What the Paris Agreement Means for Canada & Small Island Developing States

The Paris Agreement signifies a turning point in the fight against climate change, but it is not perfect. There is a concerning gap between current emission reduction targets and what is needed to hold the global average temperature where it needs to be, and there is no consensus on who should be held responsible for loss and damage caused by climate change. There are, however, some positive take-aways from the agreement as we move toward a greener future.

1. It is universal: for the first time ever, 196 countries at all stages of development have agreed to reduce their emissions. Nearly all of these countries have submitted their “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) which include plans to reduce emissions domestically. INDCs will not be regulated, but global pressure will hopefully be enough to keep countries on track.

  • In its INDC submission to the UNFCCC, Canada commits to an economy-wide target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.

2. It is legally binding: the language of the Paris Agreement gives it legal force. Countries are required to review their domestic emissions reductions every five years, and are encouraged to strengthen their targets over time.

3. It is ambitious: the agreement pledges to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels, and to work toward holding the increase to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels. 1.5 degrees is a much safer target to reduce the risk of dangerous and costly impacts of climate change.

  • Canada was part of the “high ambition coalition” which included the US, Australia, and many African countries and Small Island States. This negotiating bloc, spearheaded by the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands Tony de Brum, pushed for a strong, legally-binding agreement.
  • According to a report released by the United Nations, limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees would allow more terrestrial and marine species time to adapt to climate change, up to half of all coral reefs to remain viable, keep sea level rise to below 1 meter and ocean acidification to moderate levels, and allow communities a greater chance for adaptation. Holding the increase to 1.5 degrees would therefore allow Small Island States a much greater chance for survival.

4. The private sector is on board: over 5,000 diverse global companies have pledged to take climate action, collectively representing over $38 trillion in revenue.

5. Climate financing continues for developing countries: wealthy countries are expected to continue to provide financial assistance to developing countries. This will help vulnerable countries including the Small Island Developing States to reduce their emissions and adapt to climate change. Developed countries will continue to work toward $100 billion annually in financial assistance by 2020. A new goal working from the base of USD 100 billion will be set before 2025.

6. Loss and damage is included: the inclusion of loss and damage in the Paris agreement will strengthen the ability to recover from the impacts of climate change and climate-related disasters. Access to finance assistance for loss and damage remains unclear, but its recognition and inclusion remains a victory for Small Island Developing States threatened by rising sea levels.

  • For many Small Island States, which are sometimes referred to as the “canary in a coal mine”, mitigation will not be enough to reverse the damages caused by a changing climate as rising sea levels threaten to submerge entire countries. Funding and support is greatly needed to help vulnerable nations recover from the negative impacts of climate change that are already happening.

7. Climate migration is recognized: for the Pacific Islands and low-lying states, climate migration is a serious concern as rising sea levels are expected to continue to displace millions of people from their homes. Recognition of the need to protect migrants in vulnerable climate situations is included in the text. In addition, the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism will establish a task force to develop recommendations for strategies to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.

  • The concept of ‘migration with dignity‘ is crucial to the relocation policy of Kiribati. The government has already begun to create opportunities to enable migration for those who wish to do so now and in the coming years, and to raise the levels of qualification attainable within the country to make qualified citizens of Kiribati more attractive as migrants. The impacts of climate change are already being felt by Low-Lying Atoll Nations and relocation strategies are sadly becoming more common.

The Paris Agreement is not perfect, but is a step in the right direction. For the first time ever, there is a universal legally-binding agreement for combatting climate change, and this is something to be proud of and celebrated. I encourage you to learn more about how the Paris Agreement will affect both Canada and Small Island Developing States by exploring some of the links above!



Laura Maxwell is a first year Master of Development Practice candidate at the University of Waterloo and will be attending COP21 as part of the delegation of Kiribati, a small island nation located in the Pacific Ocean.  Her special interests include climate change, restoration and marine ecology, human health and the environment, and conservation biology.


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