Canada: a brief history of failed GHG reduction policies

Attended a talk entitled Getting Climate Policy Right yesterday, presented by Mark Jaccard and co-sponsored by University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance and the Centre for Environment. Jaccard is a leading expert, not just in Canada but internationally, on climate change policy and economic modelling, and delivered an informative, stimulating and engaging presentation.

Some of the key take-aways:

  • Energy efficiency is expensive – economists who model energy efficiency policies and programs often still fail to take into account a variety of factors that make investment in energy-efficient technologies much more costly.
  • Information programs are not enough – governments have 4 (or five) policy levers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: information campaigns (e.g. the Rick Mercer one-tonne challenge), subsidies, regulations, financial penalties (taxes), and cap and trade schemes (a combo of numbers 3 and 4). We need to see much more of numbers 3-5.
  • Offsets are not working the way they’re supposed to – in the EU cap and trade scheme (or at least ETS1), companies can achieve 15% of their targets via offsets which go to clean development mechanisms as subsidies to developing countries for advanced, cleaner technologies from developed countries. Jaccard showed the audience a slide demonstrating how China is taking advantage of this as a “free-rider,” using the CDMs for hydroelectic projects that would already have been done anyway, and thus failing to have any mitigating impact on their GHG emissions from coal-fired plants.
  • Targets don’t matter – while I think the language used here is a bit too strong (of course targets matter), what Jaccard is saying is that we’ve been setting great targets for years, but have consistently failed to meet them. According to Jaccard, we need clear plans for meeting our targets, absolute caps and minimal or no offsets. Which brings me to…
  • Canada has been failing at greenhouse gas reduction policies since the late 80s – first introduced by the Mulroney government, Canada has gone through more than five policies to reduce GHGs, all of them failures. By the reckoning of Jaccard’s team, the current plan under the Conservatives will have some effect (good news) but not nearly as much as is claimed or needed.

As Jaccard said, Canada has clearly demonstrated it is a follower and not a leader in this area. We should expect to see more action once the US has got implemented some serious GHG reduction policies, which will hopefully be happening soon.

Environmental politics over the long term

According to George Monbiot,

While prime ministers in Italy and eastern Europe are demanding a bonfire of environmental measures in order to save the economy, in the UK politicians from all the major parties have made the connection between environmental destruction and economic meltdown.

At any rate, both the UK and Europe are thinking longer-term than the disgracefully dawdling North America. The most disappointing result of the recent Canadian election was the public’s apparent distaste for the Liberals’ Green Shift, which would have introduced some policy foresight into the perennially myopic Canadian politics scene.

Monbiot proposes an interesting solution for overcoming the inherent tendency of politics to focus on problems that, however, trivial in the long term, affect the current electorate.

What can be done about political short-termism? With the environmental thinker Matthew Prescott, I’ve hatched what might be a partial solution. We propose a new parliamentary body – the 100-year committee – whose purpose would be to assess the likely impacts of current policy in 10, 20, 50 and 100 years’ time. Like any other select committee, it would gather evidence, publish reports and make recommendations to the government. It would differ only in that it had no interest in the current political cycle. Its maximum timeframe would be roughly the residence time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Not a bad role for a senate-like body which, in Hannah Arendt’s analysis, has the role of maintaining the origins or foundations of a body politic. As a group that is at least formally outside the traditional, short-term political cycle, such a body would be suited to providing a longer-term vision that is increasingly necessary as societies broaden and deepen the extent to which they act on the environment.

Reason 2 not to elect the Conservatives: stupid and destructive climate change policy

After they were done pointing the finger at Paul Martin’s LIberals for dropping the ball on Kyoto (which, though a reasonable accusation, is ridiculous coming from Stephen Harper or John Baird) and had finally caved to public pressure on addressing environmental issues and human-caused global warming, the Conservatives have come out with a set of policies and proposals to address climate change that can only be described as stupid, myopic and dangerous.

As the Sierra Club of Canada’s recently published Voter’s Guide to the Climate Crisis Election makes plain, the Conservatives are flying in the face of science. Ignoring the IPCC recommendation that “developed countries reduce their emissions 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020”, the Conservatives instead aim to achieve 3% below 1990 levels by 2020.

