After a summer marked by record temperatures around the globe, the world wrapped up beach season with a particularly distressing bit of climate news last month: atmospheric carbon levels have reached 400 ppm, a dreaded climate milestone from which there’s no going back.
Fortunately, this bummer of a development was almost immediately followed by announcements detailing the launch or finalization of a host of landmark climate deals around the globe over the last two weeks. Many of these agreements have been in negotiation for years and are notable for their fundamentally international scope, a necessary facet of effective climate legislation.
The question, of course, is whether these historic deals are too little too late, but in the absence of a crystal ball, here’s a rundown of the importance (and limitations) of these agreements and what to expect in the future.
CANADA’S FEDERAL CARBON TAX
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kicked off October in grand style by unveiling a minimum carbon price for the country which will go into effect in 2018. The idea is to begin charging a minimum of around $8 per ton of carbon pollution produced in a province. This minimum will raised to nearly $40 per ton by 2022 in an effort to meet Canada’s Paris accord pledge to cut its carbon emissions by 30 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2030.
For now, Canada accounts for about 2 percent of global carbon emissions, which amounts to about 700 million tons per year. Yet the contribution of each of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories to this total is wildly different. For example, Alberta and Saskatchewan—the provincial seats of Canada’s massive oil and gas industry—contribute far more greenhouse gasses in both raw and per capita terms than provinces such as British Columbia or Nova Scotia (Alberta’s oil and gas sector alone accounts for roughly one-seventh of Canada’s total emissions).
Due to the significantly different ways each of Canada’s provinces contributes to the federal carbon budget, they will also be responsible for figuring out the way they will meet the minimum carbon price. This is likely to take the form of either a provincial carbon tax, which directly taxes polluters in proportion to their individual emissions, or a cap-and-trade policy, which essentially creates carbon pollution “allowances” which can be bought and sold by actors who are in danger of surpassing their carbon allowance or not using all of it.
Each approach to limiting carbon pollution has its benefits and limitations, and which method a province adopted will likely depend on a host of localized contingencies. This is perhaps one of the main strengths of Trudeau’s policy: it imposes a binding federal carbon goal, but still allows the individual provinces to self-determine how they will uphold their end of the deal.
FIRST AVIATION-SPECIFIC CLIMATE AGREEMENT
Only a few days after Trudeau’s announcement, the International Civil Aviation Organization wrapped up a major meeting in Montreal, attended by some 2000 delegates representing 191 nations, by striking a deal to significantly limit the aviation industry’s contribution to global carbon emissions.
The agreement essentially boils down to a market-based approach which compels air lines to buy carbon credits. The thinking is that because this will be a significant new operational cost of airlines (costing about 2 percent of the industry’s annual revenue), it will spur airlines to update their fleets with more fuel efficient aircraft and explore other avenues of slashing their carbon output.
Considering that any mention of commercial aviation’s contribution to climate change was conspicuously absent from the Paris Climate Accord, this deal was sorely needed. The commercial aviation sector accounts for around 2 percent of global carbon emissions and while that may not sound like much, if the aviation sector were a country, it’d be the seventh largest polluter in the world (yet would only be home to 2 percent of the global population).
Typhoon Maysak. NASA
Unfortunately, aviation is also central to the way we live: it moves 8 million people around the globe daily and sees a flight taking off nearly every second. Amazingly, the FAA has forecasted that the number of people flying will nearly double in two decades and analysts like Paul Peeters, an associate professor of sustainable transport and tourism at Breda University, think the aviation sector could account for upwards of 10 percent of global emissions by the end of the century.
While this aviation deal is a step in the right direction in light of this projected growth, many analysts have criticized it for not going far enough. An analysis by the International Council on Clean Transportation found that the agreement as it stands will still fall far short of the aviation industry’s goal of carbon neutral growth by 2020.
RIP CNG: ICAO offsetting approach adopted today would cover ~3/4 of growth, ~1/4 of total international traffic from 2021 to 2035. The ICCT October 6, 2016
THE RATIFICATION OF THE PARIS ACCORD
On the same day the aviation agreement was reached, the European Parliament voted to ratify the Paris Climate Accord which meant that enough countries had ratified the agreement for the treaty to go into effect. A total of 197 countries were signatories to the Paris agreement, which essentially commits them to taking action to limit global temperature increase to well below 2C with a target increase of no more than 1.5C.
The official ratification of the treaty was greeted by leaders around the world as a huge success and important moment in the fight against climate change. Others were less certain about the efficacy of the agreement. Renowned climate scientist James Hansen called Obama’s plan to meet the US commitment “pure bullshit,” Paris accord protestors argued that if we want to meet these climate goals we need to have a WWII-scale mobilization now, and at the end of the day, the Paris Climate Accord essentially requires a fundamental restructuring of the global economy—an ambitious, if not delusional, goal.
But at least Canada’s on the right track to meet their Paris commitments, ey?
INTERNATIONAL AGREEMENT TO REDUCE HYDROFLUOROCARBONS
Just yesterday, representatives from 170 countries convened a meeting in Kigali, Rwanda which resulted in a legally binding agreement that would significantly limit the use of a specific greenhouse gas commonly found in appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners. Known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the prevalence of these gasses in the atmosphere is dwarfed by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, but what they lack in numbers they make up for in efficiency: HFCs have up to 1000-times the heat trapping potential of carbon dioxide.
With the use of air conditioning predicted to sky rocket by the end of the century, divestment from HFCs is needed now more than ever. The Kigali treaty is actually an amendment of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which banned ozone depleting chlorofluorocarbons. By extending this treaty to include HFC divestment, the Kigali signatories expect to remove the equivalent of 70 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—approximately twice annual global carbon emissions.
Ultimately, the wealthier signatories to the accord will be legally obligated to lead the charge against HFCs. Countries like the United States and the European Union will have to freeze the production and use of HFCs by 2018, while most of the world will have to stop using HFCs by 2024. A handful of the world’s hottest countries, such as India, Iran and Saudi Arabia, will have to stop using HFCs by 2028.
As far as slowing (to say nothing of reversing) climate change is concerned, we’ve still got a long way to go—it’s hard enough just convincing a significant contingent of US elected representatives that climate change is, in fact, a thing. These agreements are far from perfect and their efficacy is questionable, but they also represent the combined years of work done by thousands of people from around the globe who are committed to facilitating international solutions to a global problem. Now let’s hope they are able to stick to their own plan.