Canada’s message to the world

Yesterday I photographed two rallies outside Toronto-area offices of Members of Parliament and Ministers of Finance and Foreign Affairs Bill Morneau and Chrystia Freeland.

With Freeland we asked if Canada was now going to withdraw our signature from the Paris Agreement. The sentiment was crafted to be possible to express in one photograph, but the issues are nonetheless closely related. The Paris Agreement’s central operative clause is an aspiration to: “Hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”.

I say “aspiration” because the agreement says little about implementation. This is a treaty negotiated with the participation of every country on Earth and there are many who would have objected to explaining what those temperature targets mean in terms of greenhouse gasses, fossil fuels, and public policy. There are some who hope a magical technology will let us burn all these fossil fuels without dangerously warming the planet, but there are good reasons to question the efficacy and ethics of both geoengineering and carbon sequestration. As for a marvellous new energy technology so much better than both climate-safe options like nuclear fission and renewables and fossil fuel options, I don’t see that happening during the critical window of only a couple of decades where we will decide if the Paris targets can ever be attained or not.

The Paris Agreement is ambitious in its ultimate objective but frighteningly imprecise about the means of getting there. That means that for the decades ahead the locus of diplomacy will have to be convincing countries facing major problems of poverty and regional insecurity to commit fully to decarbonization as well. To achieve that, countries which have historically used the largest amounts of fossil fuel and where emissions per person continue to be the highest will need to be seen to be doing their part, cheerfully and in a spirit of global cooperation.

The clearest signals we’re sending are the big energy choices we make. A new pipeline says that the bitumen sands can continue to grow and that we expect fossil fuel use to remain as high as it is now for decades to come. It says that we’re not serious about Paris or avoiding dangerous climate change.

Canadian politicians want an easy answer that can satisfy Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the oil industry while also showing that sort of global leadership. That isn’t possible. At some point all of Canada needs to have a hard conversation about shutting down the oil sands industry, and that process needs to begin now by definitively stopping expansion.

To some degree the fights over Keystone XL, the Northern Gateway pipeline, and Energy East have already sent important signals to industry. If you want a big fossil fuel project now, it is going to be a fight. That message is actually reinforced by the Trudeau government’s decision to buy the Trans Mountain project. They think they’re telling industry that the federal government will step in to get things done, but they’re also suggesting that projects like this aren’t viable without exceptional government support. Even if Trudeau welds the last section of pipe personally, and the government’s dream of recovering taxpayer funds by selling the pipeline to the private sector is fulfilled, there will be big questions about how much sense any further bitumen sands expansion will make.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

8 thoughts on “Canada’s message to the world”

  1. There is a convincing case that hyperlinks are distracting to read because they force the reader to add a further task atop of trying to follow and understand the text they are reading. Now, they also need to evaluate whether they want to follow the link, which might involve behaviours like hovering over it to see the URL or simply a cognitive burden from evaluating whether the link is of sufficient interest to justify action.

    As such, I am putting fewer hyperlinks in my posts now.

    For a quick general summary of how temperature targets relate to fossil fuel use, you can watch this short Policy Ignite! talk I once gave:

  2. There’s another glut not mentioned in this editorial. And another market failure. The glut is too much carbon in the atmosphere. The market failure is the oil industry’s avoidance of the real costs of production. This is evidenced by the IPCC report, giving Canada and other countries 12 years to substantially decarbonize their economies if we are to prevent catastrophic climate change, and the Alberta Energy Regulator’s assessment of the underfunded, untold billions needed to clean up orphan oil wells and the mess left by the tar sands.

    The only real long-term solution is to stop building pipelines and require oil producers to pay the full costs of production. Maybe then we’ll have a slight chance of keeping our climate livable.

    Dave Carson, Dundas, Ont.

  3. Not-so-cold comfort
    China is surprisingly carbon-efficient—but still the world’s biggest emitter
    It will take an unprecedented reduction in China’s emissions per head to stave off severe warming

    Moreover, China pollutes far less per person than Western countries did at the same stage of development. When America, France, Britain and Germany had incomes similar to modern China’s, they relied on inefficient power stations and cars, and spewed out 16.6 tonnes per person.

    To prevent the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from reaching levels likely to cause disastrous warming, China must do better than merely beating the past records of richer countries. Instead, it will need an unprecedented decline in emissions per head—at least to the more carbon-efficient level of similarly rich Latin American economies, and ideally onto the trajectory of poorer Asian giants like India and Indonesia, which rely less on heavy industry and manufacturing. Those countries, perched at the sweltering latitudes where farmers will be most hurt by climate change, must in turn work out how to reach upper-middle-income status without replicating China’s emissions path.

  4. So plans to build a 1gw coal-fired power station, Kenya’s first coal plant, 20km (12 miles) away on the mainland caused dismay when they were unveiled in 2013. Islanders worried that pollution would damage architecture, despoil the marine environment and deter tourists. Environmentalists griped that the plant would greatly increase Kenya’s greenhouse-gas emissions. They were relieved in June when an environmental tribunal suspended the project’s licence pending a more comprehensive impact assessment.

    The government, though, appears not to have given up. Kenya wants to industrialise. Officials maintain that coal power is cheap and more reliable than renewables. Some grumble when environmental objections are raised, given that two-thirds of Kenya’s electricity already comes from renewable energy. “Europe industrialised on the back of coal,” says a civil servant. “Isn’t it a bit rich to be talking to us about our carbon footprint?”

  5. As the province burns, the BC Government approves the first steps in yet another huge fossil fuel project

    WHILE FAMILY AND FRIENDS of the 569 British Columbians who died in June as a direct result of runaway global heating were still grieving, the provincial government was quietly approving the initial project plan for another huge fossil fuel facility.

    Producing 12 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) annually, Ksi Lisims LNG in northwestern BC will do nothing but increase worldwide emissions, leading to even more extreme heating, more deaths and more unprecedented weather events.

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