Can’t hide from climate change

The need for action on climate change is getting closer to home and Stephen Harper, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau are running out of places to hide.

The need for action on climate change is getting closer to home and Stephen Harper, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau are running out of places to hide.

It’s not just that the Harper government is expected to fall 20 per cent short of its commitment for greenhouse gas emission reduction by 2020. By the end of March next year, Canada will have to submit to the United Nations its commitment for the post-2020 world, including making up for its 2020 shortfall as well.

This March deadline is to set the stage for a global summit in Paris next December to draft an international agreement so that the global average temperature does not rise more than 2 degrees Celsius, the agreed-on upper limit if the world is to avoid catastrophic climate change.

The tenor for what is expected will likely emerge in the UN climate change summit in Peru next month.

In its just-released World Energy Outlook 2014, the International Energy Agency warns that even if the world proceeds to implement already planned policies, the world is still headed towards a long-term temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Celsius, or nearly double the increase that Harper, among others, has agreed is the tolerable upper limit.

Indeed, the IEA assumes that in the period after 2020, if the world adopts polices to seriously address greenhouse gas emissions, the rich countries, which includes Canada, will have to adopt a carbon price — a carbon tax or carbon trading system — at a level sufficiently high to make investment in low-carbon technologies attractive.

The IEA report does not take into account the ground-breaking announcement made by U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But even if U.S. and Chinese commitments are fully met, this will not be enough. And while the Chinese commitment has a good chance of being implemented, the U.S. commitment is unlikely to be achieved without Congressional support. And the Republican Party has already made it clear it wants nothing to do with Obama’s commitment. As HSBC Global Research points out, both the U.S. and China have made huge commitments.

Obama said the U.S. goal was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 per cent by 2025 from 2005 levels, which means an even faster rate of emissions reduction than has been achieved since 2005.

China’s two commitments are even more demanding since they require a major change in Chinese energy policy and massive investment.

The first is to achieve a peaking of emissions by about 2030. Since China’s economy could be 150 per cent larger by then, this in itself is truly significant since a growing economy needs more energy.

China has also committed to increase the share of non-fossil fuels for electricity to 20 per cent by 2030, compared to 10 per cent now. This will be a mix of nuclear, solar, wind, hydro and biofuels.

HSBC estimates this would mean an additional 50-60 gigawatts of new non-fossil-fuel capacity each year for the next 15 years. In effect, China would have to add the equivalent of three to four times the operation generating capacity of Ontario Power Generation for each of the next 15 years — in effect, create 45 to 60 new OPGs in a 15-year period in non-fossil fuels. OPG supplies 50 per cent of Ontario’s electricity needs.

This vast challenge also creates enormous opportunities for innovation in clean energy. But it also means, as HSBC economists said, that the China-U.S. bilateral agreement “increases the pressure” on other emitters to “submit ambitious pledges” for emissions reduction by March 31 of next year, including “countries that have chosen to bury their heads in the sand, such as Australia and Canada.”

While Obama is trying to act on climate change despite Congressional opposition, Harper has shown little inclination to act even though the opposition parties would be supportive.

But as Canada’s independent watchdog, the Pembina Institute says, “Canada has run out of excuses for failing to reduce emissions.

Introducing stringent emissions reduction for our oil and gas sector and ramping up investments in energy efficiency and clean energy technology must be top priorities — both to do our fair share to address climate change, and to help Canadian industry compete in a world that is increasingly pursuing low-carbon energy.”

So this is the Canadians question: Are we going to be part of the problem or part of the solution?

We need answers from Harper, Mulcair and Trudeau.

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

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