Expert Perspectives

Unpacking from Paris

Dan McDougall was responsible for Canada’s Nationally Determined Contribution, its Long-term Low-emissions Development Strategy, and its Sustainable Development Strategy.

Article 4, Paragraph 19, of the Paris Agreement reads as follows: “All Parties should strive to formulate and communicate long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies, mindful of Article 2 taking into account their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.”

I would like to comment on a couple of the phrases in this sentence, beginning with “should strive to formulate and communicate.”

Even in the context of the Paris Agreement, which has received some criticism for its “soft, non-binding” targets and commitments, the language used here is perhaps not overly persuasive; indeed, it might be called passive. So the question is, with all the myriad of other things to do and solve and negotiate and implement, why should countries take on this new challenge? Why should they strive?

There are a few good reasons, I believe.

The most important one is that it will be in a country’s self-interest to do so. Like so much of the Paris Agreement, this provision seeks to encourage enlightened self-interest. Nationally determined contributions (NDCs) are not imposed from above; they are built from the ground up by countries themselves—with support and encouragement from the international community and its structures and organizations—to have countries do as much as they are capable of doing in their own self-interest. The same is true of long-term strategies. Preparing a long-term strategy will be in a country’s self-interest. Having a vision and a plan can condition both the near- and long-term development trajectory of a country. It will make the next generation NDC more strategic and coherent; it will support implementation of the existing and next generation NDC; and it will facilitate access to financing.

The second reason is that, while the language of the Agreement may be soft, the reality is hard. Not having a long-term plan is really not a viable option. The reality is that a long-term plan will be necessary given the nature of what meeting the Paris Agreement challenge will entail.

Why? Because, the underlying demand of the Paris Agreement is that each of us, each and every Party to the Agreement, is going to require a transformed economy and a transformed energy system. There is no alternative if we are to meet the temperature goals of the Agreement. Developed and emerging economies need to consider how to restructure existing infrastructure, be it public or private. Emerging and developing economies need to consider how to avoid the high-emissions options as countries provide ways to access energy and to lift people out of poverty.

Transforming an economy or an energy system, or structuring an economy or energy system, perhaps from scratch, can’t be done without serious planning across government ministries, across all levels of government, with citizens, with investors, and with all who have an interest, including beyond national borders. It will require engaging with international agencies and with neighbouring countries in a region. It will require a concerted effort and a real plan. The long-term low emissions strategy can advance that effort.

The third reason to accept the challenge to “strive to formulate” a long-term strategy has to do with urgency. And there is considerable urgency. Much has been written on the urgency of addressing climate change. The other aspect of urgency that is sometimes overlooked, however, is the amount of time required to bring to fruition large infrastructure projects, particularly energy projects. The average small hydro-energy project, for example, takes about seven years to complete; large-scale hydro-energy projects take over a decade; nuclear projects, often over a decade. And that is when things go well. In Canada today, in 2018, work is under way to complete two large-sized hydro-electric development projects, one on the East Coast, one on the West Coast. The western project was proposed in 1980; the eastern project completed its initial environmental assessment in 1980. In almost 40 years, not an electron of energy has flowed. These may be exceptional cases, but they are instructive nonetheless.

In 2018, if you are considering what your energy system will look like in 2050, barely more than 30 years hence, you had best start planning. Planning is a precondition of doing. And doing will take quite some time. Hence, there is planning urgency.

The fourth reason is the need to build a practical understanding of what a low carbon economy will require. For example, one very useful aspect of Canada’s Mid-century Strategy was that it looked at (and modeled) how much clean electricity would we need to reach an 80 percent level of emissions reduction (compared to 2005 levels) by 2050. It turns out we would need to double, at least, our electricity output. In other words, we may need at least another half dozen of those facilities that take decades to build, from concept to completion. Or we might need to restructure the way the national energy grid works. Or both. Or we might need to construct new nuclear facilities, which also would require a long time scale. Long-term strategies get those conversations started. They indicate very concretely the extent of change and transformation that will be required.

A fifth reason is to demonstrate the art of the possible. The magnitude and scale of change can be daunting, to the point of stifling rather than provoking action. Building scenarios that show that a low emissions economy is practical and doable can overcome that obstacle.

