Two decades ago, I was not alone in predicting that humanity’s chances of rapid decarbonization were low. The reasons were obvious back then, and with hindsight are even more so now.
Climate success requires a coordinated global effort to switch away from burning fossil fuels, yet we lack a global government to impose hard targets and ensure universal compliance. In this context, climate-sincere politicians are constrained from making quick progress because unilateral GHG reductions in their jurisdiction will cause industries (and voters’ jobs!) to flee to laggard jurisdictions, without appreciably lowering global emissions.
And even if the challenge were national rather than global – meaning that one country’s decarbonization would spare it alone from climate change – progress would be extremely difficult. First, as a high-quality energy source, fossil fuels still offer the cheapest path to economic development for the planet’s poorest people. And since fossil fuel endowed regions benefit economically from their continued exploitation, self-interest motivates corporations and individuals to delude themselves and others that each new fossil fuel investment is somehow locally and globally beneficial.
Second, as a multi-decadal project, energy system transformation is out of sync with the 4-year electoral timeframes of democracies. This disconnect enables climate-insincere politicians to mislead voters by promising to achieve distant GHG targets without increasing energy costs. Of course, this is a lie. GHG emissions will not fall without cost-increasing regulations or carbon pricing. But it only takes a small percentage of voters to believe this for climate-insincere politicians to succeed electorally. Effective climate policy is always politically difficult.
With the strong likelihood of continued global failure, we climate-concerned citizens cannot afford to be self-indulgent. What I mean is that we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of righteously rejecting climate-sincere elected officials just because they are neither perfect nor always consistent in our eyes. To get elected, politicians must balance the diverse interests and frequently contradictory demands of voters – “reduce GHG emissions but don’t increase gas prices, transition to renewable energy, but let us do this fossil fuel project, invest in green infrastructure but don’t increase our taxes.” In this world, climate-sincere politicians will not always appear perfect, so climate-concerned citizens need to embrace the adage that we must not allow perfection to be the enemy of good. If we reject climate-sincere politicians because they are not perfect, we could help elect climate-insincere politicians instead. In Canada, sadly, we know this all too well from the experience of 2006 to 2015, when a climate-insincere government supported by less than 40% of voters was able to hold on to power while doing virtually nothing to reduce GHG emissions.
In spite of this recent, stark experience, I nonetheless detect a similar self-indulgence among many climate-sincere Canadians today, especially in my home province of British Columbia. Trying to govern all Canadians involves making compromises. On the climate file, I may disagree strongly with Prime Minister Trudeau’s efforts to expand the TransMountain pipeline (and I do, as I explained in a February 2018 Globe and Mail op-ed) but this is no excuse for overlooking the rapid development of effective federal climate policy in Trudeau’s first term. In contrast, all previous federal governments were climate-insincere. One should not measure sincerity by the willingness to make GHG commitments (Mulroney, Chretien, Harper), as these are meaningless without compulsory policies. Nor by the willingness to spend money (Martin), as government spending can have only a tiny effect when it is private investments in houses, vehicles and industrial plant and equipment that determine emissions. As I explained in the book Hot Air (with co-authors Jeffrey Simpson and Nic Rivers) climate-concerned citizens can detect climate-sincere politicians because these will be rapidly implementing carbon pricing and/or regulations that independent experts agree will reduce emissions significantly. Climate-sincere politicians will also be working to parlay our domestic GHG reduction efforts into an effective global effort.
In an April 15 Globe and Mail op-ed I briefly summarize the climate-energy policy efforts of the Trudeau government. (The text of that op-ed is appended below.) I explain why the Trudeau government’s policies are impressive and why Trudeau’s TransMountain pipeline issue is of less importance when assessing his government’s climate-sincerity. For success, humanity needs governments in wealthier countries that move quickly to decarbonize their electricity and transportation sectors, while seeking ways to transfer this effort to the developing world. The Trudeau government has been making a significant effort in this direction.
