2017 in Environmental Politics

Until we solve environmental problems, every year is an interesting one for environmental politics. In 2017, there were small and large gains. The Minamata Convention on Mercury entered into force and held its first meeting. China launched a national cap and trade system for its power sector, renewing motivation to secure access to the market through trading “Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcome (ITMOs)” in the UN climate talks.

2017 saw a significant shift in the global agenda. Climate change used to dominate the attention of the public, scholars, and policy makers. Now, we’re talking about plastics and oceans. And, on all these issues, 2017 showed that when these major economies shudder, the world shakes, as China and the US took domestic action with international ramifications for climate change and waste.

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Jane Fonda & Parachute Activism

Jane Fonda is the latest celebrity to visit Canada’s crown jewel of greenhouse gas emissions. James Cameron, Neil Young, Leonardo DiCaprio, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Neve Campbell, Robert Redford, Darryl Hannah, and Bill Nye (among others) made similar journeys. Several viewed the facilities from the air and landed to visit First Nations peoples in Fort Chipewyan.

Celebrities touring the oil sands if the most visible form of what I call “parachute activism” – an activist from outside the community, even the country, arrives to protest a specific problem, or a symbol of a larger trend. Parachute activists lack local knowledge and context. As outsiders, they are largely ignorant of the nuances of political governance and certainly do not understand local narratives, cultures, and social institutions surrounding the target of their activism.

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Carbon prices victims of federal politics

Canada’ new carbon price is adept federal politics. It leaves the provinces with a series of tricky decisions. The policy is insufficient to meet our (meagre) pledge toward the Paris Agreement. It is also incremental, providing time the provinces and territories to get used to the idea and decide which instrument – tax or cap and trade – will work best for them. It dips Canada’s toes in chilly October waters long enough to accept the feeling.

What’s left to be seen is if Canadians will be angry with the federal government for creating the minimum price, or with the provinces for not giving them their money back. The carbon price takes effect in 2018. By that time, the provinces will have their policies in place, including whether or not the price will be revenue neutral. Provinces could follow BC’s lead and return the proceeds of a tax to their citizens.

Alternatively, Canadians could blame their governments for taxing them in the first place. Cap and trade applies to industries only. Companies buy and sell carbon credits, and in so doing set the price of carbon through the laws of supply and demand. Unlike a tax, the government does not see the revenue. There is nothing to return to citizens. While consumers may see some increased costs, something that is not guaranteed or the experience in other jurisdictions with cap and trade systems, they will not see a return from the carbon price in their wallets.

These decisions are only really difficult for politicians. Many companies are already on board, and indeed well ahead of Canada’s elected officials. Over 140 companies – including oil companies, airlines, banks and mining companies, joined the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition calling for a carbon price. Shell and other oil companies already have an internal ‘shadow’ price to anticipate and manage risk from future regulatory action. When an oil company says a carbon tax is a good idea, you know you’ve fallen behind.

All these discussions of prices are on one side of the ledger. Canadians will reap cost savings in the health system. We could save up to US$250 billion per year in health costs, more than offsetting the costs of mitigation, according to the WHO. We’ll have cleaner air, predictable precipitation and weather patterns, and fewer natural disasters. This is only good news to Canada’s economy and citizens.

A carbon price is one part of a climate policy. Renewable energy needs an even playing field, which could man increasing investment to leverage the sector’s already impressive job creation record. Or, it could mean reducing the $3.3 billion in fossil fuel subsidies Canada currently doles out. We’re already paying these companies to pollute. All this meagre carbon price does is get a little of our money back.

Clark's Carbon Pause Passes the Buck

Christie Clark’s climate plan buys time, not leadership. The government’s advisory panel recommended to increase the tax $10/tonne every year from 2018-2050, but the Premier hit pause. Clark passed the buck to the federal government, who would have to handle any fallout from a possibly unpopular tax decision.

In her comments on The House, Clark placed the blame on other province’s inaction. She stated that industries will move to other provinces without a carbon tax, where the cost of doing business is lower. In the climate world, this is known as carbon leakage. Emissions are not reduced, just moved elsewhere.

