By Theo van de Kletersteeg

With carbon taxes and concern over climate change once again in the limelight, I thought it might be opportune to update an article that was published in Canadian Sailings in November of 2017.

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 assumptions underlying the Agreement, 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 “zero net 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 of 2017, 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 cumulative emissions 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 considerable discord among nations as to whether they are “on board” or not. Humans and animals produce CO2 naturally, just by being alive, and human activity during the past 150 years has created the hundreds of billions of tonnes of CO2 presently in the atmosphere. Until such time as mankind invents a technology to “scoop up” more CO2 from the atmosphere than it will put in (“net zero emissions”), the earth will continue to warm, resulting in increasing adverse incidents of related to climate change. Given the will to succeed, we can certainly reduce emissions and slow down the rate of increases in global warning, but there is no technology in sight that will actually reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, or that will lead us anywhere near a “zero net emissions” condition on an ongoing basis.

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 and on a par with U.S. emissions). At the domestic level, by far the largest Canadian emitters are Saskatchewan and Alberta (69.5 tonnes of GHGs and 64.6 tonnes respectively in 2016, per capita), while Quebec is the lowest (9.46 tonnes per capita in 2016). The Canadian average in 2016 was 19.9 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. While 2016 emissions had declined to 704 million tonnes, they will miss 2020 targets by a considerable margin. 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. 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, flooding, 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, or move. 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. As destruction gets worse, and sources of taxation decline, future governments will have very difficult choices to make.

If that’s bad enough, it gets worse: Because we completely ignored warnings about climate change until very recently, and did nothing to mitigate the rise in global warming, taxpayers will not only have to shoulder the burden of ever-increasing disaster relief and reconstruction, but will also have to pay for the far-reaching negative economic consequences of having to retire or convert carbon-intensive infrastructure to more carbon-friendly infrastructure. The longer we wait, the heavier the negative impacts will weigh. Coal-fired generating plants must be retired, and our gasoline and diesel-based transportation infrastructure must be converted to operate on LNG, propane, electricity, hydrogen and ammonia. The technical resources to carry out the required conversion exist. However, unlike the resources that the country was willing and able to muster to support the war from 1940 to 1945, Canada has become accustomed to a country “run” by a massive bureaucracy that is unable to plan for or execute the required mobilization of resources to achieve direct action. While Canada has lectured other nations on environmental stewardship, it is unable to lay out its own environmental direction and begin to implement a serious plan because in our present political environment, federal politicians feel they cannot act without having consulted with every possible interest group, and achieved absolute consensus.

Starting with a plan to combat climate change, even with the best intentions, developing a plan will take years. Who will be responsible for drawing up the plans? Does it make sense for Canada to make its own plans, or should be only do so in conjunction with our largest trading partner, the U.S.? What exactly do we wish to achieve? Over how many years? What are we prepared to sacrifice to achieve the stated results? Where will the required massive financial resources come from?

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 financial and operational undertaking but, with commitment, could probably be achieved. Canada has demonstrated in the past 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. Perhaps the very first priority would be for the federal government to initiate a public education effort, to let Canadians know how serious a threat climate change is to Canada’s well-being, and what we must do to help arrest the worsening trends.

It is difficult to see how the present government, which appears to be paralyzed and unable to get anything done, can take the task of combatting climate change beyond further endless discussion. Mr. Trudeau seems to think that tinkering around the edges with carbon taxes will be an initial, but nonetheless valuable step in the process. It is highly doubtful, though, that Canadians will truly curb their consumption of gasoline and other products that, directly or indirectly, include a carbon tax. Canadians will simply pay a little more, and grumble, but will not make lifestyle changes. And even if they were willing to make lifestyle changes, carbon taxes at the present levels cannot be expected to make more than a marginal impact. What we need is radical change that will change the way we do things.

Mr. Trudeau made many promises during the previous election campaign. He should realize 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? And after he will ultimately be replaced, how would he prefer to be remembered: As the PM who rolled in on a platform of protecting the environment AND protecting Canadian prosperity, or as the PM who failed to accomplish much in either department, and left dealing with major problems to his successor?