Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/12/2011 (2385 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
This Christmas, Canada wants to give the world a lump of coal (and oil and gas) by pulling out of the Kyoto protocol on climate change. What is significant about Kyoto is it is a legally binding international treaty that puts the onus of emission reductions on the countries that have done the most to cause the problem, and who have most benefited in their industrialization through the use of fossil fuels.
That said, a lot of environmentalists greeted the news of Canada's impending treatus interruptus with a yawn: It is not news that Canada has long been in violation of Kyoto. In 2009, Canada's greenhouse gas emissions were 17 per cent higher than 1990 levels, while the Kyoto target called for Canada to be six per cent under by 2012. The impact of the recession is notable — in 2008 emissions were 24 per cent higher.
Canada is not even close to meeting its shiny new target, set two years ago in Copenhagen, of a 17 per cent reduction by 2020 relative to 2005 levels. In spite of dramatically lowering the bar, a report from Environment Canada earlier this year found existing measures would only get us one-quarter of the way to that target.
So what's a major polluter to do when confronted with the challenge of meeting an international commitment but tempted by the lure of fat profits in the oil patch? Go to Durban and try to derail other countries from reaching a new agreement.
Furthermore, Environment Minister Peter Kent — who raised the alarm about "the greenhouse effect" as far back as 1984 — is rejecting any responsibility for helping countries that did not cause the problem but nonetheless are now bearing the economic and social costs of climate change. Such adaptation assistance is a matter of justice; Kent dismissed it as a "guilt payment."
Canada is one of the worst offenders when it comes to carbon emissions per person, but the picture is actually much worse when we consider exports. The UN accounting framework attributes to a country only those emissions from within its borders. So for the coal or oil and gas industries, only the emissions from domestic combustion, plus those associated with getting carbon out of the ground and to market, are counted. The embodied carbon content of the fuels themselves, if burned in the U.S., China or anywhere else outside Canada, is counted in the inventories of those combusting countries.
In fact, the carbon emissions in Canada's fossil-fuel exports are 15 per cent larger than the emissions from burning fossil fuels in Canada (for homes, transportation, electricity generation and industry). That is, Canada's carbon footprint is more than double when we count exports.
So Canada is not just an addict to fossil fuels; we are also a major dealer. Fossil-fuel exports accounted for one-fifth of Canada's export profile in 2009, about $80 billion. This adds a certain irony to the federal government's statements it will not sign an international climate treaty that does not include China, even as it tries to sell ever more coal, natural gas and tarsands oil to that country.
Canada's vast fossil-fuel reserves also represent a tremendous source of potential emissions down the road. Depending on how you measure them, Canada has three to six years worth of global CO2 emissions stored below ground. And if all possible reserves are counted, and assume innovative technologies and favourable economic conditions, Canada has as much as 40 years worth of annual global emissions. This is much higher than estimates of the total available "carbon budget" the world can use up before we run into catastrophic and irreversible climate change.
In other words, Canada has within its grasp the power to completely wipe out human civilization as we know it. When it comes to carbon, we've got the bomb.
Ultimately, Canada needs to embrace a new industrial and employment strategy that makes major investments in renewable energy, more efficient buildings and transportation. While profits from fossil-fuel development are massive, the total number of jobs such investments create is rather small — about half of one per cent of total Canadian employment.
Green investments would create far more jobs per million dollars of investment and they would transform Canada's international image from rogue state to climate action leader.
Marc Lee is a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and co-director of the Climate Justice Project.