Commentary | Seize the COPportunity

The Paris agreement is an important step, but Canada must take meaningful action

I may be a relentless optimist, but I think something amazing happened in Paris several weeks ago: 196 nations ratified a climate agreement that bids adieu to the era of fossil fuels. But my optimism is cautious: I recognize that the Paris agreement is not a solution in itself, but really just a springboard for action – a huge deposit of political capital for this major transition into a leaner, cleaner, and greener future. An unprecedented level of global cooperation was displayed in Paris; it now remains to keep our leaders accountable and translate the promises into action.

The Paris deal is not perfect: it falls short of any concrete mechanism to commit countries to specific emissions reductions. Despite this limitation, the Paris agreement for the first time sets a new goal to reach zero CO2 emissions in the second half of this century. In doing so, this international agreement sends a powerful signal to global energy markets and investors, underscoring the urgency of the need to transition our economies and our infrastructure away from fossil fuels. If McGill’s Board of Governors and its investment fund managers have been taking note, they should know by now that it’s a good idea to divest from fossil fuels before they become totally stranded assets.

In both developed and emerging economies, we can already see that the sense of urgency to transition away from fossil fuels has been heightened by the adoption of the Paris agreement. For example, the U.S. recently announced a moratorium on new leases for coal mines on federal land. In similar fashion, China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, has placed a moratorium on new coal mines and has announced that more than 1,000 coal mines will close in the coming year.

The Paris talks also give hope for Canada. Many climate justice advocates in Canada were pleased when the new Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna announced that Canada would support the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This was a key development in the Paris talks, as this more ambitious target provides a buffer below the 2 degree Celsius limit, beyond which a runaway greenhouse effect would likely have a catastrophic impact on Earth’s climate and ecosystems.

Further, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, McGill’s newly minted favourite son, promised on the campaign trail to reform the review process for pipelines to include considerations of climate impact and community concerns. While the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline review process began two weeks ago under the same process that was put in place by the Harper government, McKenna and Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr announced last week that the review would be extended, and an interim review process would be implemented instead to consider climate impact and to consult more extensively with Indigenous communities.

Keeping Trudeau to his word did not happen on its own: it was a consequence of public outrage at the fact that these proceedings were being conducted without the promised reforms. But the Liberal government is still a long way from McKenna’s promise to tackle climate change with determination. There is so far little sign that this government will reduce Canada’s dependence on tar sands development, which is entirely incompatible with any serious program to reduce carbon emissions on a national level. Despite the changes in the pipeline review process, the ultimate goal of moving tar sands from landlocked Alberta and Saskatchewan to export markets remains the same. This is not progressive leadership, and we should be able to expect more of Trudeau than him keeping his head buried in the (tar) sands like the last prime minister did.

It’s important that Canadians continue to put pressure on their government and hold it to its mandate to right the wrongs of the previous one. Canada must move past the era of fossil fuels and nurture the growth of a renewable energy economy. With crisis comes opportunity, and Trudeau must seize this opportunity to reclaim Canada’s place on the world stage as a leader on climate change. We demand it – because it’s 2016.

Victor Frankel is a Masters student in Biology and a member of Divest McGill. To contact him, email