By Theo van de Kletersteeg

The other day I stumbled across an article in The Economist that represented the first comprehensive, and yet simple explanation of the relationship between carbon in the atmosphere, and global warming.

Scientists and green supporters have explained to us during the past decade or so that global temperature increases must be kept well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, if we wish to avoid the more egregious consequences of climate change. Accordingly, the 2015 Paris Agreement requires that signatories to the Agreement implement programmes to reduce national carbon emissions to levels that are thought to result in global temperatures to be kept in check, and to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”, compared to the 0.9°C temperature rise that has taken place since 1870.

There are three things wrong with the Agreement and its assumptions, namely:

First, is there such a thing as “sustainable action to maintain global warming to less than 1.5°C forever.”? Given our lack of meaningful action to date to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, talk about keeping global warming below 1.5°C seems preposterous. Global warming occurs not as a consequence of the rate of carbon accumulation in the atmosphere, but as a consequence of the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere. No matter how frugal we may ultimately become in our carbon emissions, it is almost impossible to imagine that at some point in the future we will be able to produce “net zero emissions annually” that are necessary to prevent temperatures from rising further.

Secondly, how do we know that a temperature increase of 1.5°C is the threshold? Based on observation of increasing numbers of violent climate-related events at temperature increases well below 1.5°C, should we not be thinking far more aggressively about implementing policies associated with lower temperature targets?

Thirdly, do we really know how many billions of tonnes of CO2 of emissions are associated with a given temperature rise?

In September, Nature Geoscience Journal published an article entitled “Emission budgets and pathways consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C.” The article, by Richard J. Millar and his colleagues at Oxford University, suggests that it is possible that far greater volumes of CO2 can be emitted than previously thought, before exceeding the 1.5°C threshold level. It had hitherto been assumed that for the globe to have a good chance of limiting its warming to 1.5°C, so long as cumulative releases of CO2 would remain below 2.25 trillion tonnes. As a point of reference, currently cumulative CO2 releases stand at just over 2 trillion tonnes, with 40 billion tonnes of additional carbon being released into the atmosphere annually. Based on current inventories and releases, and based on the previous assumptions of 2.25 trillion tonnes being the threshold that would trigger global warming beyond 1.5°C, it was thought that “time was running out” very fast indeed.

However, based on re-modelling of climate data carried out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Dr. Millar’s colleagues, the global temperature change that was actually associated with the release of 2 trillion tonnes of CO2 was “only” 0.9°C, rather than the expected 1.2°C. Accordingly, the scientists revised their previous estimates, and now believe that cumulative emissions of 2.75 trillion tonnes of CO2 are associated with a global temperature rise of 1.5°C, not 2.25 trillion tonnes. Scientists then adjusted another model to compute another set of estimates, which resulted in a number of 2.92 trillion tonnes being associated with a global temperature rise of 1.5°C. The upshot of the new estimates is that it is now thought that we may have another 35-40 years of CO2 emissions at current levels before global warming reaches 1.5°C.

I, for one, now have a better understanding of the relationship between past, current and cumulative emissions and their associations with efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C. The news appears to give the world a reprieve, albeit for a short time. However, time goes by quickly and each year that we fail to act means that the following year we would have to re-double our efforts to get to the same objective. We must always bear in mind that it’s total accumulations that matter, not the rate at which accumulations occur.

According to the new studies, from now on global emissions of some 40 billion tonnes must be reduced annually by some 4-6 per cent to reach zero net emissions some 40 years from now. That is an incredibly ambitious task, which most would say is impossible to attain, particularly when there continues to be discord among nations as to whether they are “on board” or not.

Where does Canada stand in all of this? Canada represents only about 1.6 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, given that Canada’s population represents only 0.5 per cent of the global population, our per capita production of greenhouse gases is the second highest in the world (after Australia). At the domestic level, by far the largest Canadian emitters are Saskatchewan and Alberta (67.6 tonnes of GHGs and 66.6 tonnes respectively in 2013, per capita), while Quebec is the lowest (10.1 tonnes per capita in 2013). The Canadian average in 2013 was 20.7 tonnes per person per year.

