Saturday, April 14, 2012

Mining and Climate Change, Part 2: Canada's Commitment to Reducing Greenhouse Gases

In my previous post, I wrote about the growing importance of the mining sector to Canada’s economy, and about why it’s important for our governments to enact the right carbon pricing policies. In this post, I’m going to talk about Canada's historic commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to combat climate change, and why Canadians continue to demand action, and how action may impact the mining sector.

The Crises with Our Climate

There is no doubt whatsoever that human industrial activity is causing global climate change to the point that our rapidly changing climate is leading towards a crisis unlike any we have encountered before. This crisis is already having planetary impacts. Coupled with rising prices for non-renewable energy resources, particularly oil, the climate crisis will change not just our physical environment, but our economic circumstance, and social and political institutions as well. These changes are inevitable. That’s why I believe it’s best to plan for them, rather than to let them overtake us.

The mining sector will not be immune from these changes. While a warming planet may bring some opportunities for additional resource development by making currently remote parts of the globe somewhat more accessible, particularly in the extreme north, there are no guarantees that the opportunities will outweigh the challenges.

Canada's Commitment to Reducing Greenhouse Gases

A very real challenge will be the management of greenhouse gas emissions. Whether international processes, including treaties such as the Kyoto Accord, form the backbone of future emissions reduction strategies, it seems inevitable that nations will keep the pressure on one another to reduce emissions. There is an understanding that we’re all in this together, and although progress has so far been slow, the recognition that action is required remains top of mind for most governments. While it may be that we’ll inhabit a future where greenhouse gases will continue to be emitted with impunity, I don’t think that’s going to be our likely future.

Canada has taken a very uneven approach to its commitments to reduce emissions. We were one of the first nations to sign the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, which was later ratified by parliament in 2002. Under Kyoto, Canada committed itself to reducing emissions by 6% below 1990 levels by 2012. Despite this commitment, by 2008 Canada had seen emissions grow by approximately 24% over 1990 levels.

Under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, Canada has made a few different commitments, despite our current continued obligation under Kyoto (note: Harper has committed to the process for pulling Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol, however at this time, Canada still remains within the framework of the treaty, as that process, which was initiated only in December, 2011, takes a year, and may require the ratification of parliament). First, Harper promised that Canada would reduce emissions by 20% by 2020, from 2006 levels. Later, through the Copenhagen Accord, ostensibly in an effort to harmonize initiatives with the United States, Canada committed to a smaller reduction target of 17% by 2020 from 2005 levels.

Based on data released this week by Environment Canada, Canada appears to be on track to reduce emissions in 2020 by only approximately 5% from 2005 levels, which, for those of you keeping score at home, is only about ¼ of our watered-down Copenhagen commitment (see: “Peter Kent says Tory plan to promote economic growth and protect environment is working”, the Toronto Star, April 13, 2012)

Clearly, Canada’s “plan” isn’t working at all, because Canada, under successive Liberal and Conservative governments, has never had anything resembling a "plan". What we’ve had has consisted mainly of press conferences and photo-ops, coupled with data distortions and muzzled climate scientists at Environment Canada. At some point, however, I have confidence that Canada is going to get serious about reducing emissions.

Canadians Want Action

My confidence is based on what I see happening on the political scene in Canada. In the last federal election, a majority of voting Canadians supported political parties which were campaigning on putting a price on carbon emissions as one of the mechanisms to be used in efforts to reduce those emissions. Almost 60% of Canadians voted for those political parties which were championing carbon pricing (the Green Party, the Liberal Party, the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois). Approximately 40% more voted for a party which proposed to reduce emissions through regulating industry (the Conservative Party). That means almost 100% of Canadians cast their ballots for parties which were actively campaigning on taking action on climate change. All of the major parties agree that taking action to reduce emissions is necessary; it’s only on the finer points of policy that disagreement is to be found.

But oh what disagreement there is!

For Canada’s mining sector, it’s the various political party’s policy proposals related to emissions reduction which are going to create challenges, and depending on the policy, those challenges may be more significant for the mining sector than for other natural resource sectors. The mining industry should be paying close attention to the political debates which are currently raging around these issues.

This then begs the question: which political party’s proposed policies pose the biggest threat to the mining industry? The answer, I believe, is clearly the Conservative Party, but the NDP’s policies are also a threat, albeit in a different way. As for the Liberals, it remains unknown whether their policies will negatively or positively influence the mining sector, as Liberals have the habit of alternatively embracing and abandoning their policies and principles, to the point that figuring out where they stand on anything of substance becomes difficult.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views of the Green Party of Canada)

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