The premiers’ Pan-Canadian Framework

Discussions among federal and provincial ministers have finally yielded a result.  In an 80-page document, they have set out their agreement on action to address climate change.  At least, most of them have.  The Manitoba government is withholding its support for the framework as a bargaining counter until its concerns about healthcare funding are met.  And the Saskatchewan government is refusing to play, complaining in now-familiar shrill tones that carbon pricing proposals would hit export-exposed energy-intensive industries – a concern which, as we will later show in these pages, can be adequately addressed within a carbon pricing system.

The content follows a pattern familiar to those who participated in the public consultation on the subject in the spring and summer of this year.  Subject matter is divided into 4 sections – carbon pricing; complementary emissions-reduction measures; adaptation and resilience; and new technology, innovation and jobs.  Within those categories, many of the specific policies which citizens called for at town hall meetings across the country (including our own in Saskatoon) appear in the document.  So at first sight there is reason for optimism.

The framework includes commitments to:

  • a shift towards zero-carbon electricity, with an exit from coal as a first priority.
  • federal infrastructure funding (though with no dollar figure attached as yet) for interprovincial interconnections and smart grids – two things which would seriously help provinces such as Saskatchewan to increase their targets for wind and solar power.
  • a national building energy code, and renewed support for both efficiency improvements to existing houses and high-performance new ones.
  • better emissions standards for vehicles; and active encouragement of “zero-emissions vehicles”, including a stronger network of charging stations for electric vehicles.
  • financial support for public transit.
  • support for energy efficiency in industry – including investment in the necessary technology.
  • regulations to reduce “fugitive emissions” of GHGs from venting, flaring and leaks at oil and gas installations.
  • delivery on the promise of $2.65 billion to help the lowest-income countries transition to clean energy and adapt to those impacts of climate change which prove unavoidable.
  • investing in resilient infrastructure, and supporting Northern and First Nations communities in adapting to the impacts of climate change.
  • supporting Northern and Indigenous communities in adopting clean energy technology.

But unfortunately that isn’t the whole story.  If the purpose of this policy framework is to reduce Canada’s emissions to values consistent with the Paris temperature goals (substantially less than 2degC of warming compared to pre-industrial levels, with the ambition of staying below 1.5degC), then there is a lot more work to be done – and quickly.  Apart from the vagueness of some of the commitments (which can possibly be excused in a framework document), we have a number of serious concerns:

Problem #1:  Canada’s 2030 emissions target – 30% below 2005 – is inadequate.  If all the national targets (in the jargon, NDCs, or Nationally Determined Contributions) currently submitted to the UN are met, we are still heading for at least 2.7degC of warming.  And, of the NDCs submitted by wealthy industrialised countries (which have both the greatest responsibility and the greatest ability to act), Canada’s is one of the weakest.  If most other countries were to follow Canada’s approach, the world would be heading for more than 3degC of warming, most likely more than 4degC.  So the target itself needs to be strengthened.

Problem #2:  Of the 219 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year which the target requires Canada to cut by 2030, the document provides adequate explanation for only 175 megatonnes.  The other 44Mte are said to come from “additional measures such as public transit and green infrastructure, technology and innovation, and stored carbon (forests,soils, wetlands)”.  No details are given in the document as to how this amount is to be achieved by these means.

Problem #3:  There is apparently no attempt to account for the increased emissions to be expected as a result of projects which the government has recently approved.  Emissions from production of fossil gas for the Petronas LNG plant have been calculated at 13Mte/year.  The Kinder Morgan Transmountain twinning and Line 3 replacement would enable increased bitumen production resulting in upstream emissions of to up to 19 and 17 Mte/year respectively.

Problem #4:  The document raises the possibility of international emissions trading under Article 6 of the Paris agreement.  The idea is that if we can’t get our act together to meet our target then we pay someone else who has exceeded theirs.  This is merely a lazy way out, a failure to take our responsibilities seriously.  As Pope Francis put it in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’,:

The strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide.  This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require.  Rather,it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors. (para 171)

Furthermore, some international emissions trading schemes have been at the expense of vulnerable populations in low-income countries.  John Dillon of Kairos cites a number of examples where this has happened in this paper.  The pope also addresses this type of injustice:

Some strategies for lowering pollutant gas emissions call for the internationalization of environmental costs, which would risk imposing on countries with fewer resources burdensome commitments to reducing emissions comparable to those of the more industrialized countries.  Imposing such measures penalizes those countries most in need of development.  (para 170)

It is also inefficient.  During the first seven years of the EU’s emissions trading scheme – the largest in the world – up to two-thirds of emissions credits did not represent real emissions savings, as a result of poor baseline establishment, double counting or fraudulent practice.  And it provides a bonanza for financial speculators, who can profit by gaming the regulatory system.

Finally, it is necessary to challenge one of the basic presuppositions of the document, which is enshrined in its title: “Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change – Canada’s plan to address climate change and grow the economy”.  It has been said that anyone who thinks unlimited growth in consumption is possible on a finite planet is either insane or an economist – and climate change is a clear sign that we are close to the limits to growth (if not already beyond them).  It is clear from the government’s own figures on page 5 of the report that we can achieve faster emissions reductions with lower GDP growth.  Given the inadequacy of GDP as a measure of genuine human wellbeing, especially in a wealthy society, surely there is a fundamental problem here with the premiers’ approach – why continue to fetishize one particular cell in an economist’s spreadsheet when it makes the more urgent task so much more difficult?  Why not instead work on building a new economy which can meet real human needs – including those not addressed in financial transactions – more effectively?  Again, the pope has something to say about this:

…It is a matter of redefining our notion of progress.  A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress.  Frequently,in fact, peoples’ quality of life actually diminishes – by the deterioration of the environment, the low quality of food or the depletion of resources -in the midst of economic growth.  In this context, talk of sustainable growth usually becomes a way of distracting attention and offering excuses.  It absorbs the language and values of ecology into the categories of finance and technology, and the social and environmental responsibility of businesses often gets reduced to a series of marketing and image-enhancing measures. (para 194)

We cannot afford for national marketing and image-enhancing to take the place of just and effective action to address the climate crisis and build a society in which everyone’s legitimate needs are met.

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