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globe editorial

Nearly two decades ago, the world came together to sign the Kyoto Protocol, the first big international agreement to fight climate change. The 1997 treaty was ambitious, groundbreaking – and a total bust. Countries made bold promises, and then largely ignored them.

The United States pulled out of the treaty. So did Canada. The new polluters of the developing world simply bypassed it. Emissions reductions in places such as Europe were swamped by increases elsewhere, especially in China, which is now the world's biggest source of greenhouse gases. Kyoto was a binding treaty in theory, but in practice, it bound only those countries that wanted to be bound – which turned out to be almost nobody. Kyoto called attention to global warming, but it ended up doing almost nothing to address it. It failed.

In Paris, negotiators tried the opposite approach. Instead of a legally binding treaty, the world signed on to a voluntary non-treaty. The template, which doesn't force anyone to do anything, isn't ideal. But it stands a chance of accomplishing more than Kyoto. It couldn't achieve less.

The nations of the world aim to limit the increase in global temperatures to no more than two degrees Celsius. But it has been left to each country to decide how much, or how little, it is going to do to reach that aspirational goal. Each government will set its own carbon-reduction targets, and each will decide how it will (or won't) achieve them. Countries will attend a Paris follow-up conference every five years, to monitor progress and, it is hoped, set new rounds of ever more ambitious emissions-reduction targets. But if a country puts forward a weak goal, there will be no punishment. And if a country sets an ambitious target and then beats it, there will be no reward.

So what does it all add up to?

Can a non-binding agreement work? Maybe. Under the Paris framework, each country's carbon-reduction plans will be public, as will their progress – or lack thereof. The hope is that international peer pressure and domestic public opinion will encourage governments to act. In democratic societies, where voters ultimately decide, that's not an entirely delusional idea. Remember, Canada's new Liberal government was elected in part on promises to take enthusiastic action on climate change. Many voters were embarrassed by the previous Conservative government's approach, which looked like evasion, avoidance and foot-dragging. Public opinion in much of the developed world is genuinely worried about climate change.

What about China? This is where things get tricky. Since Kyoto, the global economic lineup has changed dramatically – as has the list of leading polluters. A generation ago, the U.S. was the world's biggest carbon emitter, producing roughly twice as much greenhouse gases as China. That position has been reversed: China now produces an estimated 26 per cent of world carbon output, compared with just 14 per cent for the U.S., according to estimates from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. China's carbon output equals the U.S., the European Union and Japan – combined.

It is not as if the Chinese are refusing to do anything about climate change. In the run-up to Paris, they promised to level off their increases in carbon emissions by 2030, and then to begin cutting. But growing Chinese carbon output for a generation, even as the Western hemisphere is scaling back, is not likely to fly with Western public opinion. And developed countries with high carbon taxes will not be eager to lose jobs and industry to developing countries with low carbon levies, or none. Paris didn't solve this problem; it only provided a framework to keep talking about it.

What's Canada's plan? The new Liberal government has so far been relying on the provinces to develop their own carbon plans. Last month, Alberta introduced an ambitious carbon levy. Ontario will soon unveil its considerably more complicated cap-and-trade system. And B.C. has long had the simplest and best plan, a revenue-neutral carbon tax, currently about 7 cents a litre on gasoline.

However, those steps aren't likely to meet even Canada's relatively modest carbon-reduction goals. Ottawa managed to generate a lot of public goodwill in Paris, without actually doing anything – or asking voters to accept unpleasant new taxes or costs. The coming months and years will not be so easy.

The danger is that the Liberal Party will bring an edifice complex to the task of carbon reduction. If it buys into a megaproject mentality, billions of dollars could be wasted. The B.C. carbon tax is an example of how to get pollution reduction right. The Ontario government's disastrously expensive meddling in the province's electricity system, ostensibly in the name of the environment but actually motivated by pure politics, is the cautionary tale. Voters beware.