Leading up to COP26: U.S. and China make important pledges; activists demand fossil-free future

As the IPCC Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow approaches on Oct. 31 to Nov. 12, international leaders are grabbing microphones, activists are lobbying, and important new reports are being released .  A chronology of some important highlights:  

On September 13, an Open Letter was delivered to the UN General Assembly, calling for a Fossil Fuel Non-proliferation Treaty. Signed by over 2000 academics and scientists from 81 countries, the Letter calls  for international cooperation on climate change and an end to new expansion of fossil fuel production in line with the best available science, and a phase-out of existing fossil fuel production of fossil fuels “in a manner that is fair and equitable”. 

On September 16, World Resources Institute and Climate Analytics released  Closing the gap: The impact of G20 climate commitments on limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C, which offers hope. The report argues that if G20 countries set ambitious, 1.5°C-aligned emission reduction targets for 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050, then global temperature rise at the end of the century could be limited to 1.7°C.  This hinges on the fact that G20 countries account for 75% of global GHG emissions.

A new, related report from the UNFCC is far less hopeful – in fact, Greta Thunberg , as quoted in Common Dreams, states that “this is what betrayal looks like”. The Synthesis Report of Nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement compiled the emissions reduction pledges of 191 countries as of July 31 2021, and evaluated and analyzed their targets and plans .  The bottom line: “The total global GHG emission level in 2030, taking into account implementation of all the latest NDCs, is expected to be 16.3 per cent above the 2010 level.”  Such a course would lead to a “catastrophic” increase in average temperatures by 2.7 degrees C. by the end of the century. While Argentina, Canada, the European Union, United Kingdom and United States strengthened their 2030 emission reduction targets (compared to the NDCs they submitted five years ago),  China, India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have yet to submit their updated NDCs. The latter countries are responsible for 33% of global greenhouse gases.

On September 18, the EU and U.S. launched a Global Methane Pledge, promising to reduce methane emissions by 30% from 2020 levels by 2030 – which is a step in the right direction, but fails to meet the target of 45% reduction in this decade , as called for by the UNEP in its Global Methane Assessment Report released in May 2021.  However, according to Inside Climate News, “Global Methane Pledge Offers Hope on Climate in Lead Up to Glasgow “, and The Conversation U.S. describes “Biden urges countries to slash methane emissions 30% – here’s why it’s crucial for protecting climate and health, and how it can pay for itself”  ( Sept. 17). It remains to be seen if Canada will join the eight countries already signed on to the new Methane Pledge; in Canada, the existing regulations for methane emissions from the oil and gas industry  target a reduction by 40% to 45% below 2012 levels by 2025. The Liberal election platform pledged to “Require oil and gas companies to reduce methane emissions by at least 75% below 2012 levels by 2030 and work to reduce methane emissions across the broader economy.”  (More Canadian context appears in The Energy Mix,  and from the WCR here, which explains the federal-provincial equivalency agreement re methane regulations.

The opening of UN General Assembly on September 20, began with a fiery speech by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres about global inequality, saying that the world is “sleepwalking”  to climate change disaster and pleading yet again for urgent action and  international cooperation.  Discussions around Covid-19, racism, and climate change are creating the “sombre mood” of the meetings . Yet speeches by U.S. president Biden and China’s Xi Jinping offer hope for climate change actions:

On September 21, US president Biden’s address to the General Assembly included a pledge that the US will become the world’s leading provider of climate finance, promising to double U.S. aid to $11bn by 2024.  Some reaction to the pledge was sceptical, given that the $100 billion in aid already pledged by developed countries has not been achieved. Canada is one of the worst offenders, with an average contribution only 17% of its fair share in 2017 and 2018, according to  “Climate Finance Faces $75-Billion Gap as COP 26 Looms 1,000 Hours Away” (The Energy Mix, Sept. 21).

Also on September 21, China’s leader Xi Jinping announced to the United Nations General Assembly that China “will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad.”  The impact, as explained here by the New York Times, can be huge, given that  “China built more than three times more new coal power capacity than all other countries in the world combined” last year. “‘Betting on a low-carbon future’: why China is ending foreign coal investment” (The Guardian, Sept. 22) highlights two important points: 1. the announcement signals that China is serious about climate action even though it hasn’t confirmed attendance at COP26, and 2. Real climate progress lies in reduction of China’s domestic coal production, which is 10 times higher than foreign production according to the report in Germany’s DW . So far, China has not specified plans re domestic production, nor re the timing of its commitment to end coal financing.

