Climate: Time to do what is necessary

On Monday, April 25th, 2016 in Articles by Elizabeth, COP 21

I write this from the train heading back from New York to Canada.  The last time I made this trip was September 2014, coming home from the Peoples’ Climate March.  My daughter and I marched with over 400,000 people through the streets of New York, with the explicit goal of encouraging the climate talks to succeed. My favourite placard that day read “It is time to stop debating what is possible and start doing what is necessary.”

That one sentence encapsulates our current debate: some want to keep arguing about what is possible, while the rest of us understand we are running out of time to do what is necessary.

In September 2014 the pressure was for the Lima talks at COP20 to go well enough to create a positive outcome for Paris in 2015 at COP21.  But as has been clear from commentary, reasonable people can disagree on how much the Paris Agreement has met the demands in the streets.  And complicating this assessment, has been a lot of confused and confusing reporting.

In nearly every media story about the Paris Agreement, new climate targets and how we get there, there are frequent errors.  The constant repetition of these errors is not just frustrating; it is dangerous.

If we do not understand the threat of the climate crisis, particularly in terms of its urgency, the forces for status quo policies may win out.  Unlike in other crises, the reckless have the advantage of clothing themselves in being “reasonable.”  When your house is on fire, it is the reasonable person who says “move fast.”  No one would accept a firefighter who says, “Get out the marshmallows. We can linger awhile.”

The difficulty is in sorting out what the Paris Agreement requires of nations, from what Canada has so far committed to do, and what it costs to get there. I have read news articles that assume Canada’s target is consistent with the Paris goals – it is not.  I have read stories that assume the new Liberal administration of Prime Minister Trudeau has adopted the previous government’s weak climate target. It has not.  I have read articles that claim the Paris Agreement is not legally binding. It is.

These issues tend to get muddled.  Even one of my most respected sources of information, the Parliamentary Budget Office, has this week stumbled slightly into error.

Let’s start with the goals of the Paris Agreement.  It is a turning point.  For the first time 195 nations have essentially agreed that our economies are going off fossil fuels.   The treaty calls for reducing emissions sufficiently to avoid global average temperature ever exceeding 2 degrees C above what it was before the Industrial Revolution, while striving to keep the world safer by holding global average temperature to no more than a 1.5 degree rise.  That implies keeping concentrations of GHG to no more than 425-450 parts per million.  And that measurement means very dramatic reductions in GHG emissions.

The architecture of the Paris Agreement requires countries to place their own plans, both for emission reduction targets, adaptation and financing to help poorer countries, with the United Nations climate secretariat. These targets can be removed at any time, but only to be replaced with more aggressive targets.  This is the “ratcheting up” feature of the Paris Agreement.

The current aggregate of all tabled targets of all nations – if achieved – take us to a range of global average temperature increase of 2.7 to 3.5 degrees C.  Anyone familiar with climate science will recognize in those temperatures a threat to human civilization itself.  They are not merely “failed targets;” they suggest a “failed species.”

No one who negotiated the Paris Agreement can be under the impression that our work is now done.  Our work is only beginning.

Of all the currently tabled targets, Canada’s is among the weakest.  While the European Nations pledge to reduce GHG to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, Canada’s pledge is even weaker than the US, and is the weakest of any G7 nation.  Our base year is 2005, when emissions were far higher than in 1990.  And our deadline year is 5 years later than the US.  Under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper Canada pledged to reduce emissions 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.

If Canada wants to have any credibility in signing and ratifying the Paris Agreement, then our target must be significantly boosted. It is time to stop debating what is possible and start doing what is necessary.

But there is push back.  Even though Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna has always referred to the Harper target as “the floor,” forces are gathering to set that goal in concrete.  Bear in mind, Harper never consulted provinces (or anyone) before setting that target.  Nor did his government develop any plan.  Conservative Climate Critic Ed Fast sets new records for hypocrisy in criticising Trudeau for being prepared to meet Harper’s target.  It amounts to a confession that to every climate announcement of the Harper Conservatives there should have been a small asterisk leading to the footnote: “Just kidding!”

There was a Cabinet document prepared for the Conservative administration as the 30% below 2005 by 2030 target was put forward.  It suggested that Canada should look to buy credits in other nations.

That thought brings me to where the PBO paper committed two serious errors.  Firstly, the PBO is to be commended for undertaking the work.  It relied on the NRTEE paper from a few years ago estimating the cost per tonne of reductions within Canada.  It also looked at carbon pricing estimates from those calculating how high a carbon price would need to be to meet our targets, by that mechanism alone. The PBO estimate of what it will cost every Canadian is premised on the assumption of a $100/tonne of reduction cost.

But this is an “all hands on deck” kind of moment.  Carbon pricing is only one mechanism.  Improving energy efficiency, hiring legions of carpenters, electricians and plumbers to reduce the 30% of GHG emissions that come from our leaky buildings, improving the East-West electricity grid to bring green renewable power from one province to another, will accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels.  Carbon pricing is a necessary step, but it is not by itself enough and by itself it is too costly.

Moreover, reducing GHG fast enough to avoid 1.5 degrees, we would be smart to put resources into reductions in developing countries where the price per tonne is much lower.  The discussion in the Cabinet document to the previous government was right about this.  But the PBO paper leaves out this aspect if meeting the 1.5 degrees target.  The atmosphere does not care where the GHG come from – a tonne of GHG from India or Venezuela has the same warming impact as a Canadian tonne.

Secondly, the PBO is to be commended as well for figuring out that Canada’s current target does not meet even the 2 degree C level of ambition.  So PBO describes the current Harper target as “interim.”   The implication is that sometime before 2030 we have time to move to a tougher target.  But we do not.  Carbon dioxide emitted today remains powerfully warming the atmosphere for another 100 years.  As Secretary General Ban Ki-moon explained at the United Nations signing ceremony on Earth Day 2016, the window is rapidly closing on our opportunity to keep global average temperature below 1.5 degrees.  We must ramp up targets faster and everywhere.