This underestimates the immobility of some large emitters. Some industries are place-based such as mines, oilsands facilities, or agriculture. Other industries have large set up costs. An incremental increase in a carbon tax would not be far less than the costs of dismantling in one place and setting up in another.

Instead, the plan relies on forests. Forests soak up carbon dioxide, but emit it when they are cut or burnt down. This province faces wildfires every year; the forest industry is still recovering from the pine beetle. It is not the time to rely on the forest sector to meet climate goals. It is creative carbon accounting, hoping to soak up the carbon spill into the air, rather than plug the source.

As Maclean’s surveyed the national situation: BC’s carbon tax is $30/tonne, a figure Alberta won’t approach until 2018. The cap and trade system used by Quebec, and soon Ontario, currently values carbon around $16/tonne (Maclean’s fails to mention that the price under a cap and trade system is set by the market and can change more quickly). All this to conclude, aptly, “The objective of a coherent national climate change policy should be a single, consistent price across the entire country.”

The assessment is correct. A single, consistent price provides regulatory certainty for industries and provinces. Whether your business is farming or cement, in BC or Newfoundland, you know the cost of doing business. Provincial leaders don’t need to worry about a carbon tax becoming an election issue. Canada’s climate policy is a patchwork quilt, mirroring the global picture of carbon markets.

The Canadian story of policy experimentation underlines the need for leadership. We are a (very) federal country; provinces control several (now) important portfolios. Equalization payment further support experimentation, providing provinces the funding to try new things. This equation of federalism plus equalization loomed in the background of the health care experiment in Saskatchewan. The last element is leadership. Without vision to reframe the debate about what government should do, and what goods we should (or in the climate case, should not) value, policy experiments never begin or grow.

Clark chose safe.  Now decision in federal hands, in cooperation with the provinces. Clark could have continued to show that economic growth can decouple from carbon emissions. That climate action is not only possible but popular.  Instead, she limped in with a soft plan before an election. This are not the things that leadership is made of. It will not secure us a consistent, cross-country carbon price.  The Prime Minister needs leaders, he is finding few.

Ratification Math of the Paris Agreement

Everyone needs to calm down, but just a little. Announcements that China and the US will ratify the Paris Agreement on Climate Change this year sparked speculation that the Agreement could enter into force by the end of 2016. The math shows that this is unlikely.

It is true that the Paris Agreement does not stipulate that the agreement will enter into force in 2020. The mandate was to “to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties, which is to be completed no later than 2015…and for it to come into effect and be implemented from 2020.” While 2020 was in the back of everyone’s minds, it was never put on paper, leaving the door open to early entry into force.

The math proceeds on two fronts. First, is a simple tally – 55 countries have to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Signing it on April 22 is not enough. Signing the Agreement is a promise that a country will ratify it. A country then has to take domestic action – such as passing legislation, or executive action – to formally agree to be bound by the treaty. Only ratification makes a country a party to the agreement. And we need 55 parties for the Agreement to take effect (i.e., enter into force).

So far, three countries took the domestic steps to ratify: Fiji, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. Ratification can take time, depending on a country’s domestic legal and political structure. Getting 52 more countries on board within a year is a tall task.

Others have announced their intent. Tuvalu announced it would ratify very soon. India announced its intent to ratify the Agreement on April 22 – the day of a big signing ceremony in New York. This would make India the first major emitter to ratify. With the US and China, another 48 countries need to be on board. This is a daunting number of countries to pass domestic legislation quickly – we’re talking most of the African Continent, or the EU and 20 other countries – but the second front is where the math gets more tricky.

Second, the Agreement needs 55% of global emissions represented by those who ratify. This is a safeguard, to ensure that the major emitters of the world participate before implementation of the Agreement can get underway. The Kyoto Protocol’s experience underlines how important the participation of major emitters is to the success of the agreement, and how difficult it is to bring them on board.

