Thursday, October 29, 2009

Canada and the World

Even 20 months ago, no one knew what 350 meant, nor why it mattered. That's less than 2 years back. Then 10,000 year old ice sheets disappeared in the Arctic, Stephen Harper got a north of 60 hard-on, the IPCC released a report based on data that was already out of date (some of it a decade out of date), and a book detailing how James Hansen's work was censored came out. We shook our collective head, and some of us began to realize that we had entered what James Kunstler has called The Long Emergency.
It didn't take long to realize that 350 was the upper limit of atmospheric CO2 that could be considered "safe" (meaning that we might be able to keep global warming to 2°C and we might be able to live with the consequences of that rise), and here we are today looking at 390 ppm of carbon dioxide, no significant efforts being made to reduce carbon emissions, and a future that's looking at a minimum of 4°C warming and 6 metres of sea level rise--meanwhile emissions continue to increase and atmospheric CO2 rises at about 2ppm/year.
Here in Canada, we've got a Conservative government that is lead by a Prime Minister who still yet to convince anyone that he actually believes global warming may be a problem. Stephen "American Corporate Lackey" Harper is busy fiddling while the globe--including the nation of which he is nominally a member--burns. All our divorced-from-reality leader can see is the NorthWest Passage opening up and all that lovely ocean open to commercial exploitation.
Last week, the British Meteorological Office released a map of what we can expect to happen when we hit 4°C. The equatorial countries will get hotter, true, but the further you get from the equator, the more extreme the changes. But even now, Environment Minister Jim Prentice wants special treatment for Canada, allowing us--well, really just Alberta and the oil sands--to continue increasing our GHG emissions, while insisting that developing nations like China and India agree to hard caps that we ourselves will not accept. And the Canadian Government still refuses to release specifics of its plan to reduce our GHG emissions by 20% from our 2006 levels--which is light-years from our commitment under Kyoto.
Today comes the release of a new report. Quite unlike anything released in Canada before, it was financed by the Toronto Dominion Bank, produced by the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation, with economic modeling by the well-respected economic consultants, M.K. Jaccard and Associates Inc. As John Ibbitson writes in the Globe and Mail; "A major bank has paid two environmental organizations to produce a groundbreaking report that, for the first time, calculates the costs of both the Harper government's modest plans to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and the much more ambitious targets set by the environmental community, nationally and regionally."
The report offers a regional breakdown of economic impacts based on both the Harper government's vague commitment to 20% by 2020 (from 2006 levels) and  the impact from the deeper and harder cuts that environmentalists are calling for and that would put Canada in line with our international obligations. And guess what? Neither scenario would kill us!
According to the report,"The Conservative government's goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 can be achieved, but only by limiting growth in Alberta and Saskatchewan." Alberta's growth would be 8.5% less in 2020 than it would be under a BAU (Business As Usual) approach, the report concludes. Under the  same scenario, Saskatchewan would lose 2.8% of its projected growth. Central Canada, on the other hand, might well see some additional growth added to its projection. To quote Shawn McCarthy's article in the G&M; "Despite the steep costs involved in meeting targets, the analysis concludes the Canadian economy would continue to grow, albeit at a slower pace, and that investment in renewable energy and efficiency measures would result in an overall increase in employment compared to a “business-as-usual” scenario.
And even with the significant reduction in Alberta's potential growth and employment prospects, the province would still lead the country economically over the next 10 years."
So our economy would continue to grow AND there would probably be an increase in employment as well. And the cost? A reduction in projected growth an Alberta and Saskatchewan, and a significant out-migration from both provinces back to central Canada.
To further quote Shawn McCarthy's article: "TD's chief economist, Don Drummond, said the bank has not endorsed any targets, though it has supported a policy of a national emissions cap. He said the bank's interest was to shed light on an area where there has been little informed debate: the likely cost of imposing regulations."
I'm actually not seeing any real downside here. The Globe and Mail editorial board does though. In today's editorial, we read: "[T]he study acknowledges that what is proposed is no less than an economic upheaval: “There is a migration of capital and labour out of carbon and trade exposed sectors (e.g., fossil fuels) to sectors that are less carbon and trade exposed (e.g., manufacturing, services and renewable electricity).”
Canada cannot take its national unity for granted and must not, in the service of international obligations, allow itself to be immolated by a government policy of such wrenching dislocation." And the editorial concludes: "[T]he target [of carbon dioxide emission reduction] may be unreachable without unacceptable damage to Canada's economy and national unity. In which case, it is time for new targets, and new policies."
I can't help but think that no-one raised much of a stink about the "wrenching dislocation" caused by the development of the oil sands on the communities of Atlantic Canada. And even Jeffrey Simpson concludes that the Harper government's targets are just so much smoke being blown up our collective asses.
And so we have serious economic modelling of the potential and problems with trying to meet our international obligations regarding global warming and CO2 emissions. And we can now point to the report and say, "Tough, yes. But it won't kill us, and will probably make us stronger." And what of the complaints sure to come from the political and ruling classes of Alberta and Saskatchewan? Well, both provinces have had a great decade, with both provinces posting significant surpluses in their budgets, and neither has done a damn thing to prepare for the inevitable crash (particularly Alberta under Ralph Klein). For Alberta, that's two oil-based booms they've pissed away under Conservative governments. So honestly, I have no great sympathy for the Alberta government. And regardless of any future whining, we can look at the economic model contained in the M.K. Jaccard and Associates Inc. report, and read again the conclusion that "even with the significant reduction in Alberta's potential growth and employment prospects, the province would still lead the country economically over the next 10 years." And the planet (well, the human part of it) would thank us for facing up to our responsibilities.

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  1. Well, if we do nothing in this situation, we will have a nice warm weather all year long...haha. Which is quite appealing to me because I'm kind of getting tired of these cold winters and shoveling snow every day. But seriously now, this is a topic that should be taken more seriously than it is now. People don't realize how some countries in the world will be affected by the 2+ degree rise. Many islands will vanish and thus send millions of people to immigration. I just wonder if any of our attempts to change that will work. I do think that we waited too long to realize what we're causing to our planet, now it's a bit too late...

    Take care, Julie

  2. The thing is, Julie, that we can do something about it. We've blown through 2 degrees--we need to stay under 350 ppm increase for that, and we're already at 390. But there are approaches that will help. Changing the rules so that all buildings, commercial, industrial and residential have to have white roofs, and all our current pavement has to be replaced with white surfaces (i.e.. concrete) would make a huge difference, and give us some breathing room. Geo-engineering ideas (like those in Gwynne Dyer's book Climate Wars) might also give us some breathing room. But it's all for naught if we don't get around to reducing CO2 emissions right now.
    Even if we stop, we're still likely to be in serious trouble. With the delays in the system, the oceans will continue to warm and become more acid. We've over-fished enough that this is likely to lead to a full system crash--and if the oceans go, we go. We may not even get to Lovelock's little colonies huddled around the north pole or on islands with nuclear reactors.Humanity is pretty efficient at being stupide, and we may yet wipe the slate clean.