Sadness, Fear and Hope at COP25

As COP25 in Madrid draws to a close, I’m reflecting on my first time attending the international climate negotiations.

There’s a popular narrative that international climate meetings are just a pretense for thousands to jaunt off to exotic locales. To imply that COP is a vacation could not be further from what I witnessed: deeply-committed public servants, academics, and activists working long hours — sometimes through the night — in windowless rooms in a generic conference centre.

COP offers a strange juxtaposition of highly technical debates and intense emotion.

As negotiations proceed over “share of proceeds” from emissions trading for adaptation and financial support from wealthy countries for “loss and damages” in developing countries, reminders of the devastation climate change is already causing are ever-present. A young delegate from the Philippines spoke of how her activism was prompted by the devastation in her country from Typhoon Haiyan. Near the entrance to the conference centre, there is a continuous slide show of heartbreaking stories of climate change impacts. I stood transfixed by the story of a Bangladeshi family who lost their mother in a flood when one of her sons swimming with her let go of her hand to grab the bag containing the family’s only money.

As negotiations continue over a contentious clause to recognize human rights in the emissions trading rulebook, members of Indigenous communities from around the world, including Canada, shared experiences of displacement from traditional lands and livelihoods through deforestation and fossil fuel development. Marshall Islanders, whose entire country lies less than 2 metres above sea level, shared their fears of total loss of their country and culture.

As countries debate long-term plans for “net zero” emissions, unions representing workers dependent on the fossil fuel industry remind negotiators of the need not just for transition, but for a just transition in which vulnerable workers and communities are supported.

And the kids! At their core, climate negotiations are all about securing a sustainable future, so it’s only fitting that voices of children and youth were prominent at COP25. I attended panels where children as young as eleven spoke with remarkable poise, knowledge, and passion. When asked how their lives will be different from their parents, a young Chilean activist responded, “We need to decide whether to have children.” I struggled to hold back tears. I doubt I was the only one.

I reviewed the latest drafts of the rulebook for Article 6, the emissions trading regime under the Paris Agreement, to the sounds of children’s voices across the hall chanting for “Climate Justice Now.”

Greta Thunberg’s arrival was met with a phalanx of photographers at the Madrid train station. It’s fitting that Thunberg has been recognized as Time magazine’s person of the year for launching a global youth movement. Yet that movement has demonstrated that the world full of Gretas – clear-eyed and deeply frightened for their futures.

They are not alone. In the question period following a panel in which experts presented highly technical integrated assessment models of carbon pricing, a young woman asked how they could even talk about markets and economic growth when we’re in the middle of a crisis. One of the panelists responded, “We may look calm, but we’re all frightened. That’s why we’re doing this work.”

Which brings me to hope. Since returning from COP I’ve thought a lot about the distinction the author Rebecca Solnit draws between optimism and hope. Optimism is confidence that everything will be alright. I know that global emissions, and Canada’s, are still increasing. Having witnessed the gap that remains in international negotiations over fundamental issues, including level of ambition and climate finance for developing countries, I cannot say I’m optimistic.

Hope, in contrast, is a belief that things could be better. I choose to remain hopeful. As long as those kids are chanting and governments are still negotiating, there’s still the possibility that we can turn this around. If adults are listening to their children and demand meaningful action from the politicians they elect, there’s still hope.

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The Paris Agreement Emissions Trading Regime: What’s in it — and not — for Canada?

The rules for international emissions trading now being negotiated at COP25 in Madrid have the potential to make or break the Paris Agreement. Strict rules that prevent double counting, prohibit carry forward of questionable Kyoto Protocol credits, and ensure that projects eligible for credit surpass business-as-usual performance could reinforce the ambition of the Paris Agreement.

Rules that fall short of those goals could gut the treaty, leaving only the pretense of emissions reductions.

What’s at stake for Canada of the emissions trading rules in “Article 6” of the Paris Agreement?

Canada is among the countries pushing for integrity of emissions trading and protection of human rights in the current negotiations. However, with relatively high-cost emissions reductions, Canada like other wealthy countries is expected to be a purchaser of lower-cost reductions from developing countries. That creates contrary incentives to resist some proposals that would increase prices for emissions credits, for instance setting aside a more generous “share of proceeds” for adaptation in developing countries under both Articles 6.2 and 6.4 of the treaty.

