Canada a belligerent outlier in global climate discussion

Global negotiations are now underway in South Africa to implement an agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions that are driving dangerous trends in climate change and threaten lives and well-being of future generations.

Global negotiations are now underway in South Africa to implement an agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions that are driving dangerous trends in climate change and threaten lives and well-being of future generations.

Yet an agreement appears unlikely and, to our shame, Canada is part of the problem.

The evidence of man-made climate change is only becoming stronger and the warnings of what this means much clearer. Richard Muller, an American astrophysicist who had been a skeptic of the evidence accumulated by UN scientists on the extent of global warming, assembled a group of reputable scientists to double-check the data. He found that the UN-sponsored work was accurate.

As a result, he said, he now accepts that “greenhouse gases could have a disastrous impact on the world” and that it makes sense to scale back the greenhouse gas emissions from our heavy and growing use of coal and oil.

In the meantime, a new report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that drought and flood conditions in North America and other parts of the world will become more frequent and intense. This means more intense heat waves and floods, which will affect food production, water levels and health.

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Energy warns that if present trends continue, the world is headed for the worst-case scenario projected by climate scientists.

Global greenhouse gas emissions last year were the highest ever recorded.

For its part, the International Energy Agency, in its recent World Energy Outlook, warns that there are “few signs that the urgently needed change in direction in global energy trends is underway.”

Without major new policies, we are on the path to a long-term global temperature increase of more than 3.5C. Canada and other nations at the Cancun summit last year had earlier agreed to hold the temperature increase to 2C for this century. Yet as the IEA has said, even a 2C temperature increase “would still have negative impacts, including a sea-level rise, increased floods, storms and droughts.”

But going into the negotiations, Environment Minister Peter Kent adopted a belligerent tone. Speaking to the Toronto Economic Club recently, he said Canada expected to face strong criticism for it policies from other countries but he would not back down. “We are confident in our plan and will not be swayed,” he declared, adding, “the reason we are so confident is because our plan is working.”

Working? Plan? Canada seems to have only half a plan.

An analysis by the Winnipeg-based Institute for Sustainable Development found that with all the actions planned by Canada so far, we would achieve less than half of our commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17 per cent below their 2005 levels by 2020.

To date, our greenhouse gas emissions are still running higher than there were in 2005.

Moreover, the federal government has lowered its emission reduction targets for 2010-2013.

On a per capita basis, Canadian greenhouse gas emissions are among the highest in the world.

By comparison, China’s new Five-Year Plan has integrated ambitious environmental plans into its future growth strategy.

Canada — and the world — are not helped by the abysmal performance of the United States, where there is both strong political and public rejection of the science of climate change, let alone the need to act. The most irresponsible position is coming from the Republican Party but the Obama administration has done little to lead.

This does not let Canada off the hook.

It means we have to be more innovative in how we design our policies rather than using U.S. failure as an excuse for inaction on our part.

Australia, another resource economy, has adopted a highly ambitious Clean Energy Future plan that includes a carbon tax, major investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and tax incentives for households.

There are signs of the changing recognition of the need to act in the business community, as one of the world’s largest banks has pointed.

According to HSBC, this year’s global investor statement on climate change is supported by 285 institutions with more than US$20 trillion under management.

In 2009, at the time of the Copenhagen conference, only 187 institutions with US$13 trillion in assets under management were willing to sign.

As The Economist put it recently, there is “little room for doubters. The world is warming.”

Canada must be part of the solution, not a belligerent outlier.

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