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Action On Climate Change Stalled By Political Reality

Among the many challenges currently facing Britain, one, how to supply energy to its people over the coming 25 years, provides an interesting backdrop to debates about the environment, energy and climate change.

The fact is that energy demand in Britain will soon outstrip energy supply. While there are several reasons for conundrum, a main one concerns the closure of several coal fired power plants due to their inability to meet CO2 emissions target while remaining profitable. Another reason is totally ideological: the government of Britain has not invested in nuclear energy but instead placed most of its bets on wind power and hydro power, neither of which can come on stream fast enough with sufficient capacity to meet demand.

Turning Britain green

It was in 2008 that the British government implemented a policy – in its attempt to turn Britain green and carbon free – to ensure that renewable energy accounted for 38 per cent of energy supplies by 2020. Unfortunately, at the current rates of construction and development, the target is not achievable and will exacerbate its energy supply challenges in the near future. The new British government – under Prime Minister David Cameron – has stated that it will place a floor price on CO2 emissions trading certificates of £35, which means that Britain’s beleaguered consumers will be paying higher prices for energy from an energy supply more unreliable than the one they currently enjoy. The problem will only be aggravated as more coal-fired power stations become unprofitable.

This leads us then to the strategy being proposed in the Kerry/Lieberman climate change bill in the US. Senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman propose combining “cap and trade” with “pork barrel spending”, at least according to Investors Business Daily – an investor trade magazine. Their bill, now before the Senate, proposes a US$7-billion CO2 tax to improve transport infrastructure and efficiency, a US$2 billion a year in public spending on carbon capture and storage and a systematic approach to carbon trading with the aim of reducing emissions by 85 per cent on 2005 levels by 2050 (the US is already 10 per cent below the 2005 level due to the recession and other measures). The program’s cap starts in 2013 for the electricity and transportation sectors, which together constitute an estimated 66 per cent of total domestic emissions. The industrial sector joins in 2016, bringing the total up to “almost” 85 per cent. The remaining 15 per cent of U.S. emissions are treated separately from the cap-and-trade program with a range of targeted policies and regulations.

But the global temperature “savings” of the Kerry/Lieberman bill is astoundingly small – 0.043°C (0.077°F) by 2050 and 0.111°C (0.200°F) by 2100. In other words, by century’s end, reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 83 per cent will only result in global temperatures being one-fifth of one degree Fahrenheit less than they would otherwise be. That is a scientifically meaningless reduction.

The bill will lead to higher energy and transport costs as well as challenges to meet growing demand. The US is counting on the low cost of shale gas and its ability to secure low cost oil from offshore and Canada to meet its energy needs to 2025.

The Kerry/Lieberman bill, however, is not likely to pass the Senate anytime soon. Many see it as already dead in the water, since it does not have the support of the Republicans in the Senate. More importantly, its provisions for offshore drilling (including environmental conditions and responsibilities) are now in doubt, given the offshore oil catastrophe now being faced by BP off the coast of Louisiana.

Canada is committed to match the US provisions whenever these emerge, under the principle that there should be a single set of standards and policies for the whole of North America, rather than a patchwork quilt of local provisions (state by state, province by province, country by country) – a kind of NAFTA Energy and Environment policy. While many criticize this principle, the argument is solely economic: why create competitive disadvantage for Canada with the US?

Environmental policies cannot be separated from policies for economic and community development. In Canada, there is a need to strengthen environmental stewardship in anticipation of eventual US actions – regulations governing tailings ponds, land use and restoration, air quality and water quality as well as sustaining biodiversity could all be introduced pending the joint Canada-US strategy on emissions.

But as these conversations take place, some scientists are now suggesting that we have to prepare for global cooling. Professor Don Easterbrook of Western Washington University has suggested that three scenarios are emerging, based on known patterns of climate and current temperature data for North America. These are: (1) global cooling similar to the global cooling of 1945 to 1977, (2) global cooling similar to the cool period from 1880 to 1915, and (3) global cooling similar to the Dalton Minimum from 1790 to 1820. He is placing his bets on the second of these scenarios, but suggests that all of these options present a worse case than any of the implications of the global warming view of the climate.

Waiting for the right political climate

Whether he is right or not, it is clear that action on climate change is not likely to be quickly forthcoming. The UN process is stalled and the actions in the US and Canada are awaiting the right political climate for a Senate decision. The science is still being challenged and the arguments about appropriate actions are taking second place to recession and austerity issues faced by many European countries and other jurisdictions around the world.

Alberta could chose to lead by focusing on greening the oil sands and ensuring that it shifts its reputation from being a producer of “dirty oil” to being a leader in “green oil”. It would be a challenge, but it would position Alberta as a leading jurisdiction with a new view of stewardship for its future.

Troy Media, 18 May 2010