Don’t bother looking for the science behind these numbers — there isn’t any. The Conservatives are wilfully ignoring the consensus of the world’s most qualified experts and playing fast and loose with the future of Canada and the planet at large. And, I have to ask, since when is it a strategy of a right-wing party to advocate for more regulation? I thought Government was supposed to let the markets sort things out for themselves, as would be more the case in, say, a carbon tax like that proposed by the Liberals and Greens.

McDonough and Braumgart write in Cradle to Cradle, “negligence starts tomorrow.” Well, for the federal Conservatives and Canada at large, negligence has already begun, and will continue on October 14th if we vote them in again.

End of an empire

Consider that the 20th century saw the emergence of something like an American Empire. What we are seeing in the 21st century is the slow death of this empire. Many people have predicted its impending collapse, but I’m not talking here about the balooning deficit, its proclivity to entering into unwinnable, unpopular and costly foreign wars, its useless war on drugs, its ludicrous adult population imprisonment rate, its poor public school performance, or its broken healthcare system.

The greatest sign that the US is a nation in decline is its apparently increasing desire for joke politicians. I’m not talking about this (though seeing Joe Biden like this makes me worry a bit less about the potential for some video of me in a compromising situation to leak onto the web):


I’m talking about this:

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin with a gun
apparently she's a better shot than Cheney

I’m talking about a gun-toting potential vice-president who thinks climate change isn’t human-caused, and thinks we should teach about the “debate” bewteen creation science and evolution in public school. (I also believe in teaching the controversy.)

I’m talking about GW Bush, the Governator, Dan Quayle, Jesse Ventura, and Ronald Reagan.

For some reason, the US is the only country in the world where, in the race to become the nation’s leader, it’s a serious advantage to not seem too smart.

The good news from Palin’s selection is that the Republicans won’t be able to whine about Obama’s purported “lack of experience” any more. Not that experience is any guarantee of anything: was Bush more experienced than Obama? Perhaps, by most definitions of “experienced.” But that didn’t stop him from making stupid decision after stupid decision.

On climate change and not wrestling with pigs

The saying goes, ‘Never get into a wrestling match with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it.’

Unfortunately in the case of climate change debate, the temptation is difficult to resist. There is a small army of well-funded pseudo-scientists and PR hacks dedicated to spreading as much misinformation as possible who end up getting vastly disproportionate coverage by mainstream news media, perpetuating the myth that there is any legitimacy to their claims or that there is anything other than overwhelming scientific consensus on the matter of anthropogenic global warming.

Case in point being a recent radio discussion between Richard Littlemore of DeSmogBlog and Christopher Walter in which the two men (neither of whom, as Littlemore readily admits, have any real science background) were tasked with debating the reality of “human-induced climate change”. Early on in the debate, Littlemore made the point that, given that neither of them were scientists, there was no real point in debating the science behind the claims: what DeSmogBlog covers is public relations; likewise, Walter has no science credentials and has a background in politics and PR, meaning that neither of them should really be passing themselves off as climate change authorities.

However, predictably and unfortunately the debate goes precisely in the direction of debating “the facts” and when you enter this territory, the IPCC/scientific consensus is inevitably going to suffer. Even though all the points Walter introduces are widely acknowledged to be standard bullshit climate denier talking points, merely introducing them will produce in listeners (and transcript-readers) the impression that there is a level of uncertainty and disagreement in the scientific community that just isn’t there. Littlemore does a pretty good job debunking most of Walter’s BS on the spot, but the fact that a “debate” on the science behind anthropogenic climate change between two non-scientists is being legitimized in this way is a loss from the get go.

I just purchased it and haven’t read it yet, but it seems like the logic from George Lakoff’s book,
Don’t Think of an Elephant!
, could be applied here: by entering into debates like this and in these circumstances, one accepts the frame being proposed by the deniers, which is that there is any point to such a debate, and public opinion could thereby be somehow better informed. The best thing to do is to stop wrestling with the pigs, and stop feeding the trolls.