You’ve likely encountered recent media coverage of Canada’s Federal Environment Minister Donna Ambrose and her government’s admission (to its citizens and international bodies) that it’s unrealistic for Canada to attain its Kyoto commitments, and that the country instead will develop a “made-in-Canada” solution to lower global warming gas emissions. Ambrose has been criticized for this, and for lacking leadership on the climate change portfolio.
A couple of things are worth noting as you think about this unfolding issue. (As an aside, I’ve come around to thinking we should participate in Kyoto and do our share, but with some qualifiers as per below.)
1) The Liberals under Jean Chretien put forward an emissions target that was determined without any meaningful assessment of what we could or could not do, and what effect it might have on the economy. In 1997, the target was set to cut emissions by 6 per cent below 1990 levels (to be attained by 2012). Instead, our emissions have already grown to 34.6% above that target.
2) In reality, what drove Canada to choose the 6% reduction target was simply that Chretien and his crew wanted to show up the Americans (this is documented) who were negotiating a 5% reduction target. Chretien simply wanted to be able to claim that Canada was 1% more stringent than its neighbors to the south.
3) Ironically (and predictably) the Americans never signed on or ratified Kyoto. There has never been any support whatsoever for Kyoto ratification in the U.S. senate, and every poll of senators reveals that all but one or two would refuse. It’s just a non-starter there. So here we are, having agreed to an arbitrary target set to only to outdo the U.S., which isn’t even in the Kyoto Accord.
4) Like Australia, Canada’s economy is disproportionately resource based, particularly in regard to oil and gas production. We encourage immigration and have a rising population. Our situation is totally different than that of the moribund economies of France and Germany, etc. that lack our oil and gas export businesses and whose populations are not growing, and are in fact aging into a Japan-like negative growth scenario. I’m not saying this means we shouldn’t do anything about climate change, but we negotiated a target without any maeningful analysis of what it meant to our economy versus that of the other signatories.
5) Canada was really the naive “boy scout” at the negotiating table. The UK was able to meet its commitments easily by shutting down inefficient coal-fired plants that it planned to close anyway. Germany did the same thing after it merged with Eastern Germany and closed the old Soviet-style factories and energy plants. We certainly don’t have easy options like that.
6) The most infuriating thing is that it’s come out that pretty much all along, the federal bureaucrats and the Liberal government at the time knew perfectly well that the Kyoto targets would not be met. They simply wanted to adopt the “pose” of being environmentally superior, without actually doing anything. In that sense, at least Ambrose’s statements are honest, and she’s taking the rap for revealing what essentially amounts to a cover up by the previous government.
7) I met a fellow from Natural Resources Canada at a conference recently who admitted that there are whole offices and floors of buildings filled with staff who formerly worked on Kyoto “programs” who now do nothing but sit around and play cards all day. (He was serious!) I told him that they (without government money!) should get off their butts and start companies to solve global warming problems. My first suggestion was a company to manufacture and install “smart meters” for household appliances. Such devices are being put into California homes right now, and allow a person to monitor, in real time, how much power each appliance is drawing and the cost per Kilowatt hour. These meters encourage people to switch out old appliances for new energy efficient ones, and to use them during non-peak times (e.g., put the clothes or dishwasher on after midnight). If everyone used these and did this, we wouldn’t need much in the way of new energy plants for the foreseeable future, because the “peak use” would be smoothed out.
8) Canada actually is in a great position to reduce its emissions, whether or not it does so to comply with Kyoto. A lot of how we do this relates to how we develop the oil sands, because if we use natural gas to melt the bitumen and just release all the CO2 from the gas production and the oil melting into that air, we will be WAY out of compliance. But the technology exists to capture that CO2 and sequester it underground. Interestingly, Saskatchewan has the perfect underground geological formations to pump liquified CO2, and has enough storage room for all the world’s CO2. We’re in a great position to demonstrate to the world how to produce oil from the Alberta oil sands and sequester the carbon underground. This is a techique and a service Canada could offer worldwide.
9) Finally, there are some interesting technologies out there that can help us out. For example, it’s possible to obtain natural gas from coal and burn it for power, then capture the CO2 and sequester it. Yes, a lot of engineering challenges remain to be solved, but this is a lot easier than, for instance, figuring out nuclear power. Canada could cut its emissions dramatically and become a world leader (and vendor) in the field of producing CO2-free power from oil, gas and gas-from-coal. What’s missing right now is leadership, and I think the federal government is afraid to alienate its western voter base by pushing hard on this issue. Hopefully that will change because there’s both a power and an environmental “win” available to us if we move on these ideas.