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A Short Tale of Two Leaders, a Pipeline, and a Climate



harperobama sean kilpatrick Canadian Press

Stephen and Barry in Happier Times  Photo © Sean Kilpatrick, Canadian Press

This is a short story because I have commented on these issues a number of times already.  But President Obama’s speech on Tuesday 25th June to college students at Georgetown University needs a quick comment.

First some background. 

All countries are contributing GHG emissions to our atmosphere.  Among those contributing most are the USA and China.  Among those contributing the most per capita is Canada.  And Australia contributes more than most, and now more than Canada per capita, and has an economy, like Canada’s that is strongly dependent on export of mineral resources, chiefly oil, gas and coal.  But these four countries are behaving quite differently, some better, and some less well, from the point of view of those of us who care about the environment and the climate.

An April 2013 document from the Climate Commission of Australia provides some detail.  The Critical Decade: Global Action Building on Climate Change reports that China and the USA together contribute 37% of all GHGs being released into the atmosphere, but goes on to state that both these large countries are making substantial efforts towards reducing those emissions.  Specifically, the USA, which committed to a 17% reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2020 at Copenhagen (same commitment as Canada), is making solid progress towards meeting that (relatively modest) commitment.  Emissions had already declined by 7% by 2011, partly due to a weakening economy, but primarily because of a pronounced shift away from electricity generation using coal.  An increase in hydroelectric generation and a shift towards gas-fired power generation are the cause of this.  Emissions from electricity generation have declined by 16% between 2007 and 2012.  These reductions are significant given that electricity generation is responsible for about one third of all emissions by the USA.  Transportation contributes about 26% of US emissions, and, led first by California, the USA has mandated new fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks that will be phased in over several years.  GHG emissions by cars and light trucks peaked in 2004 and have already declined 10%.

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Increase in wind power generation in USA, by year.  Graph © Washington Post

In addition to the federal actions taken, actions by the State of California have been important in the progress being made by the USA.  Not content with its efforts to push the country towards higher fuel efficiency in vehicles, effective in January 2013, California has introduced a carbon emissions trading plan designed to reduce the state’s emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.  The plan currently covers power generation and heavy industry (36% of emissions), but by 2015 will be expanded to include the fuel sector increasing coverage from 36% to 85% of all emissions in the state.  The scheme includes incentives for emissions reductions in agriculture, forestry and waste management.

While renewables other than hydropower remain a small part of the energy generation mix, the US has invested substantially in wind and solar power.  Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia now have policies that encourage use of renewable energy.  The USA was the largest global investor in green energy in 2011, and while it slipped to 2nd among G20 countries in 2012, it still invested $35.6 Billion that year.


GCL 20 MW PV Power Plant in China.

China is in a very different position to my other three countries.  With a rapidly growing economy, it uses more energy every year, making it very difficult to achieve reductions in GHG emissions.  Indeed, China’s immense coal wealth and relative lack of oil puts it in an almost insurmountable position.  Nevertheless, China pledged in Copenhagen to reduce emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45% from 2005 levels in 2020, and is working hard to meet or exceed this commitment.  China has been focusing on reducing the energy intensity of its economy (the amount of energy used per unit of GDP) as one major way to reduce emissions intensity, and has been exceeding its annual targets for both of these measures.  For example, growth in demand for electricity has been slowed from around 11% to 5.7% per year in 2012 – a substantial reduction given that energy demand doubled in the last decade.  China has also established pilot emissions trading schemes in seven major cities and provinces.  These include the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing, the provinces of Guangdong and Hubei and the Shenzhen Special Administrative Region.  These are just now coming into force, but if successful the experience will be used in establishing a nation-wide scheme after 2015.  China is also now the world’s leading renewable energy user.  It invested $65.1 Billion in renewable energy in 2012, 20% more than in 2011.  Solar energy schemes accounted for $31.2 Billion in 2012, 25% of all investment in solar energy worldwide.  China’s installed wind power capacity in 2012 had reached 50 times that in place in 2005, and this capacity is expected to almost double by 2015.  Growth in solar is even faster.  This March, China announced it was planning to cap further growth in energy demand (at 4 billion tonnes of coal equivalent) by 2015, forcing itself to reduce annual growth in demand by about one third.  China has also announced a cap on use of coal for power generation, creating further pressure to shift towards renewables.  China still has a long way to go before it will bring its emissions down, but it is making monumental efforts to get there, while still maintaining the growing economy that it needs for social reasons.

So, where does this leave Australia and Canada.  Well, the Climate Board document did not say much about Canada, and stressed that Australia needed to do more than it was doing.  But Australia has not been ignoring this problem.

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Lemington Coal Mine, NSW, Australia. Photo © M. Sandercock

Australia is the 15th largest GHG emitter in the world, and the largest emitter per capita among developed countries (2011, 19 tonnes CO2 equivalent per capita, if you ignore tiny Luxembourg and class Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE as developing countries – which they are in most respects).  Australia reduced its emissions from electricity generation by 4.7% in 2012, bringing them back to 2001-2 levels.  It did this by shifting from coal towards gas and renewables, a shift encouraged by the introduction of a carbon pricing scheme.  Australia is currently holding its total emissions more or less constant, slowly ramping up investment in renewables, and progressively increasing the energy efficiency of buildings.  Australia’s national carbon pricing scheme is playing an important role, and Australia has now announced plans to merge its market with those of the EU and China beginning in 2015.

