teenagers (and some of their parents) terrified of the incineration of the planet in their lifetime unless the “climate crisis” is not magically fixed in 10 years, no Canadian government could adopt a policy of eliminating the net zero by 2050 goal. Canadians have not yet suffered enough from struggling to reach this unreachable target compared to, for example, Germany or the UK, to be ready for what I have called The Great U-Turn on the road to Net-Zero.
A more acceptable policy change would be to extend the net zero target date to 2100. That does not eliminate the target, it just makes it less extreme. China, the world’s largest emitter and growing, already emits 27 percent of global carbon dioxide and a third of the world’s greenhouse gases. Canada represents 1.6 percent. When China submitted its NDC to the Paris Agreement it proposed approaching net zero by 2060. Since then China has further extended this target without providing a specific date, giving as its reason that energy security (i.e., affordable energy) is an overriding priority for maintaining its living standards. Canada could follow China’s thus far successful example, rather that Germany’s disastrous example.
An important reason for the time extension to 2100 is the demand by developing nations, as described above, for reparations payments of $1.3 trillion per annum starting in 2026. That changed everything. As that payment is unreachable one can expect even more rapid emissions increases from countries demanding, but not receiving, those reparations.
For Canada to meet its emissions reduction targets by 2030 and 2050 the country would require unaffordably massive capital expenditures: to rebuild and expand all of the country’s electricity transmission and distribution grids by 2030; to pay for many thousands of EV charging stations everywhere; and to increase by a multiple of 2 or 3 our non-emitting electricity generation capacity through a combination of more wind turbines, solar panels and numerous modular nuclear generators. Even if we make the questionable assumption that the borrowing capacity for all this construction would be available, it would still take several decades to plan, obtain regulatory review and approval, and then to construct. This reality requires the current emissions target date to be extended to 2100.
Let’s at least stop pretending to do the impossible. Let’s set target dates that may at least be possible to reach. And then, as Canada isn’t going to reduce global warming all by itself, let’s do what is reasonable for our country given what all the other countries are actually doing.