Climate in election 2015: The time for action is now

August 27th, 2015 by Brian Iler

In 1990, Greenpeace published Global Warming: The Greenpeace Report. It’s a serious work, some 480 pages written by a host of highly qualified scientists and policy analysts.

Perusing the book now is a chilling experience: even then, the scientific evidence it sets out in detail was more than clear, and the book’s call for urgent and drastic cuts to our greenhouse gas emissions has essentially been ignored for the past 25 years.

It is harder these days to continue to ignore the issue as one heat record after another is broken, and we experience increasingly severe weather events.

Even the Pope is clear: action is essential now.

Unfortunately, since the damaging discussion on carbon taxes in the 2008 federal election, both the Liberals and the Conservatives in this election campaign are limiting their discussion to vague generalities.

There is no hope for the Conservatives.

Under their watch, Canada is poised to fall far short of even the paltry target the Harper government committed to in Copenhagen. Here’s a graph illustrating that, from Canada’s sixth “National Report on Climate Change” (PDF):

Emissions graph

The Conservatives offer a modest strategy focused on regulating greenhouse gas emissions on a sector-by-sector basis, described as the weakest in the G7 to date.

The Liberals now promise only to attend the next UN climate change conference in Paris (without a target for greenhouse gas emissions ‑ which will take 90 days from the election to establish), work with the provinces to establish targets, and phase out fossil fuel subsidies. And dismiss putting a price on carbon. Pretty weak stuff.

While the Green Party is not in a position to even fantasize about power, its proposals on climate change, and its detailed Vision Green are thoughtful and fulsome. Well worth serious consideration.

To its credit, the NDP offers 34 per cent cuts to greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, the most of any federal party, primarily through the use of a cap-and-trade mechanism. According to Thomas Mulcair:

The most effective way to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions is to cap the level of emissions and over time, reduce the limit. This mechanism worked to eliminate acid rain and it will work for greenhouse gas emissions.

We will provide industry and Canadians with a stable federal mechanism that works with provinces but doesn’t abdicate Canada’s responsibility.

Cap-and-trade mechanisms can be immensely complex, particularly as compared to the relative simplicity of a carbon tax, as described by then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion in the 2008 federal election:

“We’ll cut taxes on those things we all want more of — income, investment and innovation — and we will shift those taxes on things we want less of — pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and waste.”

Both rely on market mechanisms, with elected officials setting the price of carbon under a carbon tax, and the market determines the quantity emitted; in effect, elected officials set the quantity of carbon permitted to be emitted in a cap-and-trade system.

Both approaches are subject to political whim and influence.

  • On July 17, 2014, Australia became the first nation to abolish a carbon tax, and British Columbia’s carbon tax, in place in 2008, has not increased since 2012.
  • The European Emissions Trading System, in its Phase 1, saw the limit for emissions set so high that the carbon price fell to zero, and in its Phase 2, the use of exemptions led to no reductions in emissions.

What is clear, though, is that neither market mechanism will suffice, as politicians will inevitably set the level of emissions reductions at such a modest level that the required significant reductions can never be achieved.

And there is something wrong, too, about leaving action on climate change in the hands of the market. As Naomi Klein notes in her marvellous book This Changes Everything, during the Kyoto negotiations:

France’s former environment minister saw the creation of a global carbon market as tantamount to abandoning the climate crisis to “the law of the jungle.” Angela Merkel, then Germany’s environment minister, insisted “the aim cannot be for industrialized countries to satisfy their obligations solely through emissions trading and profit.” (p. 218)

Instead, or in addition to those market mechanisms, a broad range of programs and policies will be essential to achieve meaningful reduction in emissions and, at the same time, ensure that the burdens and benefits of action on climate change are fairly shared.

As the Liberal and NDP policy advisers turn their minds to what their briefing materials for the transition to reduced carbon emissions (OR green energy transition?) might contain, here’s a partial list for their consideration:

  • Government decision-making, including all those government tribunals’ decisions, need to be screened for their impact on greenhouse gas emissions by asking: What will the impact of this decision be on greenhouse gas emissions?All those pipelines designed to deliver tar sands oil to market – Kinder Morgan, KeystoneXL, Energy East, Line 9 and Northern Gateway ‑ would not be built if the National Energy Board was required to screen its decisions for their impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

    And the proposed expansion of Toronto’s Island Airport would have died a natural death if the City of Toronto had such a screen in place.

  • Phase out fossil-fuel subsidies, as even Justin Trudeau has promised.
  • Maximizing low-carbon transportation options. Appallingly, even the United Nations has noticed that the largest emission increase in Canada’s transport sector can be observed in sport utility vehicles (SUVs) — a 104 per cent increase from 1990.
  • Pension fund investment decisions — including the $268-billion Canada Pension Plan — need to focus far more on a carbon-free economy. Their trustees need to have their mandate expanded to ensure that this occurs. No more investments in airports or airlines.
  • Energy conservation programs and policies, which are so productive, and have been implemented to date on a relatively small scale, need massive expansion.The Toronto Atmospheric Foundation, established by Toronto City Council to pursue climate change initiatives, asks: “The question is, why the resistance to taking advantage of energy conservation — the cheapest, fastest way to free up energy and reduce carbon emissions? “
  • Renewable energy initiatives, particularly those sponsored by community-based organizations, can readily be scaled up, based on the experience of successful initiatives like SolarShare’s.
  • Trade agreements can no longer allow profit to trump climate change initiatives — Ontario’s efforts to ensure local production for those green energy projects it funded were stymied by the World Trade Organization.
  • Ensure that the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases — aviation — which has been essentially unregulated, is reined in. Says Slate:

    In even the most optimistic scenarios, by 2050, aviation could amount to as much as 15 percent of global emissions. (It’s now just 2 percent.)

We’ve learned a lot in the 25 years since that Greenpeace Report was published. It’s time to take what they told us back then, and everything we’ve learned since, and put it to use.

Filed in: Environment

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