Change can take a long time, but when happens, it often occurs at once. When resistance finally gives way to action it can be difficult to remember why it took so long to get the ball rolling. That is the situation now unfolding at the international level around climate change. The end of 2014 saw an agreement between the world's top two carbon-polluting countries (China and the United States) to cap and reduce their emissions. Since then, state and provincial governments around the world — including Ontario, Quebec and California — have made increasingly powerful commitments to support the idea that change is possible.
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This week we saw yet another groundbreaking signal of cooperation between governments representing the world's largest economies and biggest carbon emitters aiming to limit the global increase in temperatures to the scientifically agreed upon level of 2°C needed to avoid the worst climatic consequences. On June 8, the G7 released a statement from its leaders' summit in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, committing member nations to complete "decarbonization" (a zero-emission energy system) before the end of the century. At a stroke, the conversation around carbon pollution has gone from a question of reduction percentages to one about total elimination. For governments, businesses and communities making investment decisions and planning for the future, it's now clear what direction we must take.
This agreement represents a turning point in climate policy for the G7's two climate stragglers: Canada and Japan. Even if, as the Canadian Press reports, these countries worked to weaken the agreement, it marks a significant change in the political discussion: nations won't be able to rely on fossil fuels to power their economies in the long term. The G7 statement on climate change outlined support for the creation of market mechanisms to cut carbon pollution (e.g., carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems), advocated for investment and governmental promotion of clean energy technologies and called for elimination of inefficient and damaging fossil fuel subsidies from member nations and others.
This change in messaging from some of the world's most influential nations reflects the growing global sentiment that climate change is a threat to the environment, national security and the quality of life of people everywhere. Increasingly, statements denying that climate change is real or arguing that controlling emissions is less important than economic growth are being viewed as ridiculous, irresponsible and dangerous. The conversation has shifted to one about investment in renewable energy solutions and reduced reliance on fossil fuels for transportation through improved public transit networks and electric vehicle use.
The global focus on climate change policy will continue throughout 2015. The July Summit of the Americas and the UN's meeting in New York in September are expected to drive continued commitment from world leaders in advance of the UN's Climate Conference (COP 21) in Paris in December, where it is hoped a binding international commitment on climate action will be reached. Until recently, it appeared Canada would take a backseat at these meetings, but following the G7 agreement there is hope our national leaders may finally be prepared to repair our environmental reputation.
While the message to decarbonize the global economy is clear, how that message will translate into policy in Canada is less so. The National Energy Board, as one example, should use this goal to guide decision-making by incorporating it into energy scenario planning. Canada needs to start now to shift policies — such as phasing out fossil fuels, ramping up support for renewable energy alternatives and investing in transit — if it is to take its commitment seriously.