The harsh Canadian climate has always been the devil we know—too well. It’s our intimate and constant companion, and we have accustomed ourselves, wherever we live, to its demands. Climate change introduces the devil we don’t know, and we can already tell he’s worse than the old familiar.
Climate change has rapidly emerged as the most profound and contentious environmental issue of our times. Its already daunting complexity is compounded by the roughshod alliance of science and politics, and by unsound polemic. Witness Canada: one confused nation.
The sheer weight of the debate paralyzes us—an unfortunate reaction. Surely we have enough to contend with daily without adding massive climate instability to our fret list. doom and gloom economic scenarios from the one camp. doom and gloom climate-catastrophe scenarios from the other. While fine fodder for a Hollywood script, neither scare tactic propels us to action.
Of all the major industrial countries to ratify Kyoto, Canada is the least likely to meet its targeted greenhouse gas emissions reduction of 6 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. (Under the Kyoto Protocol, 1990 was established as the baseline year for measuring improvements in greenhouse gas emissions.) We ratified late and we’ve had unprecedented emissions growth, a consequence of deliberate policy choices and our refusal to take definitive mitigation measures. And if the premiers’ conference in may 2007 is any indication, the stage is set for lengthy internal wrangling: BC and Quebec want a north American solution; Ontario wants a national plan including a countrywide agreement that would limit emissions; Alberta wants neither. Vacillation is the tactic of the day.
Yet even the federal government agrees that we need emission cuts of 60 to 70 per cent below 2006 levels by 2050. This would require significant commitment from Alberta, but Alberta Environment minister Rob Renner recently stated that
Alberta’s emissions could rise one third in the next decade. Exactly how is a concerned Canadian to make sense of all this befuddlement? how about a boom-affluent Albertan who wants to do the right thing? What about the people who think they lack the science smarts to wade into such murky waters?
Vacillation is the tactic of the day. Exactly how is a concerned Canadian to make sense of this befuddlement?
Please buckle up for a few statistics to frame the discussion. Canada pumps out approximately 2 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases and is among the world’s largest per-capita emitters. In 2004, our CO2 emissions were up more than 27 per cent over our 1990 levels, almost twice the US increase over the same period.
So in response to its Kyoto commitments—and I hope you haven’t been holding your breath all these years—the federal government announced in April 2007 a climate change and clean air plan that will still leave Canada’s emissions 11 per cent above 1990 levels by 2020. In contrast, the European Union has committed to being at least 20 per cent below 1990 levels by then.
Under this latest federal plan, heavy industry—responsible for almost half of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions—will have to cut its emissions per unit of production by roughly 30 per cent between now and 2020. The government expects that this will translate to an absolute emission reduction of 60 million tonnes. This is an optimistic calculation on the government’s part; if growth is higher, reductions will be less. The federal plan for heavy industry has been scorned, nationally and abroad, primarily because intensity gains don’t necessarily lead to absolute cuts in emissions. In other words, if you reduce your emissions by 30 per cent per widget produced, but produce five times as many widgets, your overall emissions will grow instead of shrinking.
The government proposes cutting another 90 million tonnes from other sectors. And how, pray tell? Surely not from feeble efforts such as the Vehicle Efficiency Initiative announced in the 2007 federal budget, under which buyers of highly fuel- efficient vehicles will be able to claim a rebate of up to $2,000 while purchasers of gas guzzlers pay up to a $4,000 levy. Turn off the snooze button, Ottawa! British Columbia, with a luxury tax on vehicles since 1993, has the highest percentage of buyers of such vehicles in Canada. Raising the price at the pumps is a far better incentive to get people to drive less.
Actions belie talk. Shame on us. We are the only country to have signed on to Kyoto and then abandoned the targets. Oops, I forgot—let’s just blame it on the Liberals.
On the home front, Alberta holds the unenviable position of number one greenhouse gas polluter in Canada, producing 39 per cent of the total national industrial emissions. Why so high? Because we depend so heavily on coal-fired electricity generation, and we are the nation’s leading energy producer. By far the largest emitters of CO2 are power plants (47 per cent) and the oil sands and gas plants (together, 27 per cent). Alberta’s greenhouse gas emissions are 40 per cent above 1990 levels and are predicted to rise by another one third over the next five to 10 years.
Alberta’s spring 2007 budget made no mention of climate change, an ominous exclusion. The greenhouse gas regulations proposed in march 2007 for Alberta’s heavy industry aren’t cause for celebration either. For once the feds are in sync with us: Alberta’s proposal also focuses on reducing emissions intensity rather than absolute emissions. By 2010, for example, under the intensity targets for industrial emitters, oil sands producers will be able to double their real emissions from what they were in 2003.
The Pembina Institute forecasts that if the current economic pace continues, provincial emissions will rise over 70 per cent above 1990 levels by 2020, a drastic move in the wrong direction. The Alberta oil sands are the single largest contributor to Canada’s growth in emissions. But let’s not fix the problem (or any energy problem for that matter) with nuclear when there are far cleaner, safer and cheaper alternatives. Geothermal, an emission-free heat under the earth’s crust, is one such option with potential for the oil sands, according to Dr. Michal Moore, a senior fellow of the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment & Economy at the University of Calgary.
Albertans aren’t just big, bad carbonboys. They excel in ingenuity and entrepreneurship, as anyone who attends the Alberta Emerald Awards can attest. Calgary Transit has the only light rail transit system in north America to operate on wind-generated electricity, which means the C-Train is 100 per cent emissions-free. In Okotoks, the drake Landing Solar Community is the first of its kind in north America. Edmonton’s landfill converts landfill gas into electricity— enough to power 4,600 homes each year. Alberta has strong turnouts of green voters. The government of Alberta was proud to be the first provincial government in Canada to introduce legislation regulating greenhouse gas emissions (although the legislation still allows emissions to keep growing), and in 1999 it established Climate Change Central, an excellent education- al and leadership initiative.
