As the dust settles from COP21, time for action in Canada

In the election campaign the Trudeau Liberals’ climate platform lacked any commitment to specific targets and lacked any climate plan. They pledged to end all fossil fuel subsidies and to put a price on carbon as well as promising to dispatch newly elected Prime Minister Trudeau to the climate negotiations in Paris (COP21) and to convene the provinces and territories and develop a climate plan within 90 days of the end of COP21.  The clock is ticking. If we take the promise literally, with COP concluding December 12, 2015, the new climate targets should be ready by March 12, 2016.

The clock is also ticking for Canada’s role at a major event being held at the United Nations on Earth Day 2016.  On April 22 at the UN headquarters in New York, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will once again welcome world leaders to an official signing ceremony for the Paris Agreement.  This is the perfect opportunity for Prime Minister Trudeau to table Canada’s targets.  As things stand, our “intended nationally determined contributions” (or INDCs as they are called in UN-lingo) are the same as those tabled last May by the previous government.  I pushed hard for those targets to be jettisoned before COP21, but even most environmental groups gave Trudeau time and did not push for better targets before COP21.  Canada’s INDC – 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 – is the weakest in the G-7.  Newly minted Minister for environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna described the existing INDC s the “floor.” I described it as somewhere in the basement.

The collectivity of INDCs tabled with the UN secretariat on climate change fall far short of what is required to meet the goals agreed to in Paris.  That bears repeating: the nations of the world gathered at COP21 agreed to ambitious emissions reductions roughly double the level to which they have currently committed.   To avoid 1.5 degrees C global average temperature increase requires that GHG levels stop rising and start falling as soon as possible, as well as virtual decarbonization of the world’s economy by 2050.

We may get good news soon.  Globally, GHG emissions in 2014 nearly stalled, with a slight growth in emissions, well below that associated with the level of global economic growth in 2014.  There is much speculation that 2015 could prove to be the first year in which GHG levels did not grow at all.  2014 was also the first year in which total investments in renewable energy outpaced investments in fossil fuels.  If 2015 hold to that investor preference, we may be on track to meet the first goal – peaking global GHG emissions as soon as possible while poised to move off fossil fuels altogether.

For Canada, the task is immediate – every single province and territory needs to redouble efforts and the federal government needs to virtually start from scratch. While Alberta’s change of heart and new climate plan is positive news, it cannot be acceptable in 2015 to have a carbon reduction plan that increases GHG emissions from the oil sands from 70 MT to 100 MT. While a cap on any industrial sector is a major leap forward, a huge increase in GHG emissions from the oil  sands is simply not on.  It is likely that the market and low oil process will make that upper limit unreachable in any event. In other words, the market may reduce expansion in the oil sands well below 100 MT. But it should not be part of a climate plan.  Meanwhile, Alberta’s commitment to shut down its coal fired power plants is set to 2030.  It should be possible to reach that target much earlier, as long as federal infrastructure funds support an improved east-west electricity grid. British Columbia can of course do far more.  The carbon tax has worked well, but it is time to raise it was in the original plan.  The commitment to fracking and LNG needs to be shelved, and we need to invest in renewables beyond hydro.  Solar photovoltaic and wind power as well as geothermal and tidal should be ramped up.

It is the federal level of government with a virtually empty tool box.  The previous government cancelled existing climate plans back in 2006.  There is a strong argument to be made that, at a minimum Canada’s target be accelerated to 2025.  That would place our plan on the same base year and deadline as that of the United States.  With frequent reviews of targets and progress, and the first ones set for 2018 for those with targets at 2025, it makes sense for Canada and the US to be in synch.

From my research, the best road map to moving rapidly off fossil fuels is found in a report called “Pathways to Deep Decarbonization.” The report by independent experts was prepared for Sustainable Development Solutions Network.  It confirms that the fastest deep cuts can be made in fuel-switching to get fossil fuels out of electricity generation (a change required in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the Atlantic provinces.)  As well, the report identifies the waste in energy embedded in our buildings and transportation (also a key component of the Green Party platform) as a strategic place for quick results. The electrification of transit is also highlighted.  For Trudeau, there is no shortage of smart policy ideas that can be deployed federally – improving the national building code to high energy efficiency, boosting efficiency of appliances in federal regs, restoring Eco-Energy housing grants and rebates for hybrid and electric car purchases, while deploying the Liberals’ promised billions in infrastructure to put a high priority on investments that also reduce GHG, like fast and convenient public transit.

I will also be pressing for the new government to take up the key missing piece from the Paris Agreement – emissions from international aviation and shipping. These are currently outside of any agreement, but they are a huge 6% of total global emissions.  Canada could re-emerge as a leader if we adopt aggressive targets at home while proposing creative approaches, like a global tax on aviation and shipping fuel – at the upcoming G-7. ]

Originally published in Island Tides Magazine.