The UNFCCC gleaned the information on emissions for calculating the emissions math. The three Pacific states that already ratified do little to help the cause on the second front. They contribute essentially nothing to global emissions, but are uniquely vulnerable. The heavy hitters will decide their fate, and the fate of the Paris Agreement.

The US and China represent 17.98% and 20.09% of global emissions, respectively. It’s a big dent – 38.07% of global emissions. China could pass domestic legislation to ratify relatively quickly.

The US may be able to ratify – or, more accurately acede to the Agreement – this year, and probably must do so this year. The US became the first party to the Minamata Convention on Mercury through unusual means. The Obama Administration acceded without the Senate, arguing that the Convention required nothing new of the US, and therefore executive action was sufficient. With the bottom-up approach of the Paris Agreement, the same case is possible. President Obama could accede to the treaty (internationally, similar to ratifying, it has the same effect in terms of the math) without the Senate.

With the US and China adding their emissions shares to the ratification bank this year, just 11.93% of global emissions remain. So close, but so far.

One state cannot put us over that threshold alone. There are two scenarios, both seemingly unlikely to fully play out in time for entry into force this year:

  1. A coalition of the ‘lesser’ major emitters: India does ratify the Agreement this year, adding its 4.10% to the tally. This leaves 7.83% – so, so close! Russia (7.53%) could not repeat history and deposit the linchpin ratification – as it did for the Kyoto Protocol. A coalition is necessary, including some grouping of Japan (3.79%), Brazil (2.48%), Canada (1.95%), Mexico (1.70%), Indonesia (1.49%), or Iran (1.30%).


Under this scenario, there are four combinations: India, Russia and one other major emitter; India and at least three of the other major emitters; Russia and at least two of the other major emitters, excluding India; or at least three major emitters, excluding Russia and India.


  1. The EU ratifies: When the US and China deposit their instruments of ratification, the EU becomes the linchpin, representing 12.08% of global emissions. In March, the European Commission started the many steps necessary to get the 28 member states to ratify the agreement. The EU will need time, more time than the average (future) party to the Agreement.

The last wrinkle that the Paris Agreement will not enter into force this year is the 90-day rule. The Agreement enters into force 90 days after the last country informs the Secretariat that they ratified the agreement. By September, both frontlines – 55 countries and 55% of global emissions – would need breakthroughs. That’s 6 months. International relations, and the domestic politics of 55 countries does not move that quickly.

Yet politics is often more about the message than the math. The Paris Agreement is premised more than many other treaties on the messages it sends to the markets – that change is inevitable and investments will flow toward greener technologies. Rapid entry into force will make countries’ actions transparent, and write the message to the markets in permanent ink.

Sidelining Health in Climate Talks?

This is part of an ongoing yet sporadic series of posts on the social aspects of climate change. Previous posts considered gender and human rights.

The links between climate change and health are increasingly evident, and yet health is a marginal issue in the climate change negotiations. The relative neglect of health issues in the climate change negotiations and broader discussion is surprising. Health issues are tangible and strike a chord with the public – both characteristics that are useful for politicians and activists seeking progress.

Highlighting the health implications of climate change could be a game changer that will get people on board. A recent study confirmed the potential of framing climate change as a health issue to engage people who are otherwise disinterested in climate change. Yet, so far, few climate actors have capitalized on this opportunity.

The relative dearth of messaging does not mean that health and climate are separate issues. The Word Health Organization (WHO) estimates climate caused for over 140 000 deaths annually by the year 2004. Heatwaves influence mortality and morbidity for sensitive populations and for those sensitive to ground level ozone and asthma. More extreme weather events and natural disasters not only causes death and injury, but also stresses or destroys water and sanitation systems crucial to preventing disease.

There are a host of indirect links because climate change with exacerbate several environmental factors that bear on our health. Agricultural is a highly vulnerable sector, which may heighten malnutrition as food becomes more scarce or expensive. Various diseases, sensitive to climactic changes may spread as water and air temperatures and rainfall patterns shift. As the WHO stated in 2008, when the organization made climate change the focus of World Health Day, the health needs to be protected from climate change. These are snapshots of the potential health impacts, the IPCC devoted a chapter to health in the last two Assessment Reports (for a more digestable version: see the summary here).

