Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/6/2016 (285 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Sometimes, the question is not whether the right hand knows what the left hand is doing, but whether the two are even aware of each other’s existence.
Case in point: the federal government’s efforts to deal with climate change and oil pipelines.
One federal hand was at the Paris climate conference last December. It committed us to doing our part to keep global warming "well below" two degrees Celsius.
The other federal hand, meanwhile, is rolling toward approving a suite of projects that will greatly expand Canadian oil-pipeline capacity. And this second hand is paying no serious attention to how permitting expanded pipeline capacity can be reconciled with the commitment to climate change mitigation.
Our part in keeping global warming well below 2 C (the Paris commitment) entails very deep reduction of greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions attributable to human activities in Canada within the next few decades.
While the implications of this commitment have not yet been clarified in detailed analysis, they involve some tightening of the pre-Paris GHG-reduction target for relatively advantaged jurisdictions.
For countries such as Canada and EU members, the commonly recognized old target was an 80 per cent cut in GHG emissions by 2050 relative to 1990 levels. The Paris commitment means we need to achieve something approaching effective decarbonization of most of the Canadian economy by 2050 or shortly thereafter.
Meeting such a commitment is not merely a matter of converting from fossil fuels to non-fossil alternatives. It entails shifting to different revenue sources, job opportunities, transportation modes and infrastructure, home heating practices, and a host of other new arrangements, opportunities and interconnections — none of which will happen automatically or be quick and easy.
Ontario is starting down this path with its new five-year climate change action plan. But it is just a beginning and comes none too soon.
Canada has been delaying effective action to reduce GHG emissions for the past quarter-century. Despite official statements of concern and promises to cut our contributions to climate change, Canadian governments have allowed GHG emissions to rise significantly, and are now 20 per cent higher than they were in 1990. While there have been some positive shifts and advances in understanding and technologies, we now have more emissions to cut and 25 years less time to make a smooth(ish) transition before the worsening effects of climate change make everything much more difficult.
One priority is to ensure the big decisions we are making today start us on the paths to the necessary transitions.
Decisions on oil pipelines offer an obvious opening. Collectively, three of the main proposed pipeline projects — Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement, Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion and TransCanada’s Energy East — would expand Canadian oil pipeline throughput capacity by more than two million barrels per day. Upstream, the three projects would facilitate expansion of bitumen extraction from the oilsands. Downstream, they would deliver more oil to refineries and points of combustion.
Each of the pipelines would have a life expectancy well beyond the 2050 deadline for GHG-emission abatement. Together they would more deeply entrench fossil fuel use infrastructure and associated dependencies.
On the surface at least, approval of these projects would move us further from the path to meet climate change mitigation commitments at a time when we should already be well on the road of low pain, maximum opportunity transition.
In the current deliberations on the Line 3 and Trans Mountain proposals, however, the federal reviewers have not considered GHG abatement needs.
In each case, the reviewers have examined only the project’s possible contributions to upstream GHG emissions. The downstream effects of refining and burning the oil are ignored entirely.
The upstream effects analyses are further restricted to certain individual project effects. They avoid attention to indirect effects on pricing and production. And despite legislated requirements to assess cumulative effects, the reviews ignore the joint effects of approving two or more pipelines.
Most regrettably, the reviews consider only whether the individual projects would facilitate an increase in upstream GHG emissions. No attention is paid to implications for commitments to reduce GHG emissions.
In overlooking Canada’s GHG abatement commitments, the federal reviews of the Line 3 and Trans Mountain proposals cling to a world that no longer exists. They assume GHG emissions attributable to current levels of bitumen extraction, production and use are not an issue now and will not be an issue through the lives of the proposed projects.
What is missing is a serious assessment of whether and how approving the projects could be compatible with deep abatement of GHG emissions.
That is the central question to be addressed in a credible and responsible environmental assessment of these pipeline proposals. Open and rigorous attention to this question is also a fundamental test of whether the federal government’s Paris commitment is genuine.
Perhaps a new pipeline could be designed, supported by effective fiscal and regulatory tools covering upstream and downstream effects, and managed in a way that contributes to meeting Canada’s GHG abatement commitments. But the possibility and the means of achieving it are not obvious. They cannot be wished into existence.
The time has come to join hands. The federal climate hand needs to introduce itself to the federal pipeline review hand so the two can do some serious and highly visible work on aligning our assessments with our commitments.
Robert Gibson is a professor in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo. Byron Williams is the director of the Public Interest Law Centre of Legal Aid Manitoba.