Secretary General Ban Ki-moon briefs member states, in February 2016, on the high-level signing ceremony for the Paris Agreement (COP21) taking place on April 22, 2016. (UN Photo/Mark Garten)
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon briefs member states, in February 2016, on the high-level signing ceremony for the Paris Agreement (COP21) taking place on April 22, 2016. (UN Photo/Mark Garten)

As heads of state and ministers from around the world head to New York to ratify the Paris Climate Agreement, we sit down with CIGI Distinguished Fellow and President of the Board of Directors at the Pembina Institute David Runnalls and ask why signing this treaty matters and what we can expect to come from it.

CIGI: On Friday, April 22, nations will be able to officially sign the Paris Climate Agreement. Has the global significance of this agreement waned or increased since COP21 was held in Paris, late last year?

David Runnalls: The global significance of the Paris Climate Agreement has clearly increased. Since Paris, we have had several disturbing reports from scientists that some of the much feared “non linear” events in which processes, such as the melting of the West Antarctic ice shelf, may be progressing faster than anticipated. This kind of melting could lead to substantial increases in sea levels, further threatening not only small island states, but the coastal areas of many other locations. In short, what we are seeing is the window to reduce emissions closing even faster than had been anticipated.

CIGI: What were the greatest takeaways from COP21 and why should the world buy into the great sense of urgency that the Paris Climate Agreement created?

Runnalls: The biggest takeaway from this year's summit in Paris was its offering validation and clear demonstration that the UN process involving 196 countries can still provide the central forum for action on climate change. After (or even before) Copenhagen there had been much speculation that the action would shift to smaller fora, such as the G7 or G20 or a number of “climate clubs.” These smaller fora will still be critical to success, but as adjuncts to the UNFCCC process.

When it comes to the aura of urgency and action created within the summit in Paris, I would say that the world absolutely needs to buy into this sense of urgency because the clock is ticking very loudly. Each year the international community delays confronting the issues discussed at COP21, the cost of doing so, both environmentally and economically, grows exponentially. As the Stern Review and other economic studies have shown, the cost of inaction is rising all the time and could reach 5-20 percent of GDP eventually. And the effects of warming are becoming increasingly obvious, even to those in North America. Today, the Arctic ice cover is at its lowest level, both droughts and floods continue to ravage urban centers in much of the United States, and natural disasters are becoming more frequent and costly realities.

CIGI: Why does it matter that countries like Canada commit funds and support to help developing nations adjust to and mitigate the effects of climate change? Can this approach lead to increased will among and within developing nations to improve their environmental record?

Runnalls:  To speak quite candidly, it is well known that industrialized nations have contributed substantially to the causes of climate change as we see it and understand it. The vast majority of the CO2 in the atmosphere was generated by our industrial progress. Developing countries, particularly the small island and coastal states, will suffer the most from climate change and it is ironically these nations that have the  most diminished capacity to cope with these changes. The second point I wanted to make is that it is in our economic interest to invest in developing countries. For one, the richer developing countries in China are increasing their emissions much faster than the OECD countries and we need to demonstrate that it is in the world’s interest to slow down that growth. Lastly, climate change is a genuinely global problem in that a tone of CO2 emitted in Brazil or China has exactly the same impact on the world’s climate as a ton which is emitted in Toronto or Vancouver

CIGI: At the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit in 2009, presidents of small island states — like the Maldives — made impassioned speeches and appeals asking developed countries to help them deal with the fact that their countries were literally being swallowed up by the ocean due to climate change. What does the Paris Climate Agreement change for these states?

Runnalls: If Paris hastens the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, it will help the small island states more than most countries. However, the 1.5 C target promoted by Canada, among others, is a pipe dream. We are at 1 degree already and most scientists with whom I have spoken, feel that 2 C will be very difficult to achieve. I think that countries agreed to 1.5 out of a sense of guilt and of solidarity with the small island states, but it is likely to prove an empty gesture.

CIGI: Do you expect the international community to proactively come forward with more ambitious models of adaptation that deal directly with issues like climate refugees and climate security? What do you envision these models look like?

Runnalls: Paris certainly demonstrated the importance of adaptation to the majority of developing countries. The math of climate change is really quite simple. The largest economies represented in the G20 group of countries, emit more than 80 percent of the greenhouse gases. The remaining 176 states are relatively unimportant in terms of mitigation strategies. But they will be the most affected by global warming. Adaptation to climate change is the only strategy which makes sense to them and yet adaptation has been the weak sister of the negotiations.

Funding adaptation will remain a huge challenge. Much of the investment needed to reduce CO2 emissions from countries like China or Mexico or Brazil will need to come from private investment and we will need to use all of our wits to design a system which provides maximum incentives to those investors, while safeguarding national sovereignty and environmental sustainability. But it is way more difficult to imagine scenarios under which private investment can cover the bulk of the huge costs of adapting to climate change.

The threat of climate refugees might help to loosen the purse strings of richer countries for adaptation and the ingenuity of the private sector will turn up some profitable investments in adaptation, but funding for adaptation will remain a sticking point, as will funding for what developing countries are calling “loss and damage.” This is a relatively new issue which has received some discussion, but which was played down in the Paris declaration by countries such as the United States and Canada, worried about potential open ended costs as natural disasters and sea level rise grow in importance. But the history of the negotiations shows that issues which are put on the agenda tend to grow in importance, as they move from the margins to the mainstream

Finally, the 800-pound gorilla in the closet is what is known as geoengineering. Many advocates now maintain that altering the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth can be reduced enough to either slow down or even reverse the effects of warming. Techniques such as increasing the amount of aerosols in the atmosphere, to dropping large amounts of metal chaff in the air, similar to the aluminum which confused anti aircraft radar during WW2 have been suggested as means to affect the degree of global warming in the Arctic, for example. The international system has proven unwilling to address this issue head on, presumably on the grounds that it will just go away. But the danger is that it will look like a magic bullet to politicians looking for a pain free way of solving the problem. On a more optimistic note, looking forward there is a good deal of research being undertaken by both civil and military institutions throughout the world  on the importance of climate security as a new dimension within the human security narrative established within the United Nations. All this being said, it is important to note that there is no international regime or treaty governing any form of material involvement or intervention in a conflict or issue caused by climate leaving a lack of clarity about what the global effects of such action might be.

"Each year the international community delays confronting the issues discussed at COP21, the cost of doing so, both environmentally and economically, grows exponentially"
The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • David Runnalls is a distinguished fellow and was formerly acting director of the Environment and Energy Program at CIGI.