Harper’s new climate targets – same emperor, same clothes

The world is gearing up for the December 2015 climate negotiations in Paris. The annual Conferences of the Parties (COP) within the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change have been struggling to regain momentum (and credibility) ever since the train-wreck of a meeting in Copenhagen, December 2009. That COP, the 15th since the 1992 climate treaty entered into force, nearly derailed the entire multi-lateral process to negotiate a meaningful global commitment to sharply reduce carbon pollution.

Paris will be COP21. After decades of procrastination and missed deadlines, delays and industry sabotage, the Paris negotiations represent a real deadline. It is no longer possible to imagine a second chance to get this right. The levels of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have reached concentrations that make avoiding the worst and most catastrophic climate futures a matter of urgency.

The negotiations have made an effort to learn from past mistakes. The Copenhagen Accord, a stage managed US production achieved outside of the UN process, allowed nations to leave the climate negotiations with a promise to announce their domestic targets later. All nations agreed in the Copenhagen text to take collective action to avoid global average temperatures from rising above 2 degrees C what they were prior to the Industrial Revolution, and preferably to hold them below 1.5C. But as the pledges were analyzed, the scientists quickly realized that even if every country met its Copenhagen target, global average temperature would soar right past 2 degrees — to 4 degrees or higher. While 2 degrees C does not sound like much in a country with winter temperatures in much of the country well below 30 degrees C and summer temperatures swinging to above 30 degrees, it is important to remember that global average temperatures do not budge much at all. In fact, the difference between the global average temperature today and in the last ice age is only 5 degrees C. A 2 degree shift in global average temperature is huge.

In Lima at COP20, the negotiators decided that the targets must be tabled well in advance of the December 2015 conference. All countries, including Canada, agreed that planned emission and adaptation targets should be submitted to the U.N.by March 31, 2015. The goal of achieving a binding comprehensive treaty by early December 2015 requires substantial advance analysis.

Canada missed submitting targets by the March 31 deadline, but did announce them late Friday May 15, just before the Victoria long weekend. The upcoming G7 summit will be in Germany and Angela Merkel plans to make climate a focus. Apparently, Stephen Harper realized he could not get through a G7 with no target. So Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq has announced the weakest target in the G7.

Canada announced a commitment to a 30% reduction against 2005 levels by 2030. We used to have the same target as the US – adopted in Copenhagen. The U.S. is on track to hit its 2020 target of 17% below 2005 levels. Harper, having chosen the same goal as Obama, never put a plan in place to hit the target. By 2020, Canada is likely to have virtually the same emissions as we did in 2005 – despite substantial efforts by provincial governments. Even the GHG reductions achieved by Ontario shutting down all coal-fired power plants are erased as the oil sands expand.

The new US target is 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. The real leader is the EU with a target to reduce 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. (Note the base year shifts. Cuts below 1990 levels are deeper and more meaningful).

Along with the announced target, Aglukkaq announced a few measures to be taken at the federal level. However, there will still be no regulation of carbon dioxide from the oil sands. The federal government will only regulate methane from the oil sands. This is not irrelevant, but it is not the major source of GHG pollution. The feds will also regulate the production of chemicals and nitrogen in fertilizer, as well as natural gas fired electricity.

Looking at the totality of announced federal action no credible reviewers believe this new target – weak as it is – can be realized. In fact, it appears that Harper is now prepared to abandon his previous opposition to what he once attacked as “hot air” credits. Leaks from the federal background papers confirm Harper anticipates buying credits from reductions achieved in developing countries. While such credits are open to fraud, properly designed, they could be of benefit in assisting poorer nations with multiple goals. For example, supplying solar cookers to villages where women spend most of their day scouring for firewood and then suffer ill health from poor air quality, cooking over wood burning stoves inside their homes, assists in improving health, reducing poverty, assisting women and reducing GHG. But when Minister Aglukkaq was asked at her press conference about whether the federal plan included buying credits, she ran from the podium.

We need a much more aggressive target for GHG reductions and we need a plan to achieve those targets. We need to constantly make the case that such a plan will create good Canadian jobs and boost our economy. Fortunately, there’s an election between now and when the Paris negotiations take place. We must ensure that climate becomes a key election issue.