Climate-concerned Canadians need to vote strategically this fall to make sure they don’t elect a climate-insincere government. At the time of writing this blog, the most likely outcome is that the 65% of Canadians who tell pollsters they want a climate-sincere government will split their vote among three parties and enable the election of a climate-insincere government, just as in 2006-2015. When blaming our country for climate inaction, and the continued failure of an effective global effort, it’s time for us self-indulgent perfectionists to look in the mirror.
For more details, stay tuned for my forthcoming book with Cambridge University Press – The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success: Overcoming Myths that Hinder Progress.
Finally, Canada is a Global Example on Climate Action
Mark Jaccard, Globe and Mail, April 15, 2019
Since 1993, I have occasionally participated as a climate policy expert on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. At our Edinburgh meeting the first week of April, I was struck by the sharp contrast between the consensus of foreign experts that Canada has become a global climate policy leader and the frequent assumption among concerned Canadians that our government is failing on climate. Why this discrepancy?
The Trudeau government’s support of the TransMountain pipeline is one obvious reason. People ask, “How can a sincere government build an oil pipeline?” Another is the government’s admission that its climate plan won’t quite meet its 2030 target. “Isn’t this a repeat of previously ineffective Conservative and Liberal administrations?”
Increasingly, however, I detect a third, less obvious reason: Few climate-concerned Canadians know much about the slate of new federal climate polices, except for the contentious carbon tax. And while global experts agree that the national carbon tax is impressive, they are equally impressed with several other climate policies.
The government’s phased closure of coal plants is crucial to climate-policy experts who know that humanity must eliminate coal-fired power, first in rich countries and soon after in developing countries. To advance this global objective, the Canadian government has leveraged its policy leadership by co-founding with Britain the Powering Past Coal Alliance, a growing force of jurisdictions committed to phasing out coal. My counterparts in China and India already notice the influence on their own countries’ policies.
Global success depends, however, on co-ordinating electricity decarbonization with increasing its use in vehicles, buildings and industry. Our government understands this. In addition to its carbon tax, its clean fuel standard will accelerate the switch in transportation from gasoline and diesel to electricity and sustainably-produced biofuels. Experts around the world are studying this policy, which comes fully into force in two years – if the government is re-elected. It offers a viable alternative for the many jurisdictions unable to implement significant carbon pricing for political reasons. Several U.S. states are considering a version of this policy that California and British Columbia originated a decade ago, called the low carbon fuel standard.
Our hopes for global success increase as political leaders in developing countries realize that the rapid adoption of electric vehicles will abate the smog choking their cities – and their families. Policies such as the clean fuel standard can accelerate this transition and, if co-ordinated with coal phase-out, ensure that falling emissions from gasoline and diesel will not be offset by rising emissions from electricity generation.
The government’s pending regulation on methane emissions is another example of a policy of global significance that is unknown in Canada. Flexibility provisions in the policy will ensure that emitters such as the oil and gas industry can choose the least-cost options to reduce these emissions. Again, other countries are studying this policy.
Yet another key policy recognizes that forcing costly reductions by Canada’s emissions-intensive industries is ineffective if it simply causes an increase in production elsewhere. By adopting Alberta’s regulatory ingenuity, the federal government’s new output-based pricing system for large industries incentivizes their emission reductions without significantly increasing their production costs. Rather than avoiding industrial regulation altogether, like some jurisdictions, Canada is innovating a model of growing interest to policy-makers in developed and developing countries.
In just four years, these and other policies have transformed Canada from a global pariah under the Harper government to a model for climate action under Trudeau. Perhaps the government will build a new oil pipeline and will also miss its 2030 target. But these don’t matter much for the global climate challenge. What matters enormously is the continued implementation of Canada’s emerging, effective climate policies, especially those with global influence. And if the resulting intensified global effort more quickly reduces the world-wide demand for gasoline and diesel, which the planet so desperately needs, then the TransMountain pipeline can shift to transporting different Albertan products, perhaps hydrogen produced from the oil sands or sustainably-produced biofuels on the prairies.
In climate policy, experts agree that Canada is finally a global leader. I wonder if enough climate-concerned Canadians will recognize this, before it’s too late.