It’s noteworthy that Canada is already engaged in emissions trading. The Quebec and California cap-and-trade programs have been linked since 2014. Canada is counting on credits purchased from California for roughly 20 percent of the reductions projected to be achieved by 2030. However, the US’ scheduled withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in November 2020 would render those credits ineligible. US withdrawal would almost certainly be reversed if a Democrat wins the 2020 Presidential election, but for now that remains a big uncertainty for Canada’s climate plan.

Another issue concerns the potential for Canada to earn international credits by exporting liquified natural gas (LNG). The Conservative Party has argued that Canada should be able claim international credits for LNG exports on the grounds that natural gas will replace coal in destination countries, thus reducing global emissions. Canada is doing the world a favour and should get credit for that, or so the argument goes.

There’s lots to debate here, starting with the assumption of global emissions reductions. Canada’s LNG may replace coal, but it could also replace renewables and thus increase global emissions. In any case, it’s just not how the climate treaty works. Each country is responsible for the emissions released within its own borders. It follows that any reduction flowing from a shift to lower-carbon fuels would be “owned” by the country in which those fuels are burned.

Canada may be able to purchase credits from those or other countries to offset the significant increase in our own emissions to produce and liquify natural gas. But let’s be clear: we would be paying, not getting paid.

The related issue is the argument that Canada can claim credits for reducing the emissions intensity of oil sands extraction. The oil sands are by far the largest contributor to Canada’s emissions growth since 1990, and expected continuation of that emissions growth presents the greatest challenge for Canada’s climate plan going forward.

We’ve been hearing a lot recently about decline in emissions per barrel of bitumen extracted from the oil sands, and the Canadian industry’s ambition to match the least-intensive crudes in the world. While reductions in emissions intensity are good news, we should not kid ourselves that we’re anywhere close to achieving that goal. A 2018 study in Science, a top-ranked peer-reviewed journal, found that Canada’s oil sands have among the highest carbon footprints in the world. It’s also questionable that tar embedded in soil can ever be delivered and refined as efficiently as free-flowing, light crudes.

As with LNG, while the emissions from combustion of Canada’s oil exports appear on the ledger of destination countries, emissions associated with extraction of bitumen are our responsibility. Under the Paris Agreement, Canada would get credit should there be a reduction in total emissions (not just emissions per barrel) associated with oil sands production. However, that would count toward our own emissions target. Any suggestion to sell those credits internationally as well would be prohibited as double counting under the Paris Agreement.

Last, there is a looming question of how Canada will fill the gap to meet our current Paris Agreement target, let alone the more ambitious target the Liberals promised during the election campaign, which is sorely needed if the world is to meet the goal to limit climate change to well below 2C. This week’s throne speech promised several additional measures, including promotion of electric vehicles, tree planting, subsidies for home retrofits, and investments in transit. However, no details have been provided to suggest that these measures will be sufficient to close a growing gap to Canada’s 2030 target.

Purchase of international credits may provide a way forward — though only if the rules negotiated this week ensure meaningful reductions. International emissions trading could reduce Canada’s compliance costs, though with a consequence of delaying transition of our own economy.

That’s an important trade-off that should be acknowledged and discussed openly, rather than proceeding with a plan we know to be insufficient, then pulling international credits out of the global hat at the last minute.

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COP-25: Why all the fuss about “Article 6?”

With more than 10,000 delegates from almost 200 countries, dozens of panels daily, and countless government, NGO, and business pavilions, there’s a lot to do at the international climate conference currently underway in Madrid. With so many options, one might wonder why Tuesday afternoon saw several hundred people jammed into a hot room for a three-hour meeting of the “Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice Contact Group on Article 6.”

Although the Paris Agreement established goals and broad strategies to meet them, further guidance is necessary to determine how it all will work in practice. Most elements of the so-called Paris “rulebook” were completed at the international climate negotiations, COP-24, last year. However, in light of remaining disagreement, the rules for Article 6 alone were deferred to COP-25 in Madrid this year.

