Taking Stock of Canada’s International Commitments to Reduce GHG Emissions

By Clare MacDonald

Introduction

This explainer will delve into the international organizations involved in measuring and reporting worldwide commitments to slowing climate change. It will also examine the Government of Canada’s biggest climate-related commitments over the years and explain how Canada tracks and articulates its climate emissions and commitments on the global scale. Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) has a publicly available list of Canada’s engagement in international environmental agreements, which shows how many actors Canada has engaged with on climate issues. This explainer will focus on Canada’s role in the most prominent venue for international climate policy, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Canada’s International Commitments under the UNFCCC

Canada was one of the first signatories to the Montreal Protocol in 1987, an treaty that was intended to reduce the use of substances that considerably affect the ozone layer. This landmark treaty has been largely successful in stabilizing the concentration of chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere.

Canada was also in among the first nations to join the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, the cornerstone of international coordination against climate change. The agreement came into force in 1994 and now has 194 member countries. Under the Convention, all parties (i.e. signatories) to the Convention are represented at an annual Conference of Parties (COP) at the end of each year, which serves as a venue for all the UNFCCC’s major decision-making. The locations of the COPs have often lent their names to major international agreements. The Kyoto Protocol, Copenhagen Accord, and Paris Agreement were all the result of COPs and will be highlighted below as they constitute major shifts in Canadian and international commitments.

The Kyoto Protocol was a landmark agreement to which Canada signed on in December 1997 at COP 3. Ratified by Canada in 2002, the Kyoto Protocol put the onus for climate change on developed nations due to their longer history of ozone-depleting industrial activity. Anticipating a failure to meet their target of a 6 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (based on 1990 levels), Canada officially withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011.

At the 15th COP in 2009 in Denmark, Canada agreed to the Copenhagen Accord, which aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent (based on 2005 levels) by 2020. The 21st COP resulted in the Paris Agreement, which required countries to articulate their long-term strategy to curb emissions and introduced the requirement for Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The Paris Agreement was ratified by Canada in October 2016. While the outcomes of Canada’s commitments from COP15 and COP21 remain unclear for now, in 2014 ECCC has suggested that Canada will not meet its commitments under the Copenhagen Accord.

The IPCC and its Guidelines

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is another key player when it comes to international climate-change policy. Their Special Report made media waves in October 2018. The IPCC is an international coordinator of research about climate change rather than a governance body like the UNFCCC. Canada plays a role in the IPCC by contributing to its research through the federal government, universities, and private sectors. Canadian contributions to the IPCC are coordinated by IPCC Focal Point for Canada, a unit within ECCC.

Beginning in the 1990s, the IPCC began developing a series of guidelines for estimating greenhouse gas emissions and removals conducted by national governments (often called “inventories”). The guidelines were intended to be used in the calculation of any legally-binding targets for individual countries after the Kyoto Protocol. The IPCC guidelines have been updated several times since to reflect the evolution of scientific understanding, most notably in 2006. The IPCC’s methods are aimed at five ‘sectors’: energy; industrial processes and product use; agriculture; land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF); and waste. The IPCC guidelines are endorsed by the UNFCCC for use by countries to track and report their net emissions. Standardized methodologies for estimating greenhouse gas inventories are extremely important to ensure that any commitments made internationally can be accurately tracked and compared between countries.

Canada’s Reporting Duties

As the UNFCCC evolves and as new agreements are made under it, so too have the reporting requirements of parties to the convention evolved. Since 2004, every country has been required to complete a National Inventory Report (NIR) and Common Reporting Format (CRF) table on a yearly basis. The Canadian government, through ECCC, is responsible for a number of reports for the UNFCCC. Canada’s National Inventory Reports are archived here; CRF tables are within the reports. These deliverables are intended to provide a full account of a nation’s greenhouse emissions and removals in a standardized way, using 2006 IPCC guidelines.

The Paris Agreement mandated that all parties to the Convention prepare a long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategy and a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to be published to a public registry. Each country is to prepare an NDC by 2020 and every 5 years thereafter to reflect “the country’s ambition for reducing emissions, taking into account its domestic circumstances and capabilities.” The interim (draft) NDCs for many countries are currently available in an (old school) online registry. Canada’s most updated INDC outlines Canada’s current UNFCCC commitments and how they will be achieved. Canada’s long-term strategy examines how Canada could reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent in 2050 (based on 2005 levels), without making specific long-term commitments.

Besides many other responsibilities under the UNFCCC, Canada is also part of worldwide organizations like the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the Global Methane Initiative where it advances climate change in smaller venues and on specific issues.

Challenges to Canada’s achievement of international commitments

Canada has at times been an international leader in the fight against climate change, but its environmental reputation has been blemished by its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011 and its likely failure to meet its goals under the Copenhagen Accord. While Canada continues to make bold commitments on the world stage, federalism and economic dependence on oil and gas present big challenges. The decentralized nature of the federal government’s relationship with the provinces and territories means that jurisdiction over energy and climate policy often lies at the regional level.  Recent resistance by the Saskatchewan and Ontario governments over Canada’s carbon pricing plan illustrate the regional challenges facing the federal government. Many believe that economic dependence on oil and gas in Canada’s Western provinces make our international commitments unachievable, which has proven to be the case (the withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol). In its UNFCCC reports, Canada’s plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions tends to be coupled with promises of a strong economy. In order for both environmental and economic promises to be fulfilled, Canadian society must be willing to shift the status quo. 

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