These multiple connections between climate change and health led the Lancet Commission in 2009 to declare that climate change could be the biggest health effect of the 21st century.

Unsurprisingly, the focus thus far has been on helping create adaptation plans that will both adapt to climate change’s impacts and help protect health. As early as 2002, Health Canada considered the health-related vulnerabilities created by climate change in Canada’s north. The WHO has partnered with the UN Development Project to pilot various adaptation measures that will protect health in developing countries representing a range of vulnerabilities, from low-lying island states to water-stressed areas.

Yet, there may be instances where taking action on health can help protect the climate. Targeted actions can have co-benefits for health and climate change. For example, creating walkable and bike-friendly urban environments creates benefits for health and reduces GHG emissions. The connections between mitigation and health seem fewer and more tangential to the debate.

There may be fewer logical, and relatively direct, links between health and mitigation and this could be one reason why there the climate negotiations tend to neglect health. Mitigation is the traditional topic of the UN climate talks. Mitigation was the focus of the Kyoto Protocol and adaption only emerged as a key area in the negotiations in 2007, with the Bali Action Plan. Yet, adaptation still receives less funding and less attention in the talks – its tends to be the neglected, somewhat poorer cousin.

Among civil society, those we’d expect to carry the health banner, many health NGOs were rather late to the game, while several environmental NGOs seem reticent to take up health messaging. There were earlier whispers. In 2007, a group of NGOs working on environmental and development issues held a side event on climate change and health, highlighting effects on peri-urban and urban malaria, rabies, malaria, typhoid, and hyptertension in various developing countries. Health NGOs started attending in greater numbers since Copenhagen in 2009. They seem to be making up for lost time, organization to form the Global Climate and Health Alliance – a network of the various NGOs attempting to raise health issues in climate change negotiations.

They have considerable work to do to keep health messaging in the ears and eyes of the public at national and international levels. Doctors may not see discussing climate change as part of their jobs, and may worry about touching an issue that can be polarizing and controversial in some countries. Frontline workers focus on immediate priorities, and yet climate change impacts can often manifest as a long, slow burn.

While the health community may be the best messengers for climate change, they need allies. The US EPA has to keep health front and center in its climate change regulatory ambitions. In part, the EPA can regulate greenhouse gas emissions as pollutants because of the health effect associated with GHGs. The WHO is hosting a conference on climate change and health this month (for coverage, see IISD RS), which could build bridges to established climate actors.

It will take powerful voices willing to speak out on the health impacts of climate change to bring this issue in from the margins. Given the unique potential of health to activate and mobilize people for climate change action, those powerful allies need to arrive soon to build political will for a 2015 agreement.

Why Paris is the beginning, not the end of climate negotiations

The meeting in Paris, in 2015 is the deadline for states to agree to a new climate change agreement. Even if states make that deadline, 2015 will likely mark the beginning of a lengthy, and technical, negotiation process.

Just 18 months before the 2015 deadline, countries did make some progress. They started to discuss what the new agreement would look like in concrete terms, rather than the vague conversations dragging on the last two years. In particular, how and what countries would put forward in their “intended nationally-determined contributions” became more clear, and many expect an outcome on this in Lima at the end of 2014.

The contributions are a pledge, or a statement, of what every country will do to combat climate change. If they will be legally-binding is unclear. As the conversation is shaping up, it looks like they will state, in terms common to all countries, the mitigation policies that countries will take. They will also include an estimate of the amount of greenhouse gases these policies will reduce.

It is also possible that these contributions will go beyond mitigation, to include adaptation, finance, technology transfer and capacity building measures. Each country would state what they are willing to do on these issues as well. This a new idea and much needs to be worked out, but such concrete thinking it is a far cry from the long-winded, abstract statements of years past.

