Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Ending Fossil Fuel Subsidies will Help our Shift to Renewables

Climate negotiations have just wrapped up in Lima, Peru, with some successes being made towards the creation of a new international. The European Union has pledged to reduce climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2030, and the United States and China, the world’s two largest emitters, recently announced an important bilateral agreement to reduce emissions.

In preparation for the new treaty, anticipated to be signed in Paris next year, all nations will publicly commit to strategies and targets to reduce emissions in early 2015. One of the goals of the Paris treaty will be to hold warming at 2 degrees Celsius – a point at which the best available science suggests we dare not pass for fear of triggering feedback loops and catastrophic warming. An international agreement to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius was perhaps the only success achieved at the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009.

Some developed nations should be able to meet their emissions reduction commitments with little challenge, as they're already making the switch away from high-carbon fossil energy sources. Renewable energy has been the go-to choice for Denmark and Germany, and renewables are positioned to make headway in India and China. Today, renewable energy is the world's fastest growing industrial sector.

In Canada, however, it's long been our national policy to subsidise fossil fuel production, in preference to renewable energy. Although some of the richest multinational corporations in the world are profiting from extracting our fossil resources, our federal and provincial governments continue to subsidize them with taxpayer's money to the tune of about $34 billion per year, according to the International Monetary Fund (see: "IMF Pegs Canada's Fossil Fuel Subsidies at $34 Billion", the Tyee, May 15, 2014). At the G20 summit in Pittsburgh in 2009, Canada promised to end fossil fuel subsidies, but we’ve taken no action to fulfill our international commitment.

Massive subsidies to fossil fuels distort market conditions in Canada for investment in renewable energy. Despite these governmental interventions in the marketplace, the renewable energy sector in Canada has put down firm roots. According to a recent report from Clean Energy Canada, about $25 billion has been invested in renewables over the past 5 years, driving employment in the renewable sector up by 37%. Now, more people are employed in the renewable energy sector than in the Alberta tar sands (see: "Green energy sector jobs surpass total oil sands employment", the Globe and Mail, December 2, 2014). All of this has been accomplished with only minor subsidies – the biggest through the government of Ontario's feed-in-tariff program, which has allowed our province to become a job-creating green energy leader.

Fossil fueled industries continues to pollute our atmosphere with climate changing greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, without any real consequences to corporate profits. Instead, the real costs of a changing climate, in terms of environmental, health and adaptation related impacts, are borne by taxpayers. A recent report by the United Nations estimates that the costs of adapting to a world warmer by 2 degrees Celsius could end up costing between $250 and $500 billion annually (see: "Adapting to a warmer climate could cost almost three times as much as thought, UN report says", The Guardian, December 5, 2014). And we're currently on target to experience between 4 and 6 degrees of warming by the end of the Century.

Every dollar invested in new fossil infrastructure will lock us into a high-carbon future that finds Canada swimming against the current of history. To get serious about reducing our emissions, Canada has some options - but all will require reversing our national policy of promoting fossil energy over renewables. A good start would be putting a price on carbon, and helping to end market distortions by shifting the costs of pollution away from taxpayers and onto polluters. A price on carbon will help create the well-paying clean technology jobs needed to transform Canada into a renewable energy superpower.

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

Originally published as "Subsidies delaying shift to renewables", the Sudbury Star, Saturday, December 13, 2014 (print and online), without hyperlinks.

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