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Trevor Hancock: Governments fail the climate math test

This week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government would impose a carbon tax in 2018 in provinces where there was no carbon tax or cap-and-trade system.

This week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government would impose a carbon tax in 2018 in provinces where there was no carbon tax or cap-and-trade system. From a public health perspective, while not yet a completely good news story, at least it’s a start.

The World Health Organization bluntly states: “Climate change is the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century,” and the director-general, Dr. Margaret Chan, has said: “The evidence is overwhelming: Climate change endangers human health.” Not surprisingly, WHO has called for “for urgent action to protect health.”

But governments everywhere have been slow to recognize this, and even slower to act. And they continue to both suck and blow at the same time. So we have Trudeau playing the tough guy with the provinces, the week after his government announced approval of the Pacific NorthWest LNG project.

Yet, at full production, this project will add 4.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, equivalent to Canada’s annual emissions, almost one per cent of our total emissions target for 2030, at a time when we should be going in the other direction.

Then we have the Alberta government supporting the federal tax proposal because it, too, will put in place a carbon tax, but at the same time saying its quid pro quo is approval of pipelines that will move Alberta’s oilsands oil to market, boosting Canadian and global emissions.

Finally, we have the B.C. government proclaiming itself a leader because of its carbon tax while refusing to further increase it as planned — in spite of a clear recommendation from its own climate leadership team to both increase and expand the tax.

Meanwhile, it is busy promoting the LNG industry, which will lead to more fracking and more emissions.

What all these and many other decisions by governments in Canada clearly show is that our political leaders cannot do basic climate math.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2014 that in order to have a two-thirds chance of keeping global warming below 2 C, (the target agreed last year in the Paris Accord), we could add no more than 2.9 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. That is cumulative from 1870 until the time we stop emitting carbon dioxide.

Up to 2011, the IPCC reported, we had put out about 1.9 trillion tonnes of CO2, so we have already used up about two-thirds of the carbon budget. At about 40 billion tonnes of CO2 of emissions annually, we are now at about 2.1 trillion tonnes, leaving about 800 billion tonnes before we pass the 2.9-trillion-tonne mark in about 20 years.

Three years ago, a group of financial analysts, the Carbon Tracker Initiative, pointed out that “the total carbon potential of the Earth’s known fossil-fuel reserves [is] equivalent to nearly five times the carbon budget for the next 40 years.” So we need to leave about 80 per cent of known reserves in the ground if we want to stay below two degrees of warming.

Now comes a new report, from a Washington-based think tank, Oil Change International. They used information from Rystad, a Norwegian energy consultancy used by the oil and gas industry and its investors. The data showed that the CO2 emissions from existing and under-construction global oil and gas fields and existing coal mines will be about 942 billion tonnes of CO2.

In other words, there is already enough fossil fuel in production to take us past two degrees of warming. Our governments need to learn to do the climate math. If they do, they will learn that we are in a hole, and as OCI advises: “If you’re in a hole, stop digging.”

Specifically, OCI recommends: “No new fossil-fuel extraction or transportation infrastructure should be built, and governments should grant no new permits for them.”

So why would we approve a new LNG plant, new pipelines, new coal mines? It’s time to stop fiddling while the planet heats up, and to start treating global warming with the urgency it merits.

If we don’t, the threat to global health in the 21st century the WHO warns of will come to fruition for people around the world, for generations to come.


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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