Monday, 22 August 2016

BC’s ‘New’ Climate Plan Scales Olympian Heights of Political Cynicism

This blog was first published as an Op-Ed piece in The Globe and Mail Aug. 21, 2016

In 30 years of evaluating government climate plans, I have learned to classify them into three categories: somewhat effective, naively ineffective and cynically ineffective. BC’s new climate plan fits perfectly into one of these categories. Can you guess which?

Let me help. The thing about ‘effective’ climate policy is that it is never a political winner. Effective policies would start immediately to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by either pricing these or regulating fuels and technologies. The price can be achieved by a carbon tax, as in BC and Alberta, or an emissions cap with tradable permits, as in Ontario and Quebec. Alternatively, regulations, which dominate in California, would require a growing market share for zero-emission vehicles, furnaces, electricity generation, and industrial equipment. In every case, the stringency of these effective policies must be increasing – a rising carbon tax, a falling emissions cap, tightening regulations. Everything else is bogus.

Politicians know that effective climate policy is not a political winner because these effective policies cause gasoline prices to rise immediately, while the benefits from slowing climate change and sea level rise occur after the politician’s career is over. Only a politician willing to show ethical leadership would take effective action on this difficult global challenge. Politicians who are not leaders but seem to care would gravitate to ineffective policies. Politicians who are cynical and don’t care would deliberately fake it, implementing a long list of ineffective policies, engaging in endless ‘public consultation’ and dismantling the effective policies implemented by previous climate leaders.

Which brings us to BC Premier Christy Clark and her new climate plan. From 2007 to 2011, her predecessor, Gordon Campbell, led the world in implementing effective climate policies, out-muscling even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s efforts in California. He banned the use of coal and natural gas to generate electricity. He implemented a rising carbon tax. He established the legislative framework for an emissions cap, and for tightening regulations on fuels, vehicles, buildings and equipment. He not only set a climate target for 2020, but also interim targets for 2012 and 2016 to enable real-time monitoring of the effectiveness of his efforts.

But when Clark replaced Campbell in 2011, one of her first acts was to freeze the tax at its 2012 level. Because of inflation, this means the tax has been declining in real value for the last four years. She also undermined his zero-emission electricity requirement and his emissions-cap legislation, and she has done nothing to tighten any of his other regulations. At the same time, she has vigorously promoted expansion of the natural gas industry which, if successful, would dramatically increase emissions. And last year, she launched yet another public consultation.

In refusing to serve on her consultative panel, I pointed out that this was the last thing BC needed, and that anyone joining the panel was legitimizing a strategy of inaction. In BC, we already had effective policies, and Clark would know from her advisors that only by increasing their stringency would emissions fall. But endless public consultation is a convenient way of appearing to care without taking action. And the panel did not help by naively calling for an increase in the carbon tax. This played directly into Clark’s populist posture as defender of overtaxed car and truck drivers, and was unnecessary, as California’s smart regulations have proven.

Last week, Clark finally released her climate policy. Predictably, it perfectly fits the ‘cynically ineffective’ category. First, there is no immediate tightening of the stringency of any effective policies to achieve emissions targets in, say, 2020 and 2025. Second, consistent with the cynical category, the plan includes a list of innocuous policies that are known to be ineffective – subsidies to industry to electrify some processes, information programs for consumers, and statements about the government’s good intentions. And taking cynicism to a new level, the plan’s so-called emissions reductions are dominated by tree planting on lands that are already allocated to forestry, an action that does not decrease emissions in the long run.

If there were an Olympic event for political cynicism on the climate challenge, BC’s new climate plan would be a strong contender for the gold medal.

Monday, 14 March 2016

My interview in "Building a consensus on climate change? Not so easy, after all" in Macleans

Here is the link to an article by John Geddes "Building a consensus on climate change? Not so easy, after all", Ottawa bureau chief at Maclean’s, who does a good job of distilling my point that while carbon pricing is the most economically efficient GHG reduction policy, it is willful blindness to assume that economic efficiency is the only criterion when trying to implement climate policy. If regulations are more politically acceptable, especially for doing the heavy lifting, then put some intelligence (even economic intelligence) into designing market-oriented regulations that are relatively economically efficient.

One might notice by the way, that in the first two weeks of March Trudeau failed to get provinces to agree to even a small carbon price (that would have virtually no effect on emissions - such as $15 or $30 per tonne of CO2)) and then went to Washington and quickly signed an agreement with Obama to dramatically reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. No mention of emissions pricing. It will be regulation." 