And here is where Canada can play the most important role.  We need to lead in ratcheting up our target.  We need to add up all the current provincial plans and demand more of provincial governments while pressing the federal government to use all of its jurisdiction and powers to be much more aggressive. Fortunately, spending on green infrastructure will help our economy.  Fortunately, catching up with other countries’ investments in clean tech and green tech will create more jobs.

The risk is not in doing too much to address the climate crisis.  The threat is of reckless complacency and the siren call to “be reasonable.”

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  • ReynoldR

    Thanks for this. I’m all for ratcheting up. What’s your opinion of the Leap Manifesto? It seems to me to be a good starting point for discussion.

  • AcrylArt. ca

    This is the best educated summary of our situation & what action is needed. I’m Sharing because I believe EVERY CANADIAN who cares needs to read this, understand it, and then ‘get with the program’! Thank you Ms May.

  • Ken Black

    Congratulations for the clearly-stated position on where Canada is, and where it needs to be, in terms of taking effective action on climate change.

  • Rene Ariens

    Clearly more needs to be done on an individual level and on a public level. Maybe it’s time to be more hysterical in Parliament …. hold their feel to the fire while the country wakes up to the realities of what ‘anything but Harper’ decision making has brought forth.

  • Joan Scott

    I hope Greens in my riding will meet to plan a program to perhaps discuss Elizabeth May’s “on the train,” document, or to talk local green energy incentives and barriers, or to go for a walk or a ride on the bus, or whatever.

  • Bruce Ryan

    Every piece of the puzzle needs to be acted upon. Carbon sequestration is going to be the game changer.
    Capturing gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere.

  • Gayl Creutzberg

    And to continue with Bruce’s comment below, please call on the farming sector to help with carbon sequestration. Addressing the way we farm would address so many of the other issues (climate change, ecosystem health, resource use, hunger, water supply, public health, policy discussions, indigenous teachings, education of our youth, economic reform, carbon sequestration from soil regeneration, traditional cultures and our connection to place). We would be glad to be of assistance, Farming For A Future Network (FFFN) because we don’t know whether we have a future.

  • Le Franco Nord Américain

    I voted ABC (Anything But Harper). Glad to see him out. My concern with Trudeau Liberals was that they might simply go back to doing as PROGRESSIVE CONSERVATIVES of old and LIBERALS of old have always done: govern our country as if it is still a colony of an outside power. We went from serving France, to Great Britain, to the U.S. and like the U.S. have moved on to serving Corporate interests. If the intent of a democracy is to ensure the best interests of the people determine the direction of our government, those of us who believe ours is a democracy are simply duped. The interests of the world’s Corporate powers (money) trump the what is in the best interest of our people (health, peace, equity and well-being). Our Corporate masters tell our elected politicians what to tell js is in our best interest and they faithfully follow through. Like the dog in the RCA Victor logo of old “they listen to their master’s voice”. Our democracy functions much like our Senate. It is there for process purposes, there to rubber stamp what the masters who call the shots really want. While Trudeau is already to be commended for putting to an end many of the measures Harper and his gang of tyrants forced into place through undemocratic Omnibus laws, if he simply keeps Harper’s environmental targets in place, ratifies the TPP, and does not put an end to our first-past-the-post electoral process, invest massively in environmentally sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels (and pipelines), it will be clear that whethe4r we are fed Liberals or Conservatives, we are simply alternating letting the Corporate masters dictate, and their interests are not ours, no matter how they try to spin that it is otherwise. We will be back to the landed gentry telling the peasants what is best for them. …and the end of the human experiment on earth will shortly follow.

  • Audrey Faber

    Thank you, Ms. May, for your clarity of thought, I really do not understand how the BC government can be pushing through the Site C project yet claim to concerned about climate change and First Nations relations when it has been stated time and time again that its purpose is to support the LNG industry and the power is not needed (BCUC, JRP, industry professionals). Thank you for stating how many jobs would be created in upgrading current infrastructure as this was one of the arguments by the opposition when the building permits were approved in November as this point is often lost. Even more pressure has to be placed on the BC government to stop this and LNG expansion (especially the proposed Petronas facility in the Skeena River estuary) and move away from fossil fuels. I hope the current federal government will walk the walk they promised, especially with regards to First Nations rights and working to slow anthropogenically-induced climate change, and do it NOW.

    I would also like to thank you for the interview on CBC (The House) this week as your honesty is, as usual, incredibly refreshing! Especially your call-out on the misinformation the BC premier spreads.

  • Democracy1st

    Thank you, Elizabeth. Once again you have summarized the issue with crystal clarity and with over-arching perspective.
    You are absolutely right that COP21 was just the beginning of a global resolution to abandon business as usual and begin a new way of living on the planet.
    This is the reality that we must all keep in mind — refusing to allow leaders to slip back into cozy complacency now that this greatest of world meetings since the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 has come and gone.

  • John

    There is no question that the world is warming, but to blame CO2 emissions and man-made causation is ridiculous. The primary goal of restricting CO2 and promoting the idea man is changing the climate is nothing more than political play to control people, our lives, and our very existence.

    Watch this video and learn about this FARCE being promoted as if we, the people, are causing the earth to warm. Time to blow the lid off these pseudo scientists claiming man is causing climate change! RIDICULOUS and here’s the REAL evidence and REAL Proof it’s all a political game! Here’s the climatologist that shows the data, gives a history of how this farce started and the how and why it is being promoted.

    NASA scientist talking about climate change farce

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