But the challenge remains to find ways to reconcile environmental necessity with economic necessity. The energy boom in Alberta has also translated, among other things, into pricey real estate. So when Albertans hear talk of job losses, they come a little unglued. After all, about 300,000 Albertans work directly or indirectly for the oil and gas industry, and they’ve either experienced or heard (ad nauseam) this formula: energy policy = fewer jobs = housing crash = destitution.
Never mind these Chicken Littles in government and industry. Remember instead the words of Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, who calculates, in his exhaustive review of the economics of climate change, that the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be limited to around 1 per cent of global GDP each year, and that the costs of unchecked climate change will be between five and 20 times greater.
These are exciting times: we are going to move from an indecently wasteful modus operandi to a decently efficient one. Instead of fuming on congested roads, we’re going to experience the joy of true mobility.
Instead of wringing their hands about radical lifestyle changes and economic collapse, our governments need to implement policies that will encourage business to find solutions. Energy efficiency and conservation are the cheapest ways to reduce emissions, and they also provide employment. neither solution gets enough attention. According to a 2002 report by Ralph Torrie, one of Canada’s foremost sustainable- energy experts, energy efficiency investments between 1970 and 1998 saved Canadian consumers more than $50-billion and could save us another $30-billion between 2004 and 2030. The renewable energy sector too has enormous potential. We’ve made a good start with the wind industry, but we need to do more. In 2005, grid-tied solar power grew worldwide by 55 per cent; Germany has over 200,000 solar-powered roofs. Why does sunny Alberta have so few? Is it because, as Ralph Nader suggests, the oil companies don’t own the sun?
Albertans need to take the lead in advancing energy efficiency and conservation technologies, carbon capture and storage, and the renewable energy sector. The key ingredients are in place: the resources, the energy, the highly skilled workforce and the lucre. According to a 2007 Statistics Canada report, capital investment in Alberta in 2006 was $75.3-billion, representing one quarter of all Canadian investment money. Obviously we’re good at attracting dollars; let’s put that talent to use and kick-start some emerging industries and revamp some established ones. Worldwide at least 85 renewable energy companies or divisions had market valuations greater than $40-million US in 2005. making money and reducing emissions are not mutually exclusive.
Naturally, individuals also have to do their share—as governments have been fond of reminding us. The average Canadian generates over five tonnes of greenhouse gases per year through driving, using appliances, and heating and cooling her home. About half of all personal greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation and about one third come from heating our homes. Ergo, ample opportunity to reduce our own carbon footprint and set an example for others. The choices we make, however, have to count. We can make dramatic improvements like swapping our pick- up truck (six tonnes of CO2 per year per 20,000 kilometres) for a hybrid (two tonnes), or we can make small choices like eschewing plastic water bottles (in north America, roughly two million barrels of oil are required annually to produce them). The most important places to begin or improve are transportation, housing, and food choices (local, organic, less meat-intensive). As well, we have to support leadership—be it visionary businesses, dynamic community leaders, enlightened bureaucrats—wherever we encounter them.
But most importantly, we must demand more from our governments. They need to get cracking on establishing targets and standards that will turn the tide, investing substantially in infrastructure (e.g., public transit), and encouraging the best and discouraging the worst through financial instruments and other means. Our politicians don’t have a long shelf life, and they hope to be gone before things really sour up. Let’s make them accountable now.
We don’t know exactly what mitigation will cost, nor do we know the precise ramifications of global warming, although we are learning more about both. But we do know enough to agree that the politics of dalliance, a beloved Canadian pastime, is not an option. The findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, considered the gold standard of credible scientific knowledge, give us sufficient reason to mobilize: the panel states that we are very likely (meaning over 90 per cent certain) responsible for climate change, and that we are already locked in to at least some temperature rise—meaning more heat waves, floods, droughts and rising sea levels. We must shift from vacillation to commitment; from fear-mongering and fear-harbouring to embracing a transformation in energy, economics, indeed in just about everything. This remarkable revolution is already underway in some countries. The only choice we have is whether to participate willingly, reaping some of the economic boons along the way, or continue to be dragged along, bewildered and begrudging.
Although fraught with peril and uncertainty, these are exciting times. We are going to move from an indecently wasteful modus operandi to a decently efficient one. Instead of fuming on congested roads, we’re going to experience the joy of true mobility. Instead of tossing out our discards to languish in landfills, we’re going to use them wisely in closed- loop manufacturing systems. Instead of squandering precious resources willy-nilly, we’re going to figure out how to conserve them. Instead of feuding over finite fossil fuels, we’re going to shift to secure and clean renewable energies. And because all this will take decades to unfold, we’re going to clean up how we use the fossil-fuel bridge to this better world. Abundantly resourceful and prosperous, Alberta could lead the way in many of these transitions.
Ultimately, it’s all about the energy radiating from the sun and the myriad ways this energy falls on planet Earth and how we then choose to transform it into fire, into food, into fuel, and so on. The fossil-fuel era has proven a dirty and finite way of capturing this energy. Sometimes I wonder—will we have to have ration books for energy the way my parents had ration books for food after the Second World War?
But energy itself is neither dirty nor finite; the universe abounds with pure energy. The clever human monkey has to, and will, find better ways of tapping into this abundance. Get tapping, Canada, or be left behind in the dark.
Margaret Chandler is a freelance writer and teaches at Mount Royal College and the University of Calgary.