Article 6 is the section of the Paris Agreement that authorizes international emissions trading. Section 6.2 envisions government-to-government trades, by which one country could meet its reduction target in part by paying another country to make extra reductions beyond its own target. Section 6.4 offers a mechanism for the private sector to go “above and beyond” to earn emissions reduction credits that can then be sold to other private actors or governments.

Article 6 holds the potential to make or break the Paris Agreement. At best, by providing a mechanism to meet targets at a much lower cost, Article 6 could inspire countries to increase the ambition of their national targets. At worst, weak rules for Article 6 will encourage violation of human rights and authorize illegitimate reductions that merely give the illusion of progress.

Which vision will prevail turns on how several key issues are resolved in the days to come.


The most fundamental issue in certifying reduction credits is to demonstrate that the activities in question would not have happened anyway, a standard referred to as “additionality.” While that sounds obvious, it’s tough in practice. For instance, as the price of renewable energy falls, projects that once seemed cutting edge can suddenly pay for themselves. Credit for extra action is no longer warranted. The challenge is to devise rules that allow outsiders to assess what is truly additional.

Carry-forward of Kyoto Protocol credits

The additionality question is closely related to a debate over carry-forward of unused Kyoto Protocol credits. The predecessor to the Paris Agreement first established emissions trading both between countries and through investment in private projects. There are, however, serious concerns about the legitimacy of many of the resulting credits.

In some cases, countries such as Australia accumulated surplus credits simply by setting unambitious targets up front. Similarly, some projects are believed to have gamed the system, for instance by temporarily increasing production to justify credits when emissions were later reduced simply by cutting production. Some analysts estimate that there are upwards of 20 billion tonnes of unused Kyoto credits. Given their questionable legitimacy, allowing signatories to the Paris Agreement to meet their obligations with “hot air” Kyoto credits could greatly undermine already halting progress toward global climate goals.

Double counting

Article 6 specifies that in emissions trading there should be a “corresponding adjustment” so that the same emissions reduction cannot be counted simultaneously toward two countries’ compliance. Again, that sounds obvious. It’s not a trade if the same reduction appears on both countries’ ledgers. Yet there is continuing disagreement over which reductions require such an accounting, and whether adjustments should be mandatory or voluntary.

“Overall Mitigation in Global Emissions”

The Paris Agreement states that trading in carbon markets should ensure “overall mitigation in global emissions.” That suggests going beyond merely offsetting one party’s reduction with an equal, if less costly, reduction by another party. However, some argue that realization of cost savings itself will promote increasing ambition. Others are proposing that a fraction of credits be cancelled with each trade.

Human rights

Kyoto Protocol experience also has revealed potential negative impacts of emissions trading on Indigenous and other local communities, for instance when forests where they live or on which they rely for their livelihoods are designated “off limits” as part of an emissions credit swap. NGOs, Indigenous peoples, and some countries are pushing for explicit recognition of human rights in the Article 6 rulebook, but they face strong resistance from other countries.

The stakes could not be higher, yet with 10 days to go in COP-25, negotiators remain a long way from agreement. The countries most vulnerable to climate change, including low-lying island states and least developed countries, are pressing for strong rules to ensure environmental integrity, no carry-forward of Kyoto credits, and retirement of a fraction of credits with each trade. However, countries that surpassed their Kyoto targets or hold unclaimed project-specific credits hope to retain those potentially valuable credits, while Brazil is leading a group arguing for a voluntary approach to fight double counting.

What are the implications for Canada?  Stay tuned for my next instalment from #COP25 in Madrid!

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COP-25 in Madrid: Welcome to Acronymlandia

I have researched comparative climate policy in Canada, the US, and other countries for the last 15 years. However, because I don’t focus on negotiation of international climate treaties, I’ve never attended one of the big international climate negotiations – until now.

What does a professor do in advance of a new conference? Homework! International negotiators navigate a very complex legal and procedural framework with the help of a lot of acroynyms. (Lest you doubt, check out

Here are some of the most important acronyms for those who want to follow along with my posts from Madrid this week.