The Paris climate summit

This article appeared in Policy Options in November 2015.
The Paris climate summit
Canada has consistently failed to deliver, but it’s not too late for us to make a major contribution at the climate summit in Paris.
The other day I heard an environmental advocate argue that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needed to make an ambitious commitment at the UN Paris climate summit (COP 21) to atone for all the “climate fossil” awards won by our previous prime minister. I’m not so sure.
Remember when newly elected President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize? He hadn’t yet done anything. Apparently the Nobel committee bestowed the award simply because he was not George W. Bush. In the same vein, Trudeau will be welcomed because he is not Stephen Harper.
I am not saying, of course, that Trudeau should just go to Paris and smile. But to make a real contribution, he will need to be brutally honest about why UN negotiations have failed for over two decades and equally honest about why Canada’s emission reduction efforts have also continuously failed.

Want an effective climate policy? Heed the evidence

This article appeared in Policy Options in February 2016.
Want an effective climate policy? Heed the evidence
Carbon taxes and caps may be most effective in economic theory, but smart regulation will produce better climate policy for our political reality.
Wisely, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau resisted the temptation at the Paris climate summit in December to double down on Stephen Harper’s 2030 target for Canadian carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. While future emissions promises are easily made, effective climate policy is devilishly difficult. To have any chance, Trudeau needs to stay wise — which starts by avoiding advice from technology and policy advocates who themselves avoid inconvenient evidence from leading climate policy research and real-world experience. What does this evidence tell us?
For one thing, it’s a mistake to expect a big contribution from energy efficiency. For three decades, governments and utilities have made efficiency the focus of their emissions reduction efforts, with negligible results. Yes, energy efficiency is always improving, and we can slightly accelerate that trend. But humans require energy for basic needs and, more important, we keep inventing frivolous devices that use more. (Need evidence? Stroll through your local big-box store.)

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

My #KeystoneXL and #COP21-related media blitz

I have given a large number of interviews to media outlets in the past few weeks  relating to President Obama's rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, COP21: The 2015 Paris Climate Summit and recent Canadian climate policy developments and potential. Links and brief descriptions are below:

Nov. 6, 2015 

CTV News 'Obama says no to Keystone XL pipeline'
680News 'Victory for the people: Environmentalists cheer Obama decision on Keystone'
Interview in Vice: Environmentalists shouldn't take pipeline slowdown as a win for activism

Nov. 9, 2015 

Global News BC1: Political strategist and commentator Alise Mills, and Simon Fraser University’s Mark Jaccard discuss the ramifications of U.S. President Barack Obama rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline from going ahead.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Canadian climate policy and your vote

“Policy academics are cheap dates.” One of my mentors, professor Aiden Vining, loved saying that. His point was that we policy academics will gladly pay for our own dinner if we think that a politician, of any political stripe, wants our advice. This explains why, in my 30 years of climate policy research, I have willingly advised Conservatives, Liberals, NDP and Greens, sometimes when in power, sometimes in opposition. Once, a politician actually paid for my dinner – at McDonalds.

I have learned some things that are relevant to this federal election. One lesson is that climate policy is really, really hard. Our political system has strong incentives for politicians not to implement effective climate policies. To be effective, policies must either price CO2 emissions or regulate CO2-causing fuels and technologies. These compulsory policies impose short-term costs (real and perceived) on some people, some of whom will wage war on the guilty politician. As in all wars, truth is the first casualty: the climate policy and its implementing politician will be blamed for completely unrelated misfortunes by these people, powerful backers, and a media that loves attacking politicians.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Canadian Climate Policy Report Card: 2015

Executive Summary
Over the past three decades, governments in developed countries have made many commitments to reduce a specific quantity or percentage of greenhouse gases by a specific date, but often they have failed to implement effective climate policies that would achieve their commitment. Fortunately, energy-economy analysts can determine well in advance of the target date if a government is keeping its promise. In this 2015 climate policy report card, I evaluate the Canadian government’s emission commitments and policy actions. I find that in the nine years since its promise to reduce Canadian emissions 20% by 2020 and 65% by 2050, the Canadian government has implemented virtually no polices that would materially reduce emissions. The 2020 target is now unachievable without great harm to the Canadian economy. And this may also be the case for the 2050 target, this latter requiring an almost complete transformation of the Canadian energy system in the remaining 35 years after almost a decade of inaction.

Canadian Climate Policy Report Card: 2015

A critical challenge to preventing the harms from human-produced greenhouse gas emissions, especially CO2 from burning fossil fuels, is that elected representatives face weak incentives to implement effective climate policies and strong incentives to implement no or ineffective policies. There are several reasons.page2image2912

First, significant CO2 emissions reductions require ‘compulsory policies’ – regulation of technologies and energy forms and/or pricing of CO2 emissions – and these are seen to cause immediate costs for some even though the long-term benefits for society exceed these costs. These immediate costs would begin during the mandate of current politicians, and have significant political risks, while the benefits of avoiding climate change will mostly occur after the career of current political leaders.