Well, that was quite something. Even those most dedicated cynics have to admit that an unexpectedly large amount of progress was made on the climate change issue in the past few days.
What’s that? Yes. Yes, it is. The first inkling of some light at the end of the carbon tunnel.
Here are 5 takeaways from a surprising week:
- The world really is getting its act together:
It’s official: the international community is beginning to take decisive action on climate issues. While not perfect, the Paris Agreement marks a significant multilateral step towards reducing global emissions – and its coming into force this week was years earlier than anticipated. In comparison, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997 but only came into force in 2005. Meanwhile, the aviation wing of the United Nations has ratified an historic deal with airline companies to control the emissions produced by international flights – the first of its kind. Another first is the expected total phase out of climate polluting hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used in air conditioning and cooling to be agreed at an upcoming UN environment meeting in Kigali, Rwanda.
I can tell you the post-Paris resolve to find climate change solutions now emanating from national capitals stands in stark contrast to the mopey and defeatist atmosphere hanging over the Copenhagen talks I attended in 2009. Times have changed. For the better.
- Meanwhile, Conservatives are still tied up in carbon knots:
For all their bluster about the evils of a “job killing” carbon taxation, and their shameful vote against the ratification of the Paris Agreement on Wednesday, incoherence is what really characterizes the position being taken this week by most of Canada’s conservative movement. Alberta’s Wildrose Party is furious about the Liberal government’s plans, but their own 2015 platform committed them to ensuring “Alberta’s standards for C02 emissions and pollutants are in line with national and international standards”. Conservative Finance Critic Lisa Raitt, who is apparently contemplating a run for her party’s leadership, is telling folksy anecdotes that don’t hold up to scrutiny. And Calgary MP Michelle Rempel has been reduced to bashing some of the country’s largest businesses for supporting a market-driven policy fix.
Memo to the Blue Team: This issue is only going to get hotter (pun intended). Time to get your collective act together.
- The Liberals are prepared to do some heavy lifting:
One key way to judge a government is whether it demonstrates decisiveness. Reversing unpopular Harper-era ideas or engaging in endless photo-ops is one thing, making tough decisions that involve using up political capital is quite another. Though it’s true there are many issues on which the Liberals have disappointed progressives – for instance, the bizarre refusal to repeal Harper’s dangerous Bill C-51, an inadequate roll out of long overdue cash for First Nations education, or their blasé rhetoric around the Saudi arms deal – this week’s announcement of a national carbon price is important work.
We’ll see what the rest of the federal climate change plan looks like when it’s rolled out later this autumn, and how it squares new carbon sources like the Pacific Northwest LNG project with the need to reduce national emissions but – for now – finally putting a national price on carbon pollution deserves widespread support.
- More needs to be done, but not in the way you might think:
In one of the more significant, but under-reported, developments of the week, a coalition of environmental organizations published the most comprehensive calculation to date of how Canada is tracking against our carbon reduction goals.
The punchline? If all the provinces implement what they’ve already said they’re going to do, we’re about one third of the way towards hitting our current national carbon reduction target.
Importantly, though they receive a disproportionate amount of media attention, proposals for new pipelines will not add measurably to the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions challenge under current economic and policy conditions. Future emissions from the sector will decline, relative to previous estimates, when carbon pricing and oil and gas methane regulations are implemented. This isn’t to say the oil and gas sector is off the hook: at 26% of total emissions in Canada, a meaningful national climate plan will continue to demand progress at reducing emissions in this sector – but Alberta’s policies offer the country a solid start.
Meeting our carbon challenge will involve a suite of measures – federal, provincial and municipal – across all sectors of the economy. Now is the time to focus attention on other badly needed climate policies: cracking the nut of vehicle electrification, bringing in new building codes to deal with the endless acres of energy-sucking, glass-clad condo buildings popping up in cities across the country, and an accelerated phase-out of coal-fired power plants, just to name a few.
- There are new climate villains in town:
Going forward, it’s vital to understand that the traditional schisms in the climate debate are shifting rapidly beneath our feet. Thanks to Rachel Notley’s NDP government, Alberta is now a climate leader rather than a climate laggard. Meanwhile, the likes of Brad Wall and Stephen McNeil prefer to engage in histrionics and have their ministers theatrically storm out of meetings.
It’s Thanksgiving weekend. A good time to count our blessings. This year – in addition to some amazing home cooking — I’m thankful that I can sit down to supper with my family knowing that the climate change clouds are starting to part.
This is what progress feels like. And in an issue often characterized by impenetrable gloominess, it’s important to say that out loud.
Rick Smith is Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute.