With an election coming up, what climate policies should we be looking for?

In my previous two blog posts, I have summarised current scientific understanding of the nature of the climate emergency, and the directions in which policy needs to move in order to make the necessary transition technically possible.  That only goes part of the way to a statement of what we need from our legislators; here I’m trying to be a little more specific.

Let’s start with a basic principle. We must treat the emergency as an emergency.  Incrementalism is no longer enough.  The first step is to set emissions reduction targets which recognise the depth of the crisis.  At a minimum, we should be aiming for a 60% reduction compared to 2005 levels.  (See how this figure is arrived at here and modelling showing it can be achieved while maintaining prosperity here)

Whatever the targets set, we need a structure for ensuring accountability – we need to know that the policies in place are going to be adequate to achieve the targets.  The recently-passed Bill C-12 goes some way towards achieving this, requiring emissions targets to be set for 5-year intervals from 2030 onwards together with detailed plans to achieve them.  But it has weaknesses.  Achievement of targets by government should be mandatory, so that citizens can hold government to account with litigation if necessary.  A strong target should be set for 2025, as rapid emissions reductions in this decade are vital.  Assessment should be on the basis of 5-yearly carbon budgets, not only on the figures for “milestone” years.  The advisory body should be accountable to parliament as a whole, not to any particular minister.

Decarbonising our economy involves three stages, which can to some extent run concurrently: (1) maximise energy efficiency in every sector of energy use (extractive industries, manufacturing, construction, electricity generation, transport, buildings, agriculture, forestry, waste management), (2) fully decarbonise electricity by shifting to 100% renewables, and (3) electrify everything that can be electrified.  This is an enormous task – and it must be a coherent integrated package, not a mere menu if we are to hit meaningful targets.  To successfully achieve these three steps, we need the following or equivalent policies in place:

  • Continue with the federal carbon tax – including a steady increase in the rate – as a revenue-neutral measure, preferably with a higher proportion of the revenue returned to people on low income: they need to have the resources to decarbonise that the well-heeled take for granted.
  • The current output-based schemes for heavy industry still permit emissions increases if production increases significantly.  Stronger measures are therefore needed – for example, a set of subsector-specific feebate schemes (poor performers penalised, better-than-average performers rewarded).  Alternatively, subsector-specific cap and trade schemes with an ambitious and steadily reducing cap.
  • Introduce levies on imports from countries with lower carbon pollution pricing schemes.
  • While electricity is a provincial responsibility, federal governments can help by providing the bulk of funding for the interconnections between provinces – for example between Saskatchewan and Manitoba – that we will need for grid reliability with 100% renewables.
  • Strong pressure on the 4 remaining “coal provinces” to accelerate the exit from coal-fired electricity generation: I suggest an end date of 2025.
  • Pressure on the provinces to eliminate fossil gas fired electricity generation by the early 2030s.
  • Federal funding for skills training in renewables installation and maintenance, with priority first to Indigenous people and second to former fossil fuel workers.
  • Federal funding for innovative storage technologies which can reduce dependency on batteries
  • Strict energy efficiency rules built into environmental assessment legislation for new industrial projects
  • A requirement that all industrial concerns employ or contract energy managers, and that all senior staff be required to take elementary courses in energy management.  We expect people to take health and safety training: we should also expect the health and safety of the planet to be prioritised for decision-makers.
  • Funding for comprehensive public transit networks nationally, based on electric road vehicles and a radically improved rail system.
  • No new petroleum-fuelled vehicles after 2030
  • A national network of fast charging stations for electric vehicles
  • Funding for urban planning based on making cities walkable and cyclable
  • An enforceable national building energy code, with the performance standards for new-build required increasing steadily until compliance with Passivhaus criteria is the law before the end of the decade
  • Federal funding for a massive nationwide skills training and recruitment scheme for builders, electricians, plumbers, architects and engineers, to ensure that the skills are in place to make the necessary transition.  Priority first to Indigenous people, second to former fossil fuel workers.
  • Enforceable building energy regulations for existing buildings, together with accessible financing schemes and subsidies for deep energy retrofits.
  • Compulsory energy standards for rented accommodation.
  • Transition funding for farmers to support adoption of low-input methods, including but not limited to organic and agro-ecological approaches.  For a list of well-considered proposals see this and this. .
  • A compulsory shift to more sustainable options in forestry, including (but not limited to) elimination of monoculture forestry and clearcutting, and a ban on harvesting old-growth forests.
  • Tough and enforceable regulations on methane emissions by the oil and gas industry, including independent monitoring and serious penalties for infringements.  The current federal government has let Saskatchewan in particular get away with an extremely lax regime.

Yes, it’s a very long list.  But we need effective emergency planning, not picking and choosing.

But that only addresses the demand side.  We also need to deal with the supply side – the production of fossil fuels.  When the traditionally fossil-friendly International Energy Agency is saying clearly that new investment in coal, oil or fossil gas is incompatible with our goal of net zero emissions by 2050, we have to take notice.  Therefore:

  • The federal government must halt all subsidies and supports for the fossil industry.  They are big enough and rich enough to fund the now-necessary transition without handouts.
  • Abandonment of the TransMountain and Coastal GasLink pipelines.
  • An end to federal investment – through the Canada Pension Plan, for example – in fossil industries.
  • An end to federal loan guarantees for fossil projects abroad.
  • An end to all new fossil development in Canada – no new mines, no new oilfields, no new gas fields, no new wells, no new pipelines, no new LNG projects, no new refineries, no new upgraders.
  • Comprehensive plans providing logistical and financial support to hitherto fossil industry dependent communities in planning and building an alternative economic future: this will vary from place to place and should be locally determined to the greatest extent possible.
  • Subsidised job training for former fossil workers, generous income support as they transition, and favourable arrangements for early retirement for those seeking it.

The new government must avoid distractions.  New nuclear – which is incapable to contributing anything this decade and will most likely cost about ten times as much as wind or solar for the same power output – has no role in a serious climate plan.  Biomass energy with carbon capture and storage may have a very limited future role – provided that the biomass is sustainably produced and the impacts on ecosystems and agriculture are kept to the absolute minimum – but it MUST NOT be treated as an alternative to the measures listed above for emissions reduction.  Hydrogen will have an important but limited role in future, for seasonal energy storage, but it must be green hydrogen, produced by electrolysis of water, not blue, grey or brown hydrogen from fossil fuels.  These things are not the current priority, and politicians who focus on them are engaging in distraction and special pleading for the industries which have the funds to lobby them incessantly.

We must all recognise that this is an international emergency in which, as a wealthy and high-emitting country, we have more responsibility than most.  The report cited above shows that a “fair shares” reduction in Canada’s emissions should actually be 140%: as this is clearly impossible, it proposes that “the other 80%” be achieved by providing the funding and expertise necessary for low-income countries to reduce their emissions by the equivalent amount while continuing to build their economies.  This means things like enabling countries to develop their own renewables industries so that they can rapidly replace fossil-based infrastructure and build a 21st century energy system.  And climate disruption has already done, and continues to do, disproportionate damage to people in low-income countries.  So in addition to that funding for mitigation and transition we also need to provide adaptation support – building the infrastructure to cope with more extreme weather – and contribute towards payment for rebuilding.

If this list is exhausting (and yes, I’m exhausted from putting it together), it’s because we are now in the time of consequences.  If we had taken action earlier, the list would be shorter.  We no longer have that option: we have sleepwalked into an emergency.  But we have time to wake up and take the emergency action that is required.  Can we find politicians who have the courage and the resolve to do so?

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