Canada’s federal government is fiddling while the world burns. The Tories’ “Action Plan” to deal with climate change, announced by Environment Minister John Baird on April 26, is actually a recipe for inaction and delay.
Immediate Action Needed
This year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued three major reports that summarize the current state of scientific knowledge about climate change. From those reports, we know that:
- The world is getting warmer at an unprecedented rate. It is now 1° Celsius above the pre-industrial level. If it increases to more than 2° above pre-industrial level, dangerous changes will become very likely.
- The primary cause of global warming is greenhouse-gas emissions, mostly produced by burning oil and coal.
- The principal sources of greenhouse gases are industries in the imperialist “global north,” but the principal victims of global warming will be the countries and peoples of the “global south,” where floods, famine and chaotic weather changes will hit hardest.
- To some degree global warming is irreversible, because greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for centuries. So, the goal must be to reduce current emission levels substantially, to prevent the accumulation from reaching catastrophic levels.
- To keep the global temperature increase under 2°, the worldwide growth of greenhouse-gas emissions must be stopped and reversed by 2015. The technologies to do so exist today.
- Contrary to claims made by conservative critics, IPCC reports are far from “alarmist”; the Panel’s conclusions are a conservative, lowest-common-denominator summary of peer-reviewed scientific research.
That makes the IPCC’s forecasts all the more frightening; the horrors they describe are far from the worst that could happen. Every delay in reducing emissions will increase the cost of later action, and increase the possibility of catastrophic climate change: this is a crisis that demands rapid and decisive action.
Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 and ratified it in 2002, promising to reduce greenhouse gases to six per cent below the 1990 level by 2012. Despite that, by 2005 Canadian GHG emissions were 27 per cent above the 1990 level, one of the worst records of pollution growth in the industrialized world.
That growth occurred despite repeated announcements of federal plans to reduce emissions: the Green Plan in 1990; the National Action Program in 1995; the Action Plan in 2000; the Climate Change Plan for Canada in 2002; and Project Green in 2005. In fact, a recent C.D. Howe Institute report points out that “emissions actually rose faster during the period of policy initiatives, from 1990 to 2006, than during the previous decade, from 1980 to 1990, even though this earlier period had no GHG reduction policies.”
Successive Liberal governments responded to global warming in typical Liberal fashion: they promised action, but did nothing that might upset their Bay Street masters. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper, elected in January, 2006, was different only in that they didn’t even pretend to care.
Before Harper he became Tory leader, he condemned the Kyoto Protocol as a “socialist scheme.” And the Conservative Party, which receives strong support from corporations in the oil, gas and coal industries, did not want to alienate those supporters by legislating limits to greenhouse gases.
So, it’s scarcely surprising that when it took office the government quickly announced that the Kyoto target of reducing emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012 was hopelessly unrealistic – and that one of its first actions was to cancel fifteen existing environmental programs.
What a Difference a Year Makes!
Accumulating scientific evidence and concrete experience with shifting weather patterns broke through the media blackout, promoting widespread public discussion and pushing global warming to the top of the polls as a voter concern. A survey conducted for BBC World found that 33 per cent of Canadians are “very concerned” about the effects of climate change, and another 43 per cent are “somewhat concerned.”
The three opposition parties saw the Conservatives’ opposition to environmental action as a weakness they could exploit in the lead-up to the next election. The Kyoto Protocol was the Opposition’s chosen issue. They joined forces to push through a bill in support of Kyoto.
This put the Tories on the defensive, needing to please their traditional supporters in energy and resource sector corporations, while at the same time to appear green enough to win votes from an electorate that is increasingly concerned by climate inaction.
Accordingly, global warming was moved to the top of the Tory Party public-relations agenda. In January, attack dog John Baird took over the Environment portfolio from the ineffective Rona Ambrose, and he lost no time in declaring Kyoto a threat to Canadian prosperity. His argument, codified in a formal report in April, was that implementing Kyoto “would plunge the Canadian economy into recession and dramatically lower the living standards of workers and families.” Unemployment would rise to 25 per cent. Prices would soar, they said: electricity up fifty per cent; gasoline up sixty per cent; natural gas up 100 per cent. The real disposable income of a family of four would fall by $4,000.
Of course, this was pure demagogy; the Tories would normally have no compunctions about cutting living standards for working people. Their real concern is for corporate profits; money that is spent on reducing emissions doesn’t go into shareholders’ pockets.
The government has not revealed the calculations that led to these dire conclusions, but the report clearly made very negative assumptions about costs. In particular, it assumed immediate imposition of a tax of $195 per tonne on greenhouse-gas emissions, vastly more than any pro-Kyoto expert has suggested would be needed. Then it assumed that all other taxes would be reduced to make the tax “revenue neutral.”
The government never considered that emission tax revenue might be used to promote conservation by expanding public transit, or by retrofitting homes for energy efficiency, or by retooling the auto industry to build more efficient vehicles.
And there is no suggestion in the Tory plan that the government could stop pouring billions into the occupation of Afghanistan, and use the money instead to replace coal-fired electrical plants with non-polluting technology.
Harper and Baird would undoubtedly prefer to just criticize Kyoto and do nothing more, but Baird’s predictions of Kyoto-induced economic disaster had little effect on public opinion. Voters remained strongly in favour of action to reduce GHG emissions.
So, a few weeks later, the Conservative government unveiled its own “Clean Air Regulatory Agenda,” which (like the ineffective Liberal plans that preceded it) focuses on reducing “emissions intensity,” which Al Gore has described as “a poll-tested phrase developed by think tanks financed by Exxon Mobil and other large polluters.” The idea, popularized by George W. Bush in his 2002 election campaign, is to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas produced per unit of production. As virtually every analyst has pointed out, reducing intensity is not the same as reducing emissions; if production goes up faster than emissions intensity goes down, then total emissions will increase.
