With Freeland we asked if Canada was now going to withdraw our signature from the Paris Agreement. The sentiment was crafted to be possible to express in one photograph, but the issues are nonetheless closely related. The Paris Agreement’s central operative clause is an aspiration to: “Hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”.
I say “aspiration” because the agreement says little about implementation. This is a treaty negotiated with the participation of every country on Earth and there are many who would have objected to explaining what those temperature targets mean in terms of greenhouse gasses, fossil fuels, and public policy. There are some who hope a magical technology will let us burn all these fossil fuels without dangerously warming the planet, but there are good reasons to question the efficacy and ethics of both geoengineering and carbon sequestration. As for a marvellous new energy technology so much better than both climate-safe options like nuclear fission and renewables and fossil fuel options, I don’t see that happening during the critical window of only a couple of decades where we will decide if the Paris targets can ever be attained or not.
The Paris Agreement is ambitious in its ultimate objective but frighteningly imprecise about the means of getting there. That means that for the decades ahead the locus of diplomacy will have to be convincing countries facing major problems of poverty and regional insecurity to commit fully to decarbonization as well. To achieve that, countries which have historically used the largest amounts of fossil fuel and where emissions per person continue to be the highest will need to be seen to be doing their part, cheerfully and in a spirit of global cooperation.
The clearest signals we’re sending are the big energy choices we make. A new pipeline says that the bitumen sands can continue to grow and that we expect fossil fuel use to remain as high as it is now for decades to come. It says that we’re not serious about Paris or avoiding dangerous climate change.
Canadian politicians want an easy answer that can satisfy Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the oil industry while also showing that sort of global leadership. That isn’t possible. At some point all of Canada needs to have a hard conversation about shutting down the oil sands industry, and that process needs to begin now by definitively stopping expansion.
To some degree the fights over Keystone XL, the Northern Gateway pipeline, and Energy East have already sent important signals to industry. If you want a big fossil fuel project now, it is going to be a fight. That message is actually reinforced by the Trudeau government’s decision to buy the Trans Mountain project. They think they’re telling industry that the federal government will step in to get things done, but they’re also suggesting that projects like this aren’t viable without exceptional government support. Even if Trudeau welds the last section of pipe personally, and the government’s dream of recovering taxpayer funds by selling the pipeline to the private sector is fulfilled, there will be big questions about how much sense any further bitumen sands expansion will make.