Thinking through Canada's climate change position

Yesterday I posted remarks from Environment Minister Jim Prentice at a news conference, in which I thought he framed the Canadian government’s position on climate change with admirable clarity. Prentice made three key points:

1)    Canada’s population and economy have grown too much since 1990, the benchmark year for the Kyoto climate change treaty, to expect steep emissions reductions in this country from that starting point;
2)    Compared to the European countries that are leading the push for tough emissions-reduction targets this week in Copenhagen, Canada is bigger, colder, and faster-growing—and therefore EU aims don’t make sense here;
3)     Canada’s government is not willing to sign on to any target that could only be achieved with “inordinate economic costs.”

Having let Prentice’s explanation, which sounded reasonable enough, stand for a day or so, here are some observations about his argument.

On rejecting 1990 as a starting point, I’m inclined to cut Prentice and the Conservatives some slack. After all, it was the Liberals who signed the Kyoto accord that made that Year 1—and then they didn’t do anything to fulfill Canada’s commitments under the deal. So it seems a bit much to blame the Tories who inherited the obligations much later.

Yet Prentice isn’t making exactly that point. Instead, he’s suggesting Canada’s population and economic growth since 1990 would have made cutting emissions impossible no matter what party was in power.

But I don’t see how growth rates over time are the issue—it’s per person output of greenhouse gases today. The average Canadian pumps out about three times as much as the average Swede—another cold country with a fair bit of geography. Are basic conditions here so different that a Canadian has no choice but to burn two or three times the fossil fuels of a rich European?

On the matter of “inordinate economic costs,” it’s hard to know exactly what level of emissions reductions would really hurt in terms of Canada’s standard of living. Depends how efficiently the cuts are achieved (a carbon tax would promote the lowest-cost cuts, but, unfortunately, that option has been deemed politically impossible).

But maybe looking at what’s economically palatable isn’t the way to go about this. Maybe we should consider what’s environmentally necessary. To prevent dangerous climate change—limiting global warming to no more than two degrees above pre-industrial times—most climate scientists call for emissions cuts of between 25 percent and 40 percent by 2020 compared to 1990 levels.

Based on that science, the EU parliament, for example, backs a 30 percent reduction by 2020 from 1990 levels. No doubt, agreeing to that sort of target would pose an extraordinarily difficult challenge for Canada—as Prentice warns. After all, emissions here are already about 30 per cent higher than 1990 levels. Thus, the Conservative government’s much less ambitious target of 20 per cent less greenhouse gas output by 2020, but down from a far higher 2006 baseline.

Under the Tory scenario, then, Canada’s per capita emissions gap compared to rich, northern European countries continue to widen. At the same time, a gulf would open between what science tells us we must do and what we’re willing, based on a calculation of economic self-interest, to try.

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