11 International Treaties

Treaties are agreements made between countries to achieve certain, and in our context, environmental goals. Treaties are made at the Canada level and are the responsibility of the federal government. The term treaty is used here as a generic term, often the language varies with proper names and terms. Under the Canadian constitution only the Canadian federal government can enter into treaties.

Are treaties law?  We need a lawyer to answer that question fully. While some are agreements to cooperate, others maybe legally binding on the countries who sign the treaty. Generally, for legally binding treaties, a Canadian law is passed to enact measures in the treaty that need to be enforced.

Canada has signed many treaties relating to environmental protection.  They cover everything from air emissions to polar bears. Some require cooperation, others require specific action.  Canada has 4338 (Canada, n.d.) treaties and many are environmentally focused agreements:

  • In North America, as of January 2022, Canada is party to approximately 40 treaties. ( Canada, 2019)
  • With Africa we have only two agreements, (International Environmental Partnerships: Africa – Canada, n.d.)
  • Australia and Canada have a treaty on industrial chemicals
  • Europe and Canada have three agreements and another three with France directly (International Environmental Partnerships: Europe – Canada, n.d.)
  • In Latin America, Canada has direct agreements with 6 countries including Chile and Columbia

In addition to these agreements, Canada is engaged in 117 international agreements as of January 2022.  A search of these treaties (sic 2022) shows that fully 107 mention climate as part of the concept of the treaties.  (Participation in International Environmental Agreements and Instruments – Canada, n.d.).

With this number of treaties, we start to understand the complexity of environmental regulations in Canada.  Additionally, we cannot possibly cover all of them, so the following is a sampling of some agreements in no order of importance.

Paris Agreement

Perhaps not a treaty in the traditional sense of the word, the Paris Agreement is a legally binding agreement among the worlds countries to limit greenhouse gas emissions to limit climate temperature increase to be 1.5 Celsius with a back stop of 2 Celsius (United Nations Climate Change, n.d.)

The agreement is part of the UNFCCC which itself is a treaty (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change).

The Paris Agreement was signed in 2015 by over 190 countries.  By the terms of the Agreement, every five years, the signatory countries (Parties) will come together to discuss progress and targets.  The first scheduled meeting was in 2020, but due to COVID, it became 2021 and commonly called COP 26 (United Nations Climate Change, n.d.)

The Paris Agreement requires each country develop its own nationally determined contributions (NDCs).  Each country pledges what it can do, so it is unlikely there is any two countries with the same commitments.

Canada’s current NDC includes a commitment to net zero by 2050 and a reduction of 40 to 45% of greenhouse gases by 2030.

Agreement Between the Government of Canada and the Government of the United States of America on Air Quality

This Agreement is a bilateral agreement between Canada and the United States.  It was established in 1991 to address concerns of both countries on Acid Rain.  The environmental issues were emissions of SO2 and NOx into the air causing acid rain.  It involved also long-distance transportation of these contaminates (IJC, n.d.)

Later in 2000 an appendix was added to consider the environmental issue of Ground Level Ozone.  This resulted in addressing VOCs as well as NOx.

UNECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP)

Established by UNECE, The Convention of Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP or sometime just LRTAP) is agreed to by  51 parties that consults, researches, and monitors transboundary air pollution.

This convention meets annually to discuss future plans of implementation of the resulting research and monitoring into mitigation of transboundary pollutants. There are several sub agreements, or as they are called Protocols under this convention (UNECE, n.d.).

1998 Aarhus Protocol

The Persistent Organic Pollutants of 1998 Aarhus Protocol was developed for the LRTAP Convention to consider POPs.  It was later eclipsed by the Stockholm Convention (UNECE, n.d.) which looked at world wide perspective.

In the 1998 Protocol there was 16 POPs identified.  The following were identified for virtual elimination.

  • Aldrin CAS: 309-00-2
  • Chlordane CAS: 57-74-9
  • Chlordecone CAS: 143-50-0
  • DDT CAS: 50-29-3
  • Dieldrin CAS: 60-51-1
  • Endrin CAS: 72-20-8
  • Heptachlor CAS: 76-44-
  • Hexabromobiphenyl CAS: 36355-01-
  • Hexachlorobenzene CAS: 118-74-1
  • Mirex CAS: 2385-85-
  • Toxaphene CAS: 8001-35-2

1998 Aarhus Convention

The 1998 Aarhus Convention is then very confusing given the previous notation.  Same year, same place name.  However, the convention is about the right to know environmental information in Europe (European Commission, n.d.).  Two of its main principles are the right to know environmental information and the right to be consulted.

This highlights the trend to name the treaty after the location it was developed in.  And in case you wondering, Aarhus is the second city in Denmark.  (Denmark, n.d.)

Gothenburg Protocol

The Gothenburg Protocol is designed to “Abate Acidification, Eutrophication and Ground-level Ozone” according to the UNECE (UNECE, n.d.).

This protocol focuses on the nitrogen cycle.  Although it has several documents that are related to nitrogen, there are many documents like “How to measure VOC” (UNECE, n.d.).

