Today’s report from Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development (CESD) has attracted a fair bit of media attention. On climate change, the report argues that Canada lacks a credible plan for meeting our 2020 target of cutting greenhouse gas pollution to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. This target replaced Canada’s much more ambitious but now abandoned Kyoto Protocol target of cutting to 6% below 1990 pollution levels by 2012.
A few points in response:
1) None of Canada’s climate targets have ever been tough enough to be compatible with a fair global pathway that avoids more than 2°C of warming. In order to stay below the level at which climate change is generally considered ‘dangerous’, Canada and other countries must do much more than has been proposed so far.
2) As the CESD points out, Canada’s existing targets are more notional than realistic. In order to meet them, much more on-the-ground action needs to occur.
3) All of these pollution figures ignore Canada’s huge hydrocarbon exports. The question of how to assign responsibility for a litre of oil or a tonne of coal mined in Canada and sold overseas isn’t straightforward. At the same time, the planet doesn’t care whether the fuel is burned in Canada or in China. Either way, it contributes the same amount of warming to the climate system. If we are to address climate change, exports also need to be phased out.
Once we take into consideration the amount of fossil fuel we are exporting, Canada’s climate change record looks even worse then we only look at our failure to reach our past targets. It can be argued that fuel burnt in China or the United States isn’t our responsibility. This argument isn’t entirely convincing. For one thing, Canada regularly uses the inaction of China and the United States as an excuse to do less about climate change. That position doesn’t seem very credible if we are simultaneously supplying them with large quantities of fossil fuel.
Dealing with climate change requires transitioning the world away from fossil fuel dependence. Continued fossil fuel production is very costly, and delays those efforts. People are going to continue to make excessive use of coal, oil, and gas for as long as they are cheap and their use is unrestricted. At this stage in human history, it makes an enormous amount of sense to simply leave these fuels in the ground. In so doing, we sacrifice the short-term economic value that selling the fuels could provide. At the same time, we gain the opportunity to re-orient our economy and energy system in a way that is compatible with the coming post-carbon world.
Critically, leaving the fuels underground also lessens the harm we are imposing on other people around the world and on future generations. Because of the serious impacts of climate change, fossil fuel production is a fair bit like stealing copper wiring from the houses of other people. It seems profitable to the people doing the stealing, since they didn’t pay to have the wires installed in the first place and they won’t pay to have them replaced. From the perspective of society as a whole, however, copper wire thieves are causing harm while producing no net benefit. Rather than exploiting the economic opportunities that exist because the world hasn’t yet become serious about climate change mitigation, Canada should be investing its efforts and resources into making an effective and efficient transition to a zero-carbon economy with no fossil fuel exports. Firms like Suncor and Syncrude are much like those copper wire thieves. They are profiting handsomely today, but only doing so by imposing frightening costs on all members of future generations. Unfortunately, today’s oil companies are rich and politically influential, whereas future generations are defenceless and silent.
The targets that really matter are global: how much the planet will warm; how much sea ice will melt; how affected global agriculture will be; and how many more people will suffer from extreme weather or shortages of food and water. Canada’s current approach is short-sighted and selfish, to a degree that isn’t entirely obvious if you only look at our domestic pollution reduction targets and our (inadequate) efforts to reach them.
Canada is choosing a future for the world that is characterized by extreme climate instability, with all the human suffering that goes along with that. If we want to choose a different future, we need to accept that the era of fossil fuels is coming to an end, and it is time for us to make a devoted effort to rapidly phasing them out of our energy system.