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With Copenhagen Looming, Canada Is A Climate Laggard – But We Don’t Have To Go On This Way

November 10, 2009

We now have less than a month until the opening of the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009, to be held from December 7-18 at the Bella Center (for some reason they decided to spell it the American way) in Copenhagen. The conference is also called COP15 because it’s the 15th “Conference of Parties” to something called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, reflecting the diplomatic world’s penchant for cute little abbreviations that combine letters and numbers.


Copenhagen, Denmark, which looks like a lovely place to talk about climate change. Photo by Flickr user "jimg944". License: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

The point of the conference is to work towards a treaty that backers of the process envision as a turbo-charged version of the Kyoto Protocol, the previous climate agreement that Canada has been enthusiastically ignoring for years. Under Kyoto, we were supposed to get our greenhouse gas emissions down to 6% below 1990 levels by 2012; for Copenhagen, numbers like 25% to 40% (again, below 1990 levels) have been bandied about as an ideal global target to be reached by 2020. As the Winnipeg Free Press reported, Canada’s emissions in 2007 were some 26% above 1990 levels, and were on the increase “thanks largely to Alberta’s oilsands, an increase in the number of vehicles on the road, and greater reliance on coal-fired electricity”. By international standards, this is a dismal performance:

Canada ranks “first among the G8 nations” for increasing emissions, the report notes, even though Canada had committed to cut them. It notes that while Canada’s emissions have soared, Germany chopped its emissions by 18 per cent between 1990 and 2006, and the United Kingdom slashed its by 15 per cent.

“We’re laggards and obstructionists,” said climatologist Andrew Weaver at the University of Victoria who, like many scientists and environmentalists, has been urging the Canadian government to cut emissions for years.

In fairness, the Harper government has promised to cut Canada’s emissions – to 20% below 2006 levels by 2020. This would amount to only a 3% cut relative to 1990 levels, falling well short of our Kyoto obligations, but so far the government has presented no credible plan to meet even this relatively modest target. Into the gap stepped the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation, who produced a report setting out the likely economic costs of two different levels of greenhouse reduction: the government target of 3% by 2020, and a more ambitious 25% by 2020.

The report found that Canada’s economy would grow by 2.4% per year between 2010 and 2020, assuming “business as usual”, meaning no effort to cut emissions beyond current measures. Meeting the modest government target would cut annual growth to 2.2%, while the deeper 25% cut would devastate Canada’s economy by reducing growth to a mere… oh, 2.1%. Not so devastating after all, then. The Pembina Institute’s press release noted specifically that in Alberta, although the province would be hit disproportionately hard because of the need to control emissions from the tar sands, “per capita GDP would continue to be much higher than that of any other region”.

To some extent, reaction to the report was divided along predictable lines. James Hrynyshyn, an expatriate Canadian who blogs thoughtfully about climate issues and accepts (like all sensible, well-informed people) the basic science of global warming, was mostly glad that the costs were so modest. I was pleased to come across commentary in the Edmonton Journal that also fell into this camp. Ross McKitrick, a well-known climate skeptic at the University of Guelph, questioned the assumptions behind the economic modelling in the Suzuki-Pembina report, which is fair enough; you can argue about the parameters of any complex model till the cows come home, and it’s often enlightening to do so. But the most perplexing reactions involved acceptance of the report’s basic conclusions followed by howls of outrage and/or derision. For example, the Globe and Mail editorialised:

It is the wrong approach; its all-out attack on the oil and gas sector is politically and economically unacceptable, and would euthanize a vital Canadian industry.

But if growth will only be dented, and Alberta’s per capita GDP will remain high by national standards, then clearly nothing vital is being euthanised. I really don’t see how anyone could consider the relatively modest costs envisioned by the Suzuki-Pembina report to be “politically and economically unacceptable”, unless they were in thrall to one of two deeply suspect assumptions: that the whole concept of global warming is fundamentally flawed, or that economic growth is too important to be compromised even slightly for the sake of maintaining the stability of the global environment.

Perhaps, however, I’m being unfair. So if you agree with the Globe and Mail on this, I want to hear from you. What exactly is so awful about the idea of accepting a small reduction in economic growth in order to achieve a significant cut in greenhouse emissions?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2009 11:47 am

    Yes. It’s like selling your condo… once it is gone it’s gone. But if you rent it, an income stream arrives year in year out.

    The kicker with our ancient forests is that not only do they pull vast amounts of CO2 out of the troposphere but they are protectors of water. An then there’s medicines, foods and homes for critters.

    Basically we have denuded enough wildlands and now forestry needs to get on with practising what they preach ie growing trees on cutover lands.

    Canada could derive vast $$$ from keeping its ancient forests and helping the planet at the same time.

    Really — its a no-brainer and OSU research clearly validates this.

    Cheers, Dr Reese

  2. November 25, 2009 12:09 pm

    Not only does Canada have a crucial role to play in Copenhagen but the old growth forests are central to the plan.

    If wise, Canada, could rent its ancient forests following the model that Marriott International has developed with renting its forests see

    In addition — fresh water must be protected and again Canada needs to take a leading role on this front too.

    Dr Reese Halter ‘s latest book is The Incomparable Honeybee and the Economics of Pollination

    • corsullivan permalink*
      November 26, 2009 10:51 am

      If I’m understanding correctly, the idea is basically that companies would offset their emissions by paying to protect old-growth forests, which in turn ensures that the carbon contained in the old-growth vegetation remains locked up as plant matter instead of being released into the atmosphere?

      I’m very much in favour of anything that leads to the protection of old-growth forests and the biodiversity they contain, but I also think offset schemes like this one shouldn’t become too much of a distraction from developing the technological and social innovations that will be necessary to reduce the quantities of greenhouse gases we emit as a result of industry, transportation and daily life.

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