That’s not just a hypothetical possibility. Between 1990 and 2004, Canada’s emissions intensity improved fourteen per cent, but total emissions rose 27 per cent! And the Pembina Institute points out that the Harper plan gives the Alberta Tar Sands a carte blanche to pollute: “a sector such as oil sands, where production is skyrocketing, will be able to meet its target while dramatically increasing its actual emissions. According to the [government’s] Technical Briefing, the oil sands sector will have to reduce its emissions intensity by 23 percent overall between 2006 and 2020. But according to the industry’s own projections, production will approximately quadruple during that period. The net result will be an approximate tripling of actual emissions in the sector.”
Loopholes and Exemptions
If that weren’t enough to condemn his proposals as a hoax, Baird’s “Action Plan” features enough loopholes to ensure that the polluters won’t have to do anything at all:
- They’ll get credits for “business as usual” intensity reductions they made between 1992 and 2006.
- They can contribute $15 per tonne for part of their excess emissions to a climate-change technology fund. That’s a no-brainer, if reducing emissions might cost more than that. (The Pembina Institute notes that carbon capture and storage, the principal technology option for emission reductions in the Tar Sands, “has an expected cost of upwards of $30/tonne.”)
- They can buy “emissions credits” from other Canadian companies, and possibly internationally.
- They can invest in projects that purportedly reduce emissions elsewhere in Canada or the Third World.
There is nothing in the plan that would stop corporations from closing down or moving high-emission production to other countries, and no suggestion that they should be required to reduce emissions that are produced by factories they have already moved to the Third World directly or by outsourcing.
“Unintentional fugitive emissions,” which comprise close to 25 per cent of the emissions produced by the oil-and-gas industry, are to be exempted from the Tories’ proposed regulations. Canadian facilities that began production in 2004 or later will be exempted for three years.
Facilities will be exempted entirely if they can show that there is no available technology to reduce their emissions – which will include the cement industry, which accounts for fourteen per cent of emissions produced by large manufacturers in Canada.
To complete the picture, while details are limited, it appears that the Tory plan depends on self-reporting by the biggest polluters. They’ll report their 2006 emissions this year to set a baseline, and then report their intensity results starting in 2010. The foxes will be in charge of the henhouse, and the opportunities for fraud will be unlimited.
What’s more, the government won’t even implement its proposed regulations this year. First they have to consult with stakeholders – meaning the lobbyists for big polluters. Then draft regulations for greenhouse gases will be published in the spring of 2008, and the actual emission intensity targets won’t come into force until 2010. Vehicle fuel efficiency standards won’t be imposed until 2011.
A Complete and Total Fraud
John Baird has refused to release the figures his plan is based upon, but he claims that under the Tory plan, absolute emission levels will begin to decline “as early as 2010 and no later than 2012,” and that by 2020 emissions will be twenty per cent below the 2006 level.
Not even conservatives believe him. Professor Mark Jaccard, of Simon Fraser University’s School of Resource and Environmental Management, was recently described by Baird as one of “Canada’s best economists outside of governments” and by his parliamentary secretary as a “well-respected expert on environmental issues.”
He was commissioned by the right-wing C.D. Howe Institute to conduct an in-depth analysis of the Harper-Baird plan. Even though it makes improbably optimistic assumptions about the government’s continuing commitment to GHG reductions, his report (co-authored by Nic Rivers) concludes that the Conservative plan will result in overall emissions in 2020 being higher than they are today.
Jaccard was supposed to appear before the House of Commons Environment Committee on June 14. Rather than let that happen, the committee’s chair, Conservative Bob Mills, resigned from his position, and no other Conservative would agree to replace him, so the committee could not meet and Jaccard couldn’t testify.
Bear in mind that the Tories’ promised GHG figures for 2020 were much higher than they are supposed to be under Kyoto in 2012, and vastly higher than the targets that climate scientists say are necessary to head off the worst effects of global warming. The fact that even his inadequate targets won’t be met fully justifies Al Gore’s description of the Tory plan as a “complete and total fraud” that is “designed to mislead the Canadian people.”
The Tory Plan is so bad that well-known British journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot says that Harper has joined President George W. Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard in a new climate change “axis of evil.”
A Choice for Humanity
The federal government’s plan puts “our” economy ahead of lives of the millions who will suffer and die if global warming continues. It assumes that the right of corporations to profit and grow is sacrosanct. Nothing, not even saving the planet, can be allowed to interfere with the divine rights of capitalism.
But it isn’t “our” economy – it’s theirs. Their system is fouling things up so badly that much of the earth could become uninhabitable. It must be replaced by a society that puts people before profits. The choice is between ecosocialism and barbarism – and it’s a choice that humanity must make soon.
The Tory plan is a fraud. But the fact that the Canadian government felt required to produce any plan proves that there is growing support for action to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. To stop the capitalist threat to our planet, we must build that sentiment into a movement.
- C.D. Howe Institute. Estimating the Effect of the Canadian Government’s 2006-2007 Greenhouse Gas Policies. www.cdhowe.org/pdf/ebrief_46.pdf
- Environment Canada Regulatory Framework for Air Emissions. www.ec.gc.ca/doc/media/m_124/toc_eng.htm
- Ian Angus, ed. Climate and Capitalism. climateandcapitalism.blogspot.com
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Reports by Working Groups I, II, and III. www.ipcc.ch
- The Pembina Institute. Analysis of the Government of Canada’s April 2007 Greenhouse Gas Policy Announcement. climate.pembina.org/pub/1464
This article appeared in the September/October 2007 issue of Canadian Dimension (Sci-Fi Politics).