COP refers to the “Conferences of the Parties” (meaning countries) that have ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (also known as the UNFCCC – the acronyms come fast and furious.) The Parties have met annually since the Convention took effect, with the year denoted by the number after “COP.” The biggies have included COP-3 in Kyoto in 1997, where the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, and COP-21 in Paris in 2015, which yielded the Paris Agreement. We’re now at COP-25, which takes place for the next two weeks.

In ratifying the Paris Agreement, which is akin to an appendix to the UNFCCC, 196 countries committed to work together to limit global warming to “well below” 2C and ideally 1.5C. Since then, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, yet another acronym) produced a major report in 2018 that underscored the severe impacts that can be expected at 1.5C of global warming, let alone 2C.


The Paris Agreement process is that individual countries set targets, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), to reduce their territorial emissions by a particular date. Two features of this approach warrant elaboration.

First, it’s a bottom up process. Countries set their own targets and devise their own policies to meet them. However, in doing so together, they’re reassuring each other that no one’s effort will be wasted, while also minimizing impacts on economic competitiveness.

Second, it’s an iterative process. Rather than trying to fix climate change in one fell swoop with a distant target that invites procrastination, signatories to the Paris Agreement committed not just to initial NDCs, but also to a process by which they’ll “take stock” and report back to each other on their progress every 5 years (the Global Stock Take or “GST”). The intention is to ratchet up collective ambition via new NDCs two years later.

That ratcheting process is critical because the current NDCs are only enough to limit global warming to between 3 and 3.5 C. Much greater ambition is needed to avoid devastating impacts on planetary ecosystems and human well-being. Canada’s current NDC, adopted in 2015, is to reduce our emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. Not only do we need to strengthen our existing policies to meet that target, but we and other countries will need to up our game in 2020, the first 5-yearly NDC update, if we are serious about limiting global warming to 2C or less. COP25 this year is an important opportunity for countries, including Canada, to signal that they will announce more ambitious NDCs next year.

There are lots of groupings of countries with similar economic and/or environmental circumstances. Canada has traditionally negotiated with a group of carbon-intensive countries, including Australia and (until recent years) the US, at times joined by oil- and gas-producing post-Soviet states.

In contrast, AOSIS is the Alliance of Small Island States, which are especially vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by climate change. At the limit, entire countries could be submerged.

LDCs are the 47 Least Developed Countries as defined by the UN. The 780 million people in those countries produce just over half of the annual carbon emissions of 35 million Canadians. Put another way, the average Canadian surpasses the annual emissions of an average resident of the LDCs in just 11 days. Yet through a combination of unlucky geography and limited financial resources to adapt to a warming climate — annual GPD per person in the LDCs averages roughly $3000 compared to Canada’s $43,000 — they are already suffering most from extreme heat, storms, flooding, and declining crop yields in countries where hunger is already commonplace. How much worse it gets depends on how quickly we return to net zero global emissions.

This one stands for Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities, a fundamental principle established by the UNFCCC treaty. It recognizes that countries that have contributed the most to the climate crisis and/or that have the greatest capacity to contribute to its solution have a disproportionate responsibility to take more ambitious actions to reduce their emissions, as well as to provide financial assistance to those most vulnerable.

The stakes posed by the climate crisis are immense for all countries. By virtue of our northern location Canada will continue to experience double the global average temperature increase. Yet the extreme vulnerability of LDCs and AOSIS states, who have contributed almost nothing to the problem yet will suffer the most, is a stark reminder of our responsibility as one of the countries with the highest carbon footprints and highest per capita incomes in the world.

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A Canadian’s Reflection on the US Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

This post originally appeared in Maclean’s Magazine on June 2, 2017:

Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement has been met with understandable disdain from Canadians. And confronted by the increasingly divergent world views of the U.S. Republican and Democratic parties, many Canadians appear to be readily embracing the latter.

That divergence is on stark display when comparing the two U.S. parties’ positions on the Paris Agreement and domestic climate policy. The Trump administration’s “America First” mantra contrasts with Barack Obama’s commitment to multilateralism; Trump invariably depicts China as a threat and takes it as given that any costs to the U.S. stemming from the Paris Agreement are “unfair,” while the Obama administration sought to partner with China, reaching a bilateral accord that laid the foundation for the global Paris Agreement. Trump rejects not only the need to reduce U.S. emissions, but also any U.S. responsibility to assist the developing countries already paying a disproportionate price for historical U.S. emissions, refusing to pay the $3 billion Obama committed to the Global Climate Fund.

