The Three Amigos Unify on Climate Change Goals for North America

photo by Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

photo by Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

During the last week of June, President Obama, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met for the North American Leaders Summit (known as the Three Amigos Summit) in Ottawa to focus primarily on climate-related issues. These climate accords are essential not only in combating climate change, but also in seeing how countries can forge multi-lateral partnerships in addressing environmental issues.

This summit was the first in two and a half years. The trilateral summit last year was postponed due to disputes over the Keystone oil pipeline between President Obama, who saw the pipeline as a threat to the environment, and Canada’s former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was a strong advocate of it. Now, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, head of the Liberal Party, and President Enrique Peña Nieto, a close ally of President Obama’s, US, Canada, and Mexico are unifying their energy policies more than ever.

The new agreement calls for 50 percent of North America’s electricity to come from clean power sources by 2025. According to the agreement, clean power sources include renewable energy, efficiency, nuclear power and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage technology. Currently, 37% of North America’s electricity is powered by non-carbon-emitting power plants, mostly nuclear and hydro. Among the three countries, Canada is leading in carbon-free energy with 81 percent (if nuclear energy is included), coming from clean energy sources. United States and Mexico lag behind. In Mexico, only 22 percent of its energy is carbon-free. The statistics for the United States are not much better given that only 33 percent of electric power (including 20 percent nuclear) comes from carbon-free energy sources. Another 33 percent of our electricity is fueled by coal which is primarily composed of carbon.

The trilateral agreement opens up new avenues for carbon-dependent states to replace their energy sources through the transmission of power from Canada’s electricity grid. Another way the countries are looking to decrease carbon emissions is by boosting deployment of clean vehicles in government fleets, as well as cutting emissions from the shipping and airline sectors.

The agreement’s main targets are methane and carbon dioxide (CO2), along with other greenhouse gas pollutants. Cutting down on methane emissions should be a priority for North America given that it produces 20% of the world’s methane emissions.  The pollutant traps 25 times more heat over a 100 year period and 87 times more over a 20 year period, compared to CO2. The pressure of being accountable to your neighbor will hopefully bring all three of the North American states to significantly reduce their methane emissions.

A part of the accord that U.S. and Canada had previously decided on before the summit, promises to reduce methane, black carbon, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are used in refrigerators, by 40 to 45 percent. During the Three Amigos Summit, the Mexican President agreed to the terms as well.

Finally, the Three Amigos also agreed on protecting biodiversity, particularly preserving migratory birds and butterflies that fly every year between the three countries, but are losing their habitat due to environmental threats.

The climate change goals of the North America Leaders Summit are aligned with the Paris Agreements of 2015, in which U.S. committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025.

What makes this North American summit different than previous iterations?

The first North American agreement on climate, North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation, was established on January 1, 1994 as a side agreement to NAFTA.  Through this agreement the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, responsible for overseeing cooperation and continuous improvement in environmental protection in all three countries, was also established. However, the first North American summit didn’t happen until 2005 at George W. Bush’s ranch in Waco, Texas. The summits cover an extensive number of subjects mostly centered on expanding free trade.

As the effects of climate change have become more apparent, and with a President Obama determined to make climate change a significant part of his legacy, the summits have become more focused on climate change. There have many been many hiccups though. The last few summits, going back to 2012, have not seen much advancement due to, among other things, the dispute between U.S. and Canada over the Keystone oil pipeline. Although it can be argued that the 2014 summit was a sign of collaboration on energy policy, with the three North American leaders calling for their respective country’s energy minister to “define areas for strong trilateral cooperation on energy”,  the year that followed was marked by a souring of relations between Canada and U.S. Stephen Harper’s rebuke to the White House’s hesitation in passing the Keystone pipeline caused the summit to be postponed. Even when the summit did happen, it was rather uneventful in terms of advancing the fight to slow down climate change.

photo by Sean Kilpatrick, CP

photo by Sean Kilpatrick, CP

The recent level of cooperation between the three countries has stood out, not only at the North American Leaders Summit, but also during international summits, such as the one in Paris. As the head of the Canadian Liberal Party and as a leader who wants Canada to have a leading role in the fight against climate change, Justin Trudeau is more politically aligned with Barack Obama compared to his predecessor, Stephen Harper. During the Paris conference, the three North American countries came together as part of a sub-coalition of developing and developed countries. This group was pivotal in bringing everyone to reach an agreement.

These three countries also participated in Mission Innovation Initiative, through which countries agree to double their investment in clean energy research and development.  A number of climate policy experts are excited about this new level of cooperation as it sets a faster pace for the rest of the world to get on-board in combating climate change. Going forward, a number of think-tanks have argued in Proposals for a North American Climate Strategy that the trilateral partnership can continue to serve as an international example just as they did in the Paris summit. The proposal sees a number of areas in which there is room for leadership including developing an agenda for the sub-coalition, establishing a transparency framework for developing and developed countries, a mechanism for compliance and implementation, as well as examining ways in which they can support other countries in reaching their emissions target as early as 2020.