US President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Neito in front of Parliament Hill on Wednesday, June 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Neito in front of Parliament Hill on Wednesday, June 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The ratification of the Paris Agreement renewed the urgent discussion around combatting climate change through innovation and low-carbon solutions. As Canadian PM Justin Trudeau hosts his American and Mexican counter-parts at this year's Three Amigos Summit, tackling climate change continued to be top of mind. Earlier today, the leaders of Mexico, the US and Canada announced North America will strive to achieve 50 percent clean power generation by 2025, which will be accomplished through clean energy development and deployment, clean energy innovation and energy efficiency. To help us understand the significance of this collective target and how it fits with Paris Agreement commitments, we sit down with Damilola S. Olawuyi, CIGI’s Deputy Director of the International Law Research Program and an expert in international environmental law.

CIGI: The U.S. State Dept. and the PMO have both announced that this joint target will help to harmonize environmental policies. What is the significance of a collective climate action plan for North America?

Damilola S. Olawuyi: Canada, Mexico and the United States have historically forged close regional economic and environmental cooperation on issues such as trade, transportation, acid rain, and mercury pollution over the past three decades.  This environmental cooperation has allowed decision-makers and the scientific community in the three countries to develop holistic policies that have positively shaped and influenced environmental protection. A North American-wide partnership on climate change, clean energy and environment is a veritable opportunity for the three countries to reinforce and build on past collaboration and achieved results. It is also a positive signal and strong message by governments of the three countries that climate change and clean energy are serious issues of the day.

Although climate change is often framed as a global issue, climate change implications and solutions must be firmly understood in regional and continental terms as well to achieve meaningful progress. For example, the European Union has for many years coordinated and spearheaded regional climate change responses. A collective climate action plan will provide a coherent platform for structured dialogue on how best to address the economic, environmental, social and human rights impacts of climate change in the North American region. It could also facilitate coordination and strategic exchange of experiences and best practices on climate change by the three countries.  For example, leaders could discuss the likely impacts of national or provincial climate measures, hydroelectric projects, trans border trade, energy security, agriculture, water security,  food security and the list goes on.

A collective climate action could increase political awareness on these issues, strengthen institutional capacity to coherently address them, and support knowledge sharing, such that climate change plans and policies can produce complementary results at national, sub-regional and regional levels. In addition, this plan could also help Canada, United States and Mexico attain the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), particularly Goal 13, which calls on countries to integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies and planning. A robust integration and interconnection of energy policies and infrastructure across Canada, United States and Mexico is fundamental to the respective and shared attainment on the UN SDGs.

CIGI: In moving toward meeting the emissions reductions targets set at COP21, where will the impetus to meet these newly committed targets come from?

Olawuyi: The impetus to deliver the ambitious targets and goals of the Paris Agreement must come from all levels of government: state, provincial, national, sub-regional and regional. The Province of Ontario, for example, has demonstrated leadership and commitment to the Paris goals by releasing five-year Climate Change Action Plan, aiming to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and transition to a low-carbon economy.  Ontario’s commendable ambition and swift response to the Paris Agreement should provide inspiration and lessons for other provinces and, importantly, the federal government of Canada to articulate a coherent national plan on how Canada’s Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement can be practically realized. As the Leaders’ Statement rightly recognizes, sub-national governments must sharelessons learned about the design of effective carbon pricing systems and supportive policies and measures with national authorities.

The new climate and energy partnership also provides further impetus and opportunities for business enterprises and corporations in the three countries to be part of the solution. Apart from signaling the strategic commitment by government of the three countries to promote a low-carbon economy, the new partnership provides considerable business opportunities for companies willing to invest in the development of low carbon technologies and renewable energy innovation. For example, the partnership could provide better opportunities for technology companies and innovators in Canada to export their efficient, low-carbon, cost-effective energy systems and technology to Mexico and the United States. This could create a virtuous circle of trilateral technology exchange that could promote the attainment of the Paris Agreement’s emission reduction, technology transfer, transparency and carbon markets-related provisions.

CIGI: The 2025 clean power commitment presents a trade opportunity for Canada to sell energy to the U.S. and Mexico. From a legal perspective, what work lies ahead to integrate the electricity grid between the three countries?

Olawuyi: To translate the climate action partnership from aspiration to realization, there is need for the three countries to adopt trilateral legal frameworks that remove regulatory and legal barriers to market entry for utilities and operators. The action plan must be backed by a legal regime that establishes an integrated internal electricity market for the three countries. For example, through considerable investment in distribution networks, smart grids and smart meters, coupled with the removal of legal barriers that stifle market access, European distribution system operators have been able to integrate electricity grid across Europe. The starting point is to remove legal obstacles to the sale of electricity on equal terms, and without discrimination or disadvantages, across Canada, Mexico and the United States. An effective legal framework would establish nondiscriminatory cross border access for new providers or suppliers of electricity from different energy sources. National regulatory authorities must also remove planning restrictions, grid access and insurance requirements have historically made cross-border interconnections costly and time-consuming to pursue. A well-functioning legal regime should provide power producers appropriate incentives to invest in new power generation infrastructure and smart distribution systems.

CIGI: A senior advisor of US President Obama noted that we are finally at the point where the three countries are aligned in terms of policy goal and focus on clean energy. How would a Trump presidency impact the focus on clean energy policy between the US, Canada and Mexico?

Olawuyi: The implementation of a sustainable climate change policy, and the fostering of a harmonized energy plan across Canada, United States and Mexico is of vital importance to the development of the three countries. The focus of the next President of the United States, whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, must therefore be to reinforce and build on existing alignment and partnership on energy and climate. Divisive rhetoric or actions from a US President could thwart regional integration of climate and energy policies. While having an environmentalist President has never been a sure, or the only, route to making environmental progress, having a climate change denier as President could significantly derail current international and regional focus on climate change and clean energy. The next US President must demonstrate commitment to respect and implement extant trilateral commitment to promote a competitive, low-carbon and sustainable North American energy future. I am confident that the American people can make an informed choice that will deepen, rather than derail, this new commitment to a low-carbon and sustainable future for the North American region.

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.