On September 22, a statement by over 200 civil society organizations from around the world called on progressive governments and public finance institutions to launch a joint commitment to end public finance for fossil fuels at COP26.  According to the spokesperson for the International Institute for Sustainable Development, said: “While a growing number of governments are turning away from coal and oil, international financial institutions are still providing four times as much funding for gas projects as for wind or solar.”  The full statement and list of signatories is here and includes 28 Canadian organizations – including the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) and the Syndicat de la fonction publique et parapublique du Québec (SFPQ).

#Wemaketomorrow is an activist campaign coordinated by the Trade Union Caucus of the COP26 Coalition. Planning and actions for COP26 are already underway at https://www.wemaketomorrow.org/ . The main COP26 Coalition website organizes The People’s Summit, “a global convergence space for movements, campaigns and civil society”, which this year, because of Covid-19, will feature in-person and virtual events.

More to come!

Historic court decision in Mathur v. Ontario government – Youth Charter challenge for stronger GHG emissions reductions can proceed

Although the Supreme Court decision about Canada’s carbon pricing system on March 25 was undoubtedly historic, it overshadowed the news of another historic legal decision on that date, when an Ontario Divisional Court dismissed the provincial government’s second attempt to stop the youth-led challenge to its greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets.  In “Youth climate case forges ahead after court affirms historic decision”,  EcoJustice describes that the case of  Mathur et. al. v. Her Majesty in Right of Ontario,  which has now become the constitutional challenge to climate change that has advanced the furthest in Canada.    

Some background: The case of Mathur et. al. v. Her Majesty in Right of Ontario was first brought by seven youth in November 2019, following the Conservative government’s passage of the Cap and Trade Cancellation Act. The plaintiffs, represented by Ecojustice and Stockwoods LLP, claimed that Ontario’s GHG emissions reduction target is insufficiently ambitious, and that the province’s failure to set a more stringent target infringes the constitutional rights of youth and future generations, under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In November 2020, the Superior Court of Ontario upheld the claims, in the decision which the provincial government sought to overturn. As of March 25, the case can now proceed to a full hearing, though no date has been set.  

Climate Change and the Right to a Healthy Environment in the Canadian Constitution is a legal article which appeared in the Alberta Law Review in 2020. The authors describe and contrast the legal approaches used in the Mathur case and in the LaRose case, which was dismissed by Canada’s Supreme Court in October 2020. Ecojustice has posted frequently on the case, and Alberta’s Environmental Law Centre also featured the Mathur case in a detailed blog in November 2020.

The first and most high-profile youth climate case in the world, is Juliana v. U.S. Government . A timeline is here, reflecting the progress from the initial filing in 2015 till March 9 2021, when Our Children’s Trust filed a motion to amend the complaint and adjust the remedy sought, after repeated roadblocks in the case.

Urgenda decision upheld: victory for citizens’ climate rights comes just ahead of Juliana v. United States

urgenda-logoOn October 9, the Hague Court of Appeal upheld the lower court ruling in the landmark case of  Urgenda Foundation v. The State of Netherlands , which in  2015 was the first case in the world to rule that governments have a “duty of care” to protect their citizens against climate change. The 2015 ruling ordered the Dutch government to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020 (compared to 1990 levels).  The Urgenda Foundation press release is here ; a compilation of documents by the Foundation, including the text of the decisions, is here  and an English-language Explainer is here.  The article in Climate Liability News expands on the global importance of this decision, which has inspired other court challenges in U.S., NorwayPakistanIreland,  Belgium, Colombia, Switzerland and New Zealand.

see you in court tshirtThe Urgenda decision comes just as the highly- publicized Juliana v. United States case proceeds to its next court appearance on October 29.  Juliana vs. the United States was originally filed in Oregon in 2015 under the Obama administration, and argues that the 21 young plaintiffs have constitutional rights to life, liberty and property, which are currently jeopardized by federal climate change policies.   It is led by Our Children’s Trust and has been called “the trial of the century” and has received media attention throughout the ongoing challenges from the federal government.