The federal government has announced target reductions for 2020 and 2030. From actual emissions of 726.1 million tonnes in 2013, Canada intends to reduce emissions of GHGs to 622 million tonnes in 2020 and 525 million tonnes by 2030. The provinces have announced targets too, but these are far less aggressive than the plans by the federal government, and would add up by 2030 to emissions that would actually exceed federal targets by about 10 per cent.

So far, so good, although a somewhat critical observer would wonder how such relatively modest reductions would put us on a path anywhere near the global objective of zero net emissions by 2060. According to Julie Gelfand, Commissioner, Environment and Sustainable Development, who was interviewed on BNN on October 6, Canada has failed to implement successive emission reduction plans and has not met its obligations under the Kyoto accord, will not meet its 2020 obligations, and is not on target to meet its 2030 objectives. Which makes Canada part of the problem, not the solution.

By all accounts, the warnings of climate scientists of ten or twenty years ago have proven to be correct. Yet, no country on earth has taken any meaningful steps to avoid what looks like the man-made destruction of the environment in which he lives. If no dramatic action is forthcoming very soon, our children who are currently teenagers will see their later lives destroyed through a collapsing economy, long-lasting drought and heat waves, lack of adequate food, the collapse of social structures, and anarchy. Already we can see that today’s wildfires, hurricanes, and floods are more massive and intense in scope than ever before, with devastating impacts on local populations. Governments pretend that “it’s business as usual”, but are required to spend vastly greater sums than before on disaster relief and reconstruction, increasing budget deficits and debt. At some point, taxpayers will no longer be able to shoulder these increases in “operating expenses”, and businesses will find the additional costs and complexities of operating businesses under adverse circumstances too much, and close down. For a perspective of how climate change will impact national finances, consider President Trump’s reluctance to commit the necessary dollars to reconstructing devastated Puerto Rico! As a businessman, he understands that constantly throwing money at problems without being able to control outcomes does not achieve anything. In the future, politicians will have to get real “nasty” about which region “deserves” to receive taxpayer-funded protection, disaster relief and/or reconstruction. As destruction gets worse, and sources of taxation decline, governments will have very difficult choices to make.

If we are serious about climate change, we must get serious about reducing emissions, rather than just talking about it. We must hold our politicians accountable for implementing policies that produce results, not just policies that slow down the rate of emission increases. The latter is nowhere near good enough.

We must understand that just meeting the environmental obligations we have agreed to sign on to is not good enough. If humanity is to have any chance of surviving the looming catastrophe, we must do more, a lot more, than we have agreed to do. Not just Canada, but every nation on this planet. Canada is economically a small nation, and represents only a tiny fraction of the world’s population. However, as the world’s second largest per capita emitter of GHGs, we have a special obligation to set an example. Perhaps a good start would be the conversion of Canada’s transportation fleet from gasoline and diesel to natural gas and propane with a “war-like” degree of urgency. Ten years from now, there should not be a single car or truck on the road in Canada that operates on gasoline or diesel fuel. This would be a massive undertaking, on a financial and operational scale similar to Canada’s commitments during World War II. However, Canada has demonstrated that, when it must, it can muster the national commitment to do great things. Finding ways to make meaningful reductions in GHG emissions would be an extremely challenging task – most Canadians think they have done their “bit” if they substitute paper for plastic bags, or don’t print emails they receive. Since the task at hand is so massive, and will require enormous innovation and national commitment, there should be no further time wasted to make serious plans. I would add “We know what needs to be done”, but that’s just it, we don’t know. The average Canadian has absolutely no idea of the massive undertaking that is required to merely slow down the rate of temperature increases, and the heavy toll it would take on the economy. On the other hand, continuing our ostrich policies would exert an even heavier toll on the economy in decades to come.

I realize that our politicians have a lot on their plates these days: deteriorating trade relations with the U.S., a deteriorating balance of trade, record debt levels at virtually all levels of government, operating deficits at virtually all government levels, record consumer debt, record housing prices and now calls to get serious about climate change. Governments cannot do everything, so perhaps it is time for the federal government to re-arrange its priorities, to execute its top priorities well, and to abandon those at the bottom of the list. Mr. Trudeau made many promises during the election campaign. He should realise that it is probably better to execute one’s top priorities well, and abandon lower priorities, rather than be a mediocre performer at all levels. In such a re-arrangement, where would the environment stand?