from Lima, Peru, co-authored with John Kelly
In case this has escaped anyone’s attention, Canada does not enjoy a good reputation at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the multilateral platform for international climate agreements. It is, after all, the only country that has officially withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol, although it was one of the signatories back in 1997.
The country’s reputation at the climate talks was not always this bad. In fact, Canada used to have a fairly respectable standing as a powerful economy and a major player in the negotiations. But the Conservative government’s delegation has increasingly made itself known as one of the obstructionist parties at the climate talks. This is a sorry state of affairs on several accounts, but in particular because the UN climate negotiations are currently at an important juncture. An entirely new global climate agreement is being negotiated.
The new agreement currently being developed has a fundamentally different structure than the previous one. Most significantly, its architecture involves a combination of bottom-up and top-down features. The bottom-up feature is a process allowing countries to offer their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) to the global effort. The idea of countries making “contributions”, based on their special circumstances, as opposed to negotiated “commitments” was first put in place in Warsaw in November 2013. The rationale was to confer some degree of flexibility to facilitate greater participation. To ensure transparency and accountability, and to encourage a ratcheting up of ambition over time, the bottom-up process is paired with a rigourous top-down procedure of multilateral assessment and review.
Canada’s official position is that of being supportive of this new process. So, the question is: what exactly makes Canada unpopular? Or, more generally, how do parties known to be obstructionist in the UNFCCC process acquire their reputation? It is not by stating bluntly that they won’t play ball. Rather, their failure to cooperate transpires through the way in which they articulate their position. How a party not only articulates but justifies its vision, and the details of its contribution to the global effort, gives an understanding of how committed a country is. Take Canada’s typical statement of supporting the new process: “Canada is committed to the timeline that was agreed in Warsaw last year where parties indicated that they would communicate their INDCs in advance of COP 21, or by the first quarter of 2015 for those who are ready to so” (Canada’s Action on Climate Change). This is a recurrent statement, echoed by the Canadian delegation here at COP 20, both in negotiations as well as in briefings to stakeholders. But this is merely a reiteration of the existing multilateral process. When it comes to substance, the statements become evasive, and even elusive, often without much content. Another indication is when statements are garnished with the usual talking points, such as a clause that participation in the climate effort should not be at the expense of economic prosperity, or some variation on this theme. This is exactly when a country displays a non-vision. And this is exactly what could change under a new government.
The Conservatives have held office since 2006 and have won three consecutive federal elections. By the time of the next election in October 2015, Harper’s longevity as a Conservative PM will be second only to Sir John A MacDonald (but still behind Liberal Prime Ministers Chretien, Laurier, Trudeau and the record holder Mackenzie King). But while parties may win more than three consecutive elections, one has to go back to Laurier in 1908 to find a prime minister who won more than three consecutive victories, and Harper’s death-grip on the leadership of the Conservative party is not in any doubt.
By the fall of 2015 Harper could well be facing an economic downturn and a dissatisfied electorate due to the knock-on effect of crashing oil prices: a Canadian dollar (increasingly viewed as a petrocurrency in international markets) experiencing downward pressure; layoffs in the oilsands having a ripple-out effect across other sectors and shortfalls in government budgets due to decreased royalty revenue leading to further slashing of services in order to achieve the surplus Harper so badly needs to show voters that he is a good economic steward. The Liberals and New Democrats will undoubtedly make hay out of this confluence of events.
Given this, it is a good time to reflect on how the vision that Canada brings to the table could be reconceptualized by a new governing party.
But there is a catch. Unless a clear and fully developed vision – specially tailored to the new global agreement – is carefully worked out, any new cabinet will miss the opportunity to make a difference at the COP21 meeting in Paris, which will be taking place at the end of November, 2015. Most of the work is being done now in Lima. This means that a vision needs to be developed that is more than the usual platitudes and diplomatic facades. The last thing a new cabinet would want is to put the blame on their predecessors, as that is what makes a country look bad on the multilateral platform.
So, then, for both the Liberals and the New Democrats as contenders to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, the task should be to go beyond the usual election campaign platform. The task should be to develop seriously a fully packaged and elaborate climate portfolio for Paris.
This may be easier said than done, as most of the work is currently being done and Canada’s contribution so far has not gone much beyond the usual talking points. In other words, there is some serious catching up to do, and this cannot be done just through an election campaign platform. But most importantly, whatever a contender party prepares for a climate portfolio for a possible time in office should avoid outdated and predictable talk of a carbon tax that’s a sure way to create political deadlock. It needs to offer something to the world both on mitigation and adaptation. It needs to understand the latest phase of the climate negotiations, with all of its complexity. Any contending party, if unprepared for Paris and suddenly finding itself in office come fall 2015, would face an even greater embarrassment at COP 21. A new government needs to develop a vision that is fresh, dynamic, and forward-looking. But most of all, it needs to have substance, and a thorough articulation of the values of inclusiveness, diversity, fairness, and compassion, both within the domestic sphere and internationally.
The Paris conference is a chance to change the face of Canada at the UNFCCC, to show that we can be more than just a candidate for the infamous fossil award, but rather can make a genuine difference with real contributions that place us among the major players. There is a chance to find our way in Paris, but the timing of it is awkward.
John Kelly is a media finance consultant and founder of Youth Climate Report, a crowd sourced video journalism project for global youth presented at the UNFCCC in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).