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To curb greenhouse gas emissions, taking a regional approach – at least initially – is likely more effective than adopting a global one, according to a new University of Guelph study.

As Ottawa considers federal legislation aimed at decreasing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, the new study may offer insight into the proposed plan to meet targets.

It may also help drive global climate change mitigation efforts beyond the Kyoto and Paris agreements – accords that have consistently fallen short of their goals – by showing how states can hold each other accountable for meeting more ambitious targets.

“The climate emergency is the biggest problem that humanity will be facing as soon as the pandemic is over,” said co-author Dr. Madhur Anand, a professor in the School of Environmental Sciences (SES) and director of the Guelph Institute for Environmental Research. “We have not found a proper governance structure for climate change mitigation that works.”

On Thursday, Anand will speak to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development about Bill C-12, the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act. She will discuss the need for improved data and monitoring and to account for social processes and human behaviour, and the importance of changing narratives to transform society in all sectors.

Dr. Madhur Anand

Introduced last fall, the bill would set net-zero greenhouse gas emission targets for the country to meet by 2050. The legislation would bind Ottawa to set national five-year emission-reduction targets beginning in 2030, along with science-based plans to reach those interim goals.

Anand said the study findings, published this week in Nature Communications, suggest additional ways to improve the effectiveness of Bill C-12 and other national approaches. The lead author is U of G post-doctoral researcher Dr. Vadim Karatayev; co-authors are in SES and at the University of Waterloo and Princeton University.

Using models based on game theory, the new paper focuses on legally binding agreements that enable states to hold each other accountable for meeting climate change targets. The authors compare the outcomes of pursuing either regional or global climate mitigation agreements alone with an approach of switching from regional to global structures a specified time point.

The researchers found that moving from region-specific (including national) climate mitigation to global agreements worked better than sticking with either regional or global pacts only.

Adopting a global approach from the beginning never achieved mitigation targets in the team’s model.

Referring to Paris, Kyoto and Copenhagen negotiations that have aimed for global cooperation, Anand said, “Those agreements usually articulate targets for greenhouse gas emissions that countries agree to sign on to meet. Virtually none of those targets have been met. There are no teeth in those agreements.”

Based on the study results, regional agreements provided “decent mitigation,” said Anand, but enabled progress only slowly toward goals. The researchers found timing a policy shift from regional to global agreements works best to speed up mitigation.

“We found that there is no simple global versus local dichotomy, but you needed to have a switch,” said Anand.

“The best results were found when, for example, a few countries get together and mutually decide to hold each other accountable for greenhouse gas emissions through, say, multilateral agreements. Then at some point, once you have some countries on board and working well, you have enough momentum to adopt a global, legally binding agreement.”

Also important are sanctions and penalties such as trade tariffs or fines against so-called free-riding states or emitters, said Anand. So far, global negotiations alone have relied on voluntary commitments from signatories. At that scale, committing to mitigation measures is overly costly, making legally binding agreements untenable.

She said the federal government’s Bill C-12 offers a promising national approach, although she said its plans must be transformative. “It’s a new law where the government is holding itself accountable for meeting greenhouse gas emission targets, which we didn’t have before.”


Dr. Madhur Anand

Dr. Vadim Karatayev