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Comment: Our slow shuffle forward on climate action

SYBIL SEITZINGER Action on climate in Canada had seen an encouraging upswing in recent months, but Friday’s failure to secure a true pan-Canadian deal on clean growth and climate change, due to Saskatchewan and Manitoba not signing, is disappointing.

Action on climate in Canada had seen an encouraging upswing in recent months, but Friday’s failure to secure a true pan-Canadian deal on clean growth and climate change, due to Saskatchewan and Manitoba not signing, is disappointing.

But given Canada’s patchwork of provincial and territorial climate and energy policies — as well as resistance to change from some — agreement was always going to be hard fought, despite tremendous work behind the scenes.

Leading up to the first ministers’ meeting Friday were announcements of intended federal policies that would help cut carbon pollution across most sectors — including an accelerated phase-out of coal-fired electricity, a new low-carbon fuel standard and a national carbon price, which seems to be the most contentious.

From a climate perspective, these gains for climate-change mitigation should also be weighed against recent federal decisions to support expansion in the fossil-fuel sectors — specifically, a liquefied natural gas project in British Columbia and a pair of pipelines taking petroleum from Alberta’s oilsands region to the B.C. coast and Wisconsin.

While most of the emissions from these export products would be on other jurisdictions’ carbon tallies, in a global sense, it all counts.

Closer to home, B.C.’s mix of climate and economic policies tells a similar story. In August, I accepted an invitation to speak at the launch of the B.C. government’s Climate Leadership Plan. In my speech, I welcomed the 21 new actions outlined in the plan that will hit all the major sources of emissions in this province. I also noted that the plan — which is the first of several planned announcements by the province — would not take us even half way toward meeting B.C.’s legislated emissions target of 12.6 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents per year by 2050.

Fast-forward to December, and I can now put firmer numbers on the extent of the challenge before us. In partnership with the Pembina Institute and Clean Energy Canada, the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions this week released an independent assessment of B.C.’s Climate Leadership Plan and the federal carbon price on B.C.’s greenhouse gas emissions.

After crunching the numbers, we now know that the CLP will take B.C. only about one-third of the way toward meeting that 2050 target.

The modelling shows that if the government does not take any new climate action, emissions will clock in about 76 megatonnes by the middle of the century, up from around 60 megatonnes today, largely due to planned expansion within B.C.’s natural-gas sector.

The policies in the CLP will cut these annual emissions back down to 54 megatonnes, but it is still well short of the goal of 12.6 megatonnes.

This new report is useful for policy- and decision-makers, as well as of interest to the public, because it highlights the extent of the gap — 41 megatonnes — that we have to address. The report also helps identify where additional opportunities lie within individual sectors for more emissions reductions.

Stronger policies to decarbonize industry, transport and the built environment, and to reduce emissions from natural gas are needed to bridge that gap. PICS and its partners are committed to supporting the B.C. government’s development and implementation of those next steps.

Amidst all this effort, it is important to remind ourselves of why it is crucial that we redefine our energy use toward a low-carbon future.

Nearly 200 countries, including Canada, signed the UN’s Paris Agreement to limit global average temperature rise to well below 2 C (above pre-industrial levels), to prevent some of the most dangerous effects of climate change. The current set of pledges to lower emissions made by the signatories, if adhered to, would likely result in 3.7 C of warming by the end of the century.

Clearly, more ambitious reductions are needed. In fact, globally we need to reach net-zero emissions by about 2070 to stay below the threshold, according to almost all the climate models.

Both B.C. and Canada have 2050 emissions targets of 80 per cent below their respective 2007 and 2005 levels — the latter being announced (but not yet legislated) as Canada’s “Mid-Century Strategy” at last month’s UN climate summit in Marrakech. But the evidence shows the goal must be net zero.

As 2016 burns through the heat records to become the hottest year in the modern temperature record, which dates back to 1880, the time for accelerated climate action is now. Action at all levels, municipal, provincial, national and international, will collectively define our future global climate.

Sybil Seitzinger is the executive director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, a collaboration of B.C.’s four leading research universities, hosted and led by the University of Victoria.