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dave sawyer

Dave Sawyer is an economist with and is leading CMC Research Institute's Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project. He is a past vice-president with the International Institute for Sustainable Development. He tweets @enviroeconomics

There's a common observation among long-time UN climate negotiators that the better the venue as a tourist destination, the better the outcome. This appears to be the case in Paris: A combination of duck confit, astute multilateralism by the French and years of hard work to address the failings of Copenhagen all culminated in what is widely viewed as a solid foundation for global action on climate change.

In thinking about how the Paris Agreement will affect Canada, it is necessary to look at how global negotiations have transitioned from that dreary and dark Copenhagen round six years ago.

Copenhagen marked the start of a transition away from the top-down Kyoto era, where negotiators tried to set global rules to impose acute costs on a limited set of developed nations. In the end, this fiat-based rule making was clearly offside with national governments, especially the differentiation of costs between developed countries such as Canada and emerging economies in China and India. With the Paris Agreement, this differentiation is gone.

Since Copenhagen, the shift in the approach to negotiating has been to set a broad and flexible architecture to enable national target setting and policy implementation. With the Paris Agreement, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has now become the North Star to guide country-driven, bottom-up effort. Instead of having a global UN climate regulator, we will have more of a "name and shame" system to routinely call out global laggards and push for more ambitious targets.

While no legally binding greenhouse-gas (GHG) reduction targets are included in the Paris Agreement, it is its stated level of global ambition that will have repercussions in Canada.

By codifying in the agreement an aggregate emission-reduction pathway consistent with holding global temperature increases to below 2 degrees by mid-century, each country's effort will now be compared with a decarbonization plan to bring emissions down to less than two tonnes of emissions per capita (tpc). Canada therefore now has a de facto benchmark target from which to compare our current 20 tpc average nationally, and Alberta and Saskatchewan's 70 tpc.

The concern with the new global benchmark is that federal and provincial governments will once again commit to targets they do not keep, as they did in the Kyoto era. We have been stuck in a sort of groundhog day loop of pledge and then backslide as the costs of the targets are revealed. Indeed, recent deep decarbonization analysis consistent with making a transition in Canada's economy toward a 2-degree target by 2050 implies a level of policy effort that is offside with the carbon prices now seen in our leading provincial jurisdictions, such as British Columbia's $30-per-tonne carbon tax. temperature

But the risk cuts both way. To align Canada's economy on a transition path consistent with an aggregate global target of 2 degrees or less would require current carbon prices to be broadened to all provinces and rise by about $10 per tonne a year for the foreseeable future. It also would require more than just carbon pricing, but a whole suite of additional policy measures, including removing subsidies for fossil fuel production, much stronger vehicle and building regulations, and innovation to drive down abatement costs in heavy industry.

Even with a comprehensive and strong national carbon policy, a 2-degree scenario for Canada looks a lot like a Harry Potter scenario where you wave your magic wand and chant "expecto decarbonis."

But perhaps this is where the Paris Agreement offers Canada an enhanced tool box to help with long-term decarbonization. Three opportunities seem evident.

First, the agreement recognizes that domestic targets can be met through buying low-cost emission reduction credits from abroad. It has long been clear that Canada's GHG mitigation costs are high relative to those of our trading partners, raising competitiveness concerns that domestic climate policy will drive away business. Canada can now buy global reduction credits that could be applied to our GHG targets. The agreement also emphasizes financing carbon mitigation projects to advance sustainable development in the least developed countries.

Second is the agreement's focus on carbon sinks, such as forests, which absorb and offset carbon emissions. Our national mitigation obsession has been focused on the oil sands, but has critically ignored our vast forests and land area. The Paris Agreement reminds us that any transition towards a significantly decarbonized Canada will require us to better harvest our vast carbon-sink potential.

Third, the five-year pledge and review cycle will mean that governments will no longer be able to kick the can down the road on target setting and policy implementation. Instead there will be a review process starting in 2018 that will set the stage for routine performance reporting and target updating. This greater focus on transparency and progress toward pledges will amp up the pressure to deliver in the short term, effectively aligning election cycles with GHG performance. This five-year performance reporting cycle will also likely trigger routine performance audits by federal and provincial auditors.

The impact of the Paris Agreement is really a question of what Canada decides to implement. In some ways, therefore, the Paris Agreement has changed very little. Political will remains the strongest driver of decarbonization. Now, however, there is a brighter global spotlight on the choices our politicians make.

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