Not so for Canada.  With an economy remarkably similar to Australia’s, and similarly high per capita emissions (2011 emissions 16.2 tonnes CO2 equivalent per capita), Canada ranks just behind the USA (17.3 tonnes CO2 equivalent per capita), and third in the developed world.  But Canada, as a nation, is doing next to nothing about climate change, and is not close to meeting the emissions targets it set for itself in Copenhagen.  The Provinces of Quebec, British Columbia, and Ontario, to a lesser extent, are developing policies that bridge from fossil fuels to renewables, and our national government is harmonizing our fuel efficiency standards with those already announced by the USA.  (I refuse to see the announcement of fuel efficiency standards that were going to be met by industry anyway as a brave step by our fearless national government – they are window-dressing for an otherwise empty policy portfolio.)  Thank god for Quebec’s emissions trading scheme which commenced this January (it gets praise in the Australian document).  This scheme, similar to California’s currently covers 20% of overall Quebec emissions, and is expected ultimately to cover 86%.  It will be linked to California’s scheme and likely some other provincial and state schemes at start of 2014 in the Western Climate Initiative (WCI, including Quebec, British Columbia, Ontario, Manitoba, California).  Australia is doing the right thing even though it is only 15th in the world in terms of GHG emissions.  China and the USA are both doing the right thing, while demonstrating that they can make changes without crippling their economies.  And Canada is not.

That’s enough background. 

I really wanted to contrast Stephen Harper and Barack Obama, and say something about Keystone XL and the climate.  Despite the progress that is already being made in the USA, Barack Obama has now announced further new initiatives.  With a non-functioning Congress, it would be easy for him to claim nothing could be done on climate change.  He’d keep lots of people happy, irritate the environmental sector, and probably come out ahead politically.  But, no, because he knows that climate change is an existential problem, one that will get far worse for our children if we do nothing but the minimum action that is politically easy to achieve.  And so, in Georgetown, he announced that he would be using his executive powers to require new regulations on emissions by existing power plants in the electricity generation sector.  His new regulations will force the shift away from coal towards gas and non-fossil alternatives.  The new limits will be announced and come into effect by 2015.  He also announced new loan guarantees for renewable energy development as well as expanding the use of public land for such development.  And he announced the intention to set new emissions standards for heavy duty vehicles.  He is providing a firm push to move the US economy in the direction of lower GHG emissions.

President Obama also said that he would approve Keystone XL only if it did not materially increase GHG emissions, and this statement was eagerly parsed by Canadians on both sides of that particular debate.  I still do not know which side he will eventually come down on, but there is a very coherent argument that can be made showing that building this pipeline will indeed lead to an increase in GHG emissions.  As I have said a number of times in the past 18 months, the reason the multinational oil corporations, the Alberta, and the Harper governments all want this pipeline is so the tar sands industry can be ramped up from its present level to three times the current production.  Read any of my past posts on the tar sands, but especially look at what I wrote on 2nd February, 2nd March, or 31st of May, 2013.  This should be a slam dunk for those fighting to stop this and other pipelines, but of course, politics is not basketball.

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Calgary, Alberta, with the Stampede grounds submerged.  Photo © Jonathan Hayward/Candian Press

And what about Stephen Harper?  Bruised from the shenanigans in Ottawa, he has been strangely quiet for a change.  That the second 100-year storm to flood Calgary in less than a decade washed out his Conservative Party convention this week is an ironic touch to what has been a bad few months.  And yet, I see no sign of any change in attitude with respect to climate change, or tar sands, or the great value to ALL Canadians of pipelines to transport tar sands oil.  Is it even possible to imagine Prime Minister Harper standing up in the House, or at some appropriate venue (say the University of Alberta), and announcing that Canada has to do more on climate change  Here is what the Australian Climate Commission said about Australia’s need to act:

“There is recognition by all Federal political parties that protecting Australia’s prosperity requires Australia to contribute to the global effort to reduce greenhouse gases.  As one of the major economies Australia can have an influential role in shaping the global response to climate change.

“Action taken by Australia – such as the introduction of a carbon price and the renewable energy target – is watched closely by developed and developing countries alike, who draw lessons both for their own action and for the international climate change response.

“Australia’s global influence will largely depend on how effectively we implement solutions at home. Failure to meet our international commitments could damage our international reputation and the global effort to tackle climate change”.

And here is what President Obama said at Georgetown University, after a succinct précis of the data on climate change:

“So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late.  And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren.

“As a President, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act.

“I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing. And that’s why, today, I’m announcing a new national climate action plan, and I’m here to enlist your generation’s help in keeping the United States of America a leader – a global leader – in the fight against climate change.”

And what does Mr. Harper say?  Not very much on this subject at all, although his government has a website that says:

“The Government of Canada supports an aggressive approach to climate change that achieves real environmental and economic benefits for all Canadians.

“The causes of climate change and its impacts on the environment and human health are now more understood. Canada is a vast country with a diverse climate, which makes the impacts of climate change all the more important.

“The Government of Canada supports efforts to protect the environment by developing policies and programs, conducting scientific research, and working with other government departments, the provinces, territories and international partners in the fight against climate change”.

Comforting, isn’t it?  Oh, how far we have fallen.

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