The Government of Canada states on its website that “Canada ratified in November 2017 the Gothenburg Protocol and its 2012 amendments under the CLRTAP.  The amended Gothenburg Protocol is the first legally binding instrument to include a focus on black carbon” (Canada, 2022).

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Protocol on Heavy Metals

This Protocol on Heavy Metals might also be listed as the 1998 Aarhus Protocol on Heavy Metals.  It focused on emissions of mercury, lead, and cadmium (UNECE, n.d.)

An interesting component of this treaty is the use of the expression best available technology (BAT) to control emissions.

The agreement on mercury has since been overshadowed by the international agreement called the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)

The short name is the Stockholm Convention and was designed for countries who signed the Convention to reduce the emissions of POPs.   It was signed in 2001 and was developed under the auspices of UNEP (UNEP, 2019).

It started with a list of top twelve POPs that includes DDT and Dioxins.  Sixteen additional POPs have been added to the convention.

Minamata Convention on Mercury

Also developed by UNEP, the Minamata Convention on Mercury worked to limit global emissions of mercury.  Sources for mercury emissions include coal combustion and also heavy fuel oil to a lesser extent (UNEP, n.d.).

Each of the 137 countries who are signatories must report in 2021 the efforts they have made to comply with the treaty (UNEP, n.d.).

Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (Protocol to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer)

Often referred to as just the Montreal Protocol, this treaty requires signature countries to reduce and eliminate ozone depleting substances (ODS) from use (UNEP, n.d.).

The Montreal Protocol is often cited as an example of an international treaty that has produced tangible results.  It has been amended several times to be current.

Ramsar Convention

The Ramsar Convention on wetlands, was joined by Canada in 1981.  It currently has 172 countries signed to the Convention.  It aims to protect internationally important wetlands across the planet. (Ramsar, n.d.) There are currently, as of January 2022, 2,435 designated Ramsar Wetlands in the world.

Canada has 37 wetlands listed as Ramsar wetlands. (Ramsar, n.d.)

Section Conclusion

Environmental issues do not respect political boundaries, so often issues, like climate change, affect many countries.  Through the United Nations, and sometimes directly, countries attempt to harmonize their rules or to try to establish new rules.  Without a specific internal law, treaties then can be aspirational, rather than legally enforced.  Canada has many laws and regulations to implement these treaties.

Learning Questions

  1. What level of Canadian government can sign treaties?
  2. Is a treaty legally enforceable?
  3. Is a treaty a law within the countries that sign it?
  4. Why would Canada have a treaty with the United States on long range transmission of air pollutants?


Denmark Aarhus. (n.d.). Home page. Retrieved from   https://www.visitdenmark.com/denmark/destinations/aarhus-region/aarhus

European Commission. (n.d.) Aarhus Convention. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/environment/aarhus/

International Joint Commission (IJC). (n.d.). Canada-United States Air Quality Agreement. retrieved from https://ijc.org/en/mission/air-quality-agreement

Government of Canada (Canada). (2019). International environmental partnerships: North America. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/corporate/international-affairs/partnerships-countries-regions/north-america.html

Government of Canada (Canada). (2019). International environmental partnerships: Africa Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/corporate/international-affairs/partnerships-countries-regions/africa.html

Government of Canada (Canada). (2022). Gothenburg Protocol to reduce transboundary air pollution. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/corporate/international-affairs/partnerships-organizations/gothenburg-protocol-air-pollution.html

Government of Canada (Canada). (2022). Cooperation on Environment and Climate Change: Canada-EU Strategic Partnership Agreement. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/corporate/international-affairs/partnerships-countries-regions/europe/cooperation-environment-climate-change-canada-eu-strategic-partnership-agreement.htm

Ramsar. (n.d). Home page. Retrieved from https://www.ramsar.org/

Ramsar. (n.d). Canada page. Retrieved from https://www.ramsar.org/wetland/canada

United Nations Climate Change. (n.d.) The Paris Agreement. Retrieved from https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. (n.d.). Air. https://unece.org/environment-policy/air

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. (n.d.). Gothenburg Protocol. Retrieved from https://unece.org/gothenburg-protocol

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. (n.d.). Protocol on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Retrieved from https://unece.org/environment-policy/air/protocol-persistent-organic-pollutants-pops

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. (n.d.) United Nations Protocol on Heavy Metals | UNECE, n.d. Retrieved from https://unece.org/environment-policy/air/protocol-heavy-metals

United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). (n.d.). About Montreal protocol. Retrieved from https://www.unep.org/ozonaction/who-we-are/about-montreal-protocol

United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). (n.d.). Minamata convention on mercury. Retrieved from https://www.mercuryconvention.org/en

United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). (n.d.). First Full national reports. Retrieved from  https://www.mercuryconvention.org/en/news/first-full-national-reports-be-submitted-31-december-2021  

United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). (2019). Stockholm convention home page. Retrieved from  http://www.pops.int/

United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). (2019).  The 12 initial pops. Retrieved from http://www.pops.int/TheConvention/ThePOPs/The12InitialPOPs/tabid/296/Default.aspx



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