Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Despite Paris, It's Business as Usual on Climate Change

Just one month after triumphantly returning from the Paris Climate talks, it seems that our federal and provincial governments really were just full of hot air after all. “Business as usual” continues to prevail, and there remains a lack of political will to do what's necessary to hold global temperature increases between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius – the level of warming the international community committed to in the historic Paris agreement. In Canada’s case, doing what’s necessary means leaving much of our known fossil resources in the ground.

Canada is one of the world's largest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases (see: Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” the Conference Boardof Canada, 2011).  We're also home to the Athabasca tar sands, one of the most carbon-intensive deposits of oil in the world.  As much as 85% of known tar sands deposits must stay safely sequestered in the ground if Canada is to meet former Prime Minister Harper’s international commitment to lower emissions by 30% of 2005 levels by 2030 (see: 85% of tar sands must stay in the ground tolimit climate change to 2 degrees Celsius,” the Council of Canadians, January 8, 2015). 

Harper's target has been soundly condemned for its lack of ambition, given Canada's historic rate of emissions.  However, Justin Trudeau's new Liberal government has refused to set its own target, and has instead decided to leave it to the provinces to determine appropriate emissions reduction levels.   Although Trudeau has proposed modest tinkering with the National Energy Board (NEB), the agency tasked with overseeing pipeline assessments, the Liberals haven’t halted on-going reviews of TransCanada’s Energy East or Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipelines, or required upstream and downstream evaluation of climate impacts.

New bitumen pipelines are only necessary if tar sands production increases – a scenario long contemplated under Alberta's former PC government.  Expansion plans haven’t changed under the Alberta NDP, even with a new carbon pricing plan released by Premier Rachel Notley just before the Paris conference.  Alberta’s NDP government and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers both believe the new plan will create the social license necessary for Alberta to grow the tar sands (see: "AB climate strategy expected to build moremarket access,” the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, November 22, 2015).

Earlier this week, British Columbia and Alberta shared with the NEB their respective positions on the Kinder Morgan pipeline review.  B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s Liberal government opposes the project, due to the lack of an acceptable oil spill clean-up plan (see: B.C. rejects Kinder Morgan’s bid to expandTrans Mountain pipeline,” the Globe and Mail, January 11, 2016). Clark also made support conditional on Kinder Morgan fulfilling all legal aboriginal and treaty rights – a condition that might come back to haunt B.C. after its Supreme Court decided this week that the province can’t pawn off to the NEB its Crown duty to consult with First Nations (see: “B.C. government failed to properly consult withFirst Nations on Northern Gateway pipeline, court rules,” CBC News, January 13, 2016).

Climate change impacts, however, don’t appear to concern B.C.’s premier.  Clark, with the support of B.C.’s NDP opposition, and with federal subsidies promised initially by Stephen Harper and recommitted to by Justin Trudeau, has staked her province’s economic future on developing high-emissions liquified fracked gas. 

Despite B.C.’s objections to Kinder Morgan, particularly those regarding First Nations rights, Premier Notley's Alberta government advised the NEB of its unequivocal support for the new pipeline, suggesting that expanding the tar sands would benefit all Canadians (see: Alberta premier says lack of pipeline accesshurts all Canadians,” the Calgary Herald, January 13, 2016).  

What happens with the Alberta tar sands matters to the rest of Canada, but not in the way Premier Notley thinks.  If Alberta’s plan is fully implemented by 2030, with only 12% of Canada’s population, the province will be emitting 50% of Canada’s greenhouse gases (see: Alberta’s new carbon tax,” Skeptical Science, December 31, 2015). As a result, Ontario, which has already ended coal-fired electrical generation, may be on the hook to do more than its fair share to further reduce emissions.  Our own energy-intensive industrial sectors, like the mining sector, may be put at risk thanks to an abdication of climate leadership at the federal level, and to Alberta not doing its fair share. “Business as usual” indeed. 

(opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own and should not be considered consistent with the policies and/or positions of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

Originally published in the Sudbury Star as "Sudbury Column: Business as usual on climate change" (online), and "Despite Paris, business as usual on climate change" (print), January 16, 2016 - without hyperlinks.

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