So, there are many reasons why preparing long-term low emissions development scenarios makes sense and is in a country’s best interests. If noble aspirations to save the planet prove insufficient to prompt the necessary action, enlightened self-interest may do the trick.

As an aside: Parties/negotiators at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change may need to be look at enhancements to Paragraph 4(19). The subsidiary bodies should look at how they can help Parties develop their strategies. Parties may need more institutional support and capacity-building, including technical aspects such as emissions and social and economic modeling. Without a long-term strategy, the near-term time frame of NDCs may render them not fit-for-task.

In the meantime, the international community is rallying to support the planning process. This is a critical endeavor. Low carbon economies will not emerge mid-century without the necessary planning. We need to get on with it. Urgently.

The second phrase in Paragraph 19 that I would like to comment on is “mindful of Article 2.”

This modest, unassuming wording is nonetheless critical, as it goes to the very core of the Paris Agreement, from two perspectives.

In the first instance, Article 2 establishes the temperature goals of the Agreement: ”Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”

In addition, as the introductory paragraph of Article 2 states, the effort to stabilize the climate system is to be undertaken “in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.”

Thus, striving (that word again) to not exceed 1.5°C becomes the raison d’être of the long-term strategies, in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication. Linking these is critical.

At the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, we have embarked on a process to work with countries to advance these two objectives simultaneously. Our “Multiple Benefits Pathway Approach” has us work with countries to identify mitigation approaches to tackle short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) and air pollution, while pursuing CO2 mitigation actions, in order to meet the temperature targets and realize broader health and environmental benefits. In effect, the Pathway Approach seeks to unite the 2050 agenda of the Paris Agreement with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal Agenda. We believe that this is a good way to prompt and stimulate additional ambition and action.

Among its key features, our Multiple Benefits Pathway Approach includes the following:

  • We use an integrated model of climate forcers (CO2 and SLCPs) and other atmospheric pollutants. This drives the climate and air pollution communities to work together on solutions that can only be achieved collectively.
  • We model the social, economic, and health benefits from policy and investment actions. This very clearly demonstrates to national and local decision-makers the immediate and positive local implications of action. Understanding and quantifying immediate and local benefits can promote greater ambition than just focusing on global benefits and ones for future generations.
  • We take existing nationally determined contributions as a baseline, with policy and investment actions to achieve the NDCs and additional scenarios of greater ambition to be incorporated into updated NDCs or next-generation NDCs and low emissions strategies.
  • We model the temperature impacts of policy and investment, not just emissions levels. This allows decision-makers to see what their country is contributing to the global problem and how much they can contribute to the global solution, from a temperature perspective that is more evocative than metric tons of emissions (or their theoretical equivalents).

A key question in all of our work is what drives ambitious action—certainly the objective of the Climate Convention should do so; that is, preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. But it is equally clear that has not yet been sufficient. The inclusion of local actions with demonstrated local improvements in air quality, health, quality of life, and economic productivity improvements may help spur action.

By identifying and targeting mitigation actions that tackle air pollution (with their attendant local societal, family, and individual health impacts) and drive near-term climate warming (with its global, regional, and local impacts), the Multiple Benefits Pathway Approach can be an ambition-enhancing approach for Paragraph 19 implementation.

As the world strives to meet the Paris Agreement temperature goals, each fraction of a degree is critical. Scaled-up global action on short-lived climate pollutants offers the potential to avoid 0.6 degrees of warming by 2050. To borrow the word of some, that’s huge. Doing so could also avoid over half of the predicted warming in the Arctic in that time frame. That’s massive. And it could lower the chance of triggering catastrophic feedback loops from melting methane-releasing permafrost, to heat-absorbing ice-free Arctic Ocean waters.

Conversely, not seriously and specifically addressing SLCP mitigation in mid-century strategies would be at least a missed opportunity. Each fraction of a degree matters. And because of the immediacy of the atmospheric response, scaled-up SLCP mitigation is needed to achieve the temperature response needed by 2050.

All the interpretations and findings set forth in this expert perspective are those of the author alone.