Yet, with just 18 months to go, it is not concrete enough to lead to a complete, comprehensive climate agreement in Paris.

At best, countries will be able to agree to a relatively short, quite political agreement that builds on existing institutions, while creating new, nationally-determined contributions and contain agreement on other aspects not included in those contributions. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, that set legally-binding targets for each country, countries will set their own targets. (more later on the insufficiency of this approach)

Like Kyoto, the agreement will probably set the political goals and leave the questions of how to achieve those goals to future rounds of negotiations. There simply isn’t time, in the slow machinery of international negotiations, to come up with much more than political goal setting that everyone can agree to.

This may not be a bad thing. It is difficult to get 195 countries pulling in the same direction. The technical details, or the rulebook, of the Kyoto Protocol was the Marrakesh Accords. These were difficult negotiations. The text grew to several hundred pages before countries narrowed the agreement, which spanned a wide range of issues, to under 200 pages. These negotiations effectively operationalized the Protocol.

Similarly, the rules of how to (possibly) review contributions, (hopefully) ratchet up their ambition, and (likely) have future commitment periods will need to be worked out with a degree of technical detail. Issues of monitoring, reporting and verifying countries’ efforts are always thorny and best left to technically-minded delegates (i.e. not ministers or heads of state).

The priority now is getting everyone on the same board, and resolving looming political issues, especially the legal form the new agreement will take and “differentiation” (how to determine who does what based on their capacities, and perhaps not based on older, developed/developing country divisions).

So settle in. There will be years of negotiations following the 2015 climate instrument. Let’s just hope they are completed by 2020 when the agreement enters into force. It’s governing for the long term, and taking a long time.

Should the 2015 Climate Instrument have an Opt-Out Clause?

As delegates debate the key elements of a new, post-Kyoto agreement, they look to other international environmental agreements for ideas. It is clear to most that the Kyoto Protocol failed to bring key actors on board (the US), and create flexibility for other actors to assume commitments (or contributions) as their economies grew (notably, China and India). Other failings of the top-down Protocol are evident: poor implementation of commitments, and little support for developing countries to pursue low-emissions growth strategies. The list goes on.

A new model is necessary, prompting the search for new ideas. At COP-19 in Warsaw, parties held a workshop to consider the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), the Montreal Protocol on CFCs, and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). For each, the presentations hit the high notes, considering each convention in general terms.

Some ideas are worth considering in detail. An opt-out clause is one such possibility, allowing parties to formally withdraw from some aspects of the agreement. This would occur as a written statement from the government, deposited with the Secretariat and made public.

An opt out clause would free the leaders, identify the laggards, and protect sectors vulnerable to the negative effects of market mechanisms.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) has an opt out clause. Parties regularly add new POPs to the Convention after a scientific review by the POPs Review Committee determines that a chemical is likely, as a result of long-range environmental transport, to lead to significant human and/or environmental effects. The opt out clause allows countries to withdraw from the elimination or management of a new chemical.

Allowing countries to opt out creates a “are you with us or not?” dynamic. Leaders are free to move ahead of the pack, creating competitive advantages for new, cleaner industries. They are identified as leaders to industry, civil society and other states. These leaders are not confined to the lowest-common denominator tendency of modern environmental agreement reached by consensus.

Those who opt out are subject to soft tools of persuasion and moral suasion. These tools may be called soft, but are likely effective. To date, few states have opted out of commitments from newly -listed chemicals under the Stockholm Convention. While the provision exists, states seem unwilling to use it. Instead, as seen with the debate over HBCD in the Stockholm Convention, parties want to negotiate rather than simply opt out.

Parties that opt out are clearly marked as laggards and unable to mask their non-compliance with complicated rules or loopholes. It is public information that a given state deliberately withdrew from an international agreement (or part of). They become targets for civil society activism and other states’ diplomatic efforts. The US effectively opted out when George W. Bush refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The infamy of this event points to the norm of states generally seeking to play by the agreed rules and the reluctance of states to brazenly opt out. When a state opts out, everyone knows who to blame.

