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Clarity on climate change

We’ve had 20 years of global environmental finger wagging, scientific bunking and debunking, high-minded government rhetoric, pledges and policies: let’s take stock of the climate change file.


June 30, 2011
by Joe Terrett, Editor

We’ve had 20 years of global environmental finger wagging, scientific bunking and debunking, high-minded government rhetoric, pledges and policies: let’s take stock of the climate change file.

So, how are we doing? Not so good.

Despite years of effort, a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) reveals greenhouse gas emissions at a record high. The Paris-based agency reports energy-related carbon emissions have reached a worldwide total of 30 gigatons, 5% more than the previous record set in 2008.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Despite an interruption during the recession and a global embrace of renewable energy options, economies are growing with populations that are affluent or working on it and drawing on energy from an infrastructure based on fossil fuels; a fact on the ground that isn’t going to change overnight.

It also highlights the futility of government efforts to set carbon reduction targets that are unattainable without specific and coordinated measures that ensure they’ll be met, which is the gist of a Conference Board of Canada report.

The federal target is a 17% reduction by 2020 (from a 2005 baseline) and the Ottawa-based think-tank says individual provincial targets are being addressed through a complex, diverse, and opaque mix of instruments and programs.

An annual federal progress report on emissions reductions shows a four-megatonne cut in 2009 on a total of 694 megatonnes. That means federal efforts are responsible for a measly 0.5% reduction.

The Conservative regime in Ottawa contends any structure that’s put in place must be in sync with a US strategy (which is proving to be a long-time coming) and the result has been a hodgepodge of policies at the provincial and federal levels. Cap-and-trade mechanisms or carbon taxes have not been broadly implemented. Quebec and BC have adopted carbon taxes, and Alberta has an intensity cap on large final emitters.

Environment Minister Peter Kent insists the federal government does have a plan and the big moves are coming. They’ll include regulations for coal-fired power plants and the oil sands over the next couple of years: a slow ramp up, he says, until emissions are under control by 2020. Really.

But unless the pace picks up, Canadian governments are unlikely to meet their targets.

What’s the answer? Let’s start with a co-ordinated effort involving the provinces, which the Conference Board contends will be more likely to reduce emissions at a lower cost, while helping the governments learn from the experience of others. It says Alberta’s intensity cap is one policy instrument that, as part of a coordinated approach, may produce more efficient results.

Some of the big energy players, tired of guessing what kind of regulatory framework they’ll be working with to reduce emissions, are calling on Ottawa to work with them to establish some across-the-board regulations that meet targets but don’t place an onerous burden on industry.

Bart Demosky, CFO of Suncor Energy Inc., wants to see everyone working to the same standards. Target the end user, he says, not just the producer, “and we’ll see real traction and real reductions if that’s what people want from a societal point of view. But that’s going to take federal leadership, not local leadership.”

The Conservative government has a majority. Business wants clarity. The people want action. It’s time to demonstrate Ottawa intends to do more than talk about climate change measures.