US-Canadian initiative brightens chances of success for Paris climate agreement and casts Justin Trudeau as Obama’s heir in terms of global climate action
March 14, 2016 — A joint US-Canadian declaration to help spur the transition to a low carbon economy passed the baton of global climate action from Barack Obama to Justin Trudeau on Thursday – and brightened prospects for the Paris agreement.
The initiative, which roams from Arctic protection to plugging methane emissions from oil wells and pipelines to decarbonization of the US and Canadian economies in the second half of this century, cements a new climate change partnership between neighbors after 15 years of pulling in opposite directions.
It signals once again that Obama intends to keep pushing hard on climate change in what was supposed to be the lame duck phase of his presidency.
And it improves the prospects of rallying countries to ratify the Paris climate agreement when it opens for signing on 22 April. The agreement needs to be signed by 55 countries responsible for 55% of global emissions to come into force.
“The United States and Canada are fully united in combating climate change,” Obama told a press conference at the White House on Thursday. “We are focusing on making sure the Paris agreement is fully implemented.”
Trudeau agreed, describing the Paris agreement as an action plan, and the US and Canadian leaders as key players in ensuring its success.
“That agreement is both a symbolic declaration of global cooperation on climate change as well a practical guide for growing our economies in a responsible and sustainable way,” he told the press conference. “We know that our international partners expect and, indeed, need leadership from us on this issue.”
The US and Canada were committed to signing the Paris agreement as soon as possible, Trudeau went on, a move which could help the United Nations reach its goal of ratifying the agreement in 2016, before Obama leaves the White House.
Thursday’s declaration marks the first time in 15 years that US and Canadian leaders have been in sync on climate change.
George Bush pulled the US out of the Kyoto climate accords when he came to the White House in 2001. Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, also withdrew from the agreement and pushed aggressively the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would have ramped up production from the carbon-heavy Alberta tar sands.
The two leaders began their relationship with some friction, with Obama cancelling the Keystone XL project last November, days after Trudeau took office. The Canadian leader did not protest, however.
But with the declaration of a shared vision on climate change, Trudeau is now cast as Obama’s heir – in terms of pressing for global actions.
Once Obama leaves the White House, it will fall to Trudeau to maintain continuity of a North American climate plan should a Democrat takes the White House, or to help to keep the flame alive in the event a Republican wins the election and follows through on threats to overturn Obama’s policies.
The concern for Obama’s long-term climate legacy was inherent in Thursday’s declaration, with the US and Canada pledging to deliver plans for decarbonising the post-2050 economy by the end of 2016.
The neighbours also pledged to lobby other G20 countries to produce their long-term climate plans – a move which could boost international confidence that the Paris agreement is indeed putting the global economy on a low-carbon trajectory.
That could help box in Obama’s successor – from either party – making it difficult to overturn the Paris agreement without the risk of antagonising an important ally and neighbour.
The joint commitment to reduce methane emissions by up to 45% from 2012 by 2025 will have the most immediate impact in helping the US and Canada to hit the emissions reductions targets they offered at Paris.
Emissions from methane – a far more powerful climate pollutant than carbon dioxide – rose rapidly with the boom in fracking.
Campaigners had been pressing Obama to cut methane from existing oil and gas wells – not just future projects, warning the US had no chance of hitting its Paris targets without such measures.
Gina McCarthy, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, agreed, telling a White House conference call with reporters: “We are going to have to tackle emissions from existing sources.”
The campaign group Earthworks, which has used infrared imaging to map methane leaks, said the new methane initiative was a significant step-up in Obama’s efforts to cap emissions from oil and gas wells. “With today’s announcement, President Obama starts to get serious,” the organisation said in a statement.
But it was on the global arena, where Obama played a critical role in nudging countries towards the Paris agreement, where the renewed US-Canadian partnership on climate change could have the most impact.
“On the big looming issues on the horizon, it is vital for us to work together because the more aligned we are, the more we can shape the international agenda to meet these challenges,” Obama said. “Climate change is such an example.”
He suggested that having Trudeau on side with the two leaders’ shared liberal values would help drive solutions to help poor countries deal with climate change.
“If we don’t agree, if we’re not aggressive, if we’re not far-sighted, if we don’t pool our resources around the research and development and clean energy agenda that’s required to solve this problem, then other countries won’t step up and it won’t get solved,” Obama said. “That’s a really important effort.”
The two leaders also pledged to secure a deal cutting emissions from commercial air planes through the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which is based in Montreal.
They committed to raise fuel economy standards for delivery trucks and buses, and to work to get more solar and wind power on the US and Canadian electrical grids.
On the Arctic, the two leaders pledged to take “science-based standards” into account for any future oil and gas drilling.
Noting the rapid disappearance of the sea ice cover, the US and Canada also committed to reduce the use of heavy fuel oil, set up low-impact shipping lanes, and work for sustainable commercial fishing.
Obama and Trudeau will have another chance to work on Arctic protections at a White House summit in the autumn and, as officials made clear in a conference call, he has no intention of reining back on climate activism any time soon.
The president will seek out climate partnerships with other countries in the remaining months, John Morton, an adviser, told reporters. “I can tell you we are working actively on ensuring that in final year of the administration we see continued progress bilaterally and multilaterally,” he told a conference call.