Further, their industries lose out when other, cleaner industries become more competitive in a global market. As the leaders innovate and encourage new industries to grow, older industries lose market share. These states then face an uphill battle to catch up with the world moved on without them.

There may be positive effects from opting out, including protecting vulnerable sectors from the negative effects of climate market mechanisms. Developing countries are reluctant (for good reason) to keep agriculture out of mitigation mechanisms, yet some developed countries would like to include agriculture. One third of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector. If these were reduced, without market mechanisms, that would represent a global benefit. New Zealand would be free to reduce its emissions, while developing countries could protect their agricultural sectors from land grabs, and other negative effects potentially associated with mitigation from the agricultural sector.

A similar logic could apply to other land-based activities, such as reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (plus conservation, sustainable management and enhancement of forest carbon stocks) (REDD+). Brazil could reduce emissions from the forest sector, to count towards its national accounting of reductions, while other countries will unclear land tenure could opt out, and protect local communities.

The Paris 2015 Agreement, if there is one, looks so far to be a bottom-up compilation of national contributions toward global reductions. Stronger action may require bolder ideas.

Climate and Human Rights

Is climate change a social issue? This is the second post in a series to look at the possible links between a social issue and climate change.

The climate justice movement seems to be gaining momentum, but its efficacy and future remain uncertain. At the end of 2007, a growing movement of NGOs and other activists connected human rights issues to climate change. Started by a small band of NGOs committed to environmental and development (and other) issues, the climate justice movement gained steam in 2011 in Durban, South Africa. Now, Scotland seems poised to make climate justice the basis of its negotiation stance at the UN Framework of Climate Change (should Scotland become an independent country, and require an independent foreign policy on the issue, that is). Venezuela will host the preparatory meetings to COP20, and already dubbed the meetings the “social pre-COP.”

At the heart of climate justice, like the links between gender and climate, is the recognition that climate change exacerbates inequalities. Those least responsible for climate change stand on the front lines and face its impacts. The global poor are unable to buy their way to a safer climate or purchase the means of adaptation. These marginalized groups are also more likely to encounter loss and damage associated with sudden and slow onset climate change. To some climate advocates, these realities inherently tie climate change to the notion of justice.

They point out that climate impacts will infringe other, established human rights. We are currently in the Water for Life Decade, a period devoted to raising awareness of the human right to water and sanitation, which the UN General Assembly officially recognized in 2010. Climate change could impede the realization of other rights key to poverty alleviation, such as the right to development. A report for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR) also pointed to the vulnerability of the rights to food, health and adequate housing to climate change.

The UN OHCHR has adopted several resolutions stating that climate change poses a threat to the “effective enjoyment of human rights.” In 2008, María Francisca Ize-Charrin, Director, Research and Right to Development Division, UN OHCHR stated that “climate change violates the universal right of all peoples to live in a safe and sustainable environment.”

Legal human rights exist as consensus statements about the dignity of the human experience and respect for life. If states agree that there is a legal and moral imperative to address human rights, then, by extension, some argue there is a legal and moral imperative to address climate change.

Yet, it seems few argue a step further – that there is a human right to a safe and stable climate. Perhaps it is too politically sensitive. Recognition by states of a human right to a stable climate is a daunting and exhausting goal to achieve. If states approved this human right, then their inaction in the UNFCCC is even less defensible. Many could be reticent to open a new multilateral channel to reach agreement on climate change, even at a principled level. A human right to a safe climate could be politically infeasible at present.

A more moderate approach – as taken by NGOs and international organizations thus far – is to chalk the wheels on human rights that states have already recognized, and highlight the links between climate change and water, food, housing, and development.

What remains to be seen is if the justice lens can help break the impasse at the negotiations. States in the UNFCCC thus far have seemed rather unreceptive to moralistic language, and often prefer to work with those versed in the scientific and technical language of complex environmental issues. Arguing for climate justice could create a productive pressure on states to act and for societies to mobilize; it could also prove counterproductive if the bickering turns to moral issues rather than emission reductions.