Climate change failures hurt our credibility

The Harper government is fond of sounding off on international issues, such as the crisis in the Ukraine. But its bellicose statements often preclude us from playing a constructive role.

The Harper government is fond of sounding off on international issues, such as the crisis in the Ukraine. But its bellicose statements often preclude us from playing a constructive role.

Its words, rather, are intended for Canadian voters.

As a result, Canadian foreign policy is more often about diaspora politics and votes than contributing to problem solving in the world’s hot spots.

But there is another dimension of Canadian policy that also diminishes our international credibility: Making international pledges, then not delivering.

Climate change and achieving our greenhouse gas emission targets are a good example. Canada has pledged to reduce GHG emissions in 2020 by 17 per cent from 2005 levels. It is clear that we are unlikely to meet this commitment. Worse still, there’s scant evidence we are even trying.

So our words ring hollow.

Yet just recently, at the annual ministerial meeting of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada joined with 33 other OECD members in declaring that “climate change is a major urgent challenge” that requires “a decisive, consistent and coherent response.”

Canada is among those countries that have agreed that the world must be limit the increase in the average global surface temperature to less than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels if we are to ward off catastrophic climate change.

The fact that we are not seriously trying to meet our international commitment on GHG emissions doesn’t prevent our government from pretending otherwise. Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, for example, claimed not too long ago that “we are taking a leadership role in taking actions on climate change.”

The opposite is true. The strongest efforts in Canada have been made by provincial governments.

Moreover, the Conservatives abolished the National Roundtable on the Economy and the Environment, an outside panel of environmental experts, after it documented the Harper government’s meagre climate change efforts.

Just recently though, in contrast, the U.S. government published its 2014 National Climate Assessment.

The report spells out disturbing implications of climate change, making clear not only that “the global warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human activities” but that temperatures “are expected to continue to rise,” posing major risks to society. The burning of coal and oil are major factors.

The report spells out the hugely damaging implications for agriculture, water resources, human health, ecosystems, coastal communities and urban systems and infrastructure. It is an alarming report.

Yet while curbing GHG emissions is expensive, the alternative of not doing so is even more costly.

Our government is not exactly in a state of denial, but seems unwilling to do anything that the oil industry is unwilling to accept.

But now, a new report suggests that the government’s hope that rapid development of the oilsands will deliver an economic bonanza may be seriously misplaced and that a number of planned projects either may not make any money or may not proceed at all.

Carbon Tracker, a UK team of financial specialists who advise investors on climate change risks, has just published a report — Carbon supply cost curves: Evaluating financial risk to oil capital expenditures — in which it argues that oil projects where the break-even oil price is Brent US$80 a barrel, or higher, are probably uneconomic. Some oilsands projects are vulnerable because they need a break-even price above US$80.

The core argument is that if the two degrees Celsius target is to be met, then the world will have to work within a finite carbon budget, which will mean a reduced use of oil.

And within this carbon budget, there is sufficient oil that can be produced at US$60 a barrel. Oil use above that production level, it says, would take us over the two degrees Celsius target.

If Canada is to be taken more seriously in the global community, it must begin by becoming serious about climate change.

By the end of next year, the global community is committed to signing a new international accord on future GHG emission reductions, with legal force, to be implemented from 2020. But national action plans will be expected to be revealed well before that, probably less than a year from now.

There is no indication we are anywhere near ready.

Yet if we fail on climate change, the world will have much greater reason to dismiss us as a global outlier than it does because of our diaspora foreign policy.

Economist David Crane is a syndicated Toronto Star columnist. He can be reached at crane@interlog.com.

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