Trump’s Rose Garden address reaffirmed these differences. He offered a nostalgic vision of a mid-20th century economy predicated on paper, cement and steel manufacturing. He reiterated his “love” of coal, an industry in inexorable decline due to abundant U.S. natural gas, not climate policy, a sharp contrast to the vision of the Obama administration—and a number of American business leaders—who have offered a vision of U.S. competitiveness driven by clean energy innovation.

Having embraced both climate science and multilateralism, most Canadians are appalled by Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. We are relieved that our elected leaders have joined other countries in reiterating our commitment to the Paris Agreement. But lest we feel too smug, the competing economic visions evident in the U.S. are also present, if less visible, within the Canadian polity.

Canada committed under the Paris Agreement to reducing our emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. The federal government has promised a national carbon price, among other laudable policies. However, we do not yet have a plan to meet our 2030 target. The shortfall in reductions just happens to match anticipated emissions growth from the tar sands. In fact, the oil industry is the only industrial sector from which emissions are expected to continue growing to 2030.

In Paris, Canada joined other countries in committing to do our part to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. On Thursday, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna offered reassurances that “Canada will continue to take a leadership role to tackle climate change at home and abroad.” Yet rather than transitioning away from fossil fuels, we are committed to expanding our oil production.

Is Canada’s doubling down on our fossil-fuel economy really so different from Trump’s nostalgic championing of U.S. coal?

One critical difference is that the United States burns its own coal, oil, and gas, while Canada exports most of the fossil fuels we produce. The resulting greenhouse gas emissions thus appear on other countries’ ledgers. This has allowed Canadians to overlook the ways we contribute to and prosper from global climate change.

It also has allowed Canadian politicians of all stripes to pretend that we can have it all. How many times have we all heard that “the environment and economy go hand in hand?” While that is true in theory, it does not follow that every economy is consistent with a sustainable environment. Investment in new infrastructure, expected to increase Canada’s fossil fuel exports for decades to come, is not consistent with the transition necessary to limit climate change to 2 degrees Celsius. Viewed in that light, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement that we need to expand fossil-fuel production in order to pay for Canada’s emissions reductions makes no sense.

Although less visible in the Canadian context than the U.S., the choice between dependence on fossil fuel development and investment in a clean energy transition is no less real. And today’s policy decisions by our own governments loom just as large for Canada’s economic future.


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A Historic Moment for B.C. Politics — and our Environment

This post originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on May 31, 2017:

The governing agreement between the NDP and Green Party represents a historic moment in British Columbia politics. It anticipates not only the first minority government in the province in 65 years, but also the first government in Canadian history predicated on support from the Greens. The two parties’ commitment to proportional representation could yield even more dramatic and lasting changes to the provincial political landscape.

The agreement also represents a potentially historic moment for the Canadian oil industry and economy. The Greens and NDP’s shared commitment to climate action and opposition to the Trans Mountain expansion project presents both economic and political challenges to the proposed pipeline.

On the economic side, the details of the NDP-Green partnership were released the same day as Trans Mountain’s IPO offering, which raised the $1.75-billion sought by the proponent, although at a lower price than foreseen and as shares of the parent company, Kinder Morgan, plummeted in value.

The IPO prospectus was candid (as required by law) concerning the significant financial risks to the project, including challenges in obtaining regulatory approvals and permits, public opposition, and climate change-related sea level rise at the tanker terminal. To say nothing of the 19 outstanding legal challenges, many by B.C. First Nations who do not consent to the pipeline crossing their unceded territory. The prospectus also acknowledges that efforts to mitigate climate change, both in Canada and in countries to which the oil is destined, could have a negative impact on crude oil demand.

Although armed with those warnings, IPO investors were not privy to the NDP-Green commitment to “employ every tool available to the new government to stop the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline.” It remains to be seen whether Trans Mountain’s board will convey a final decision to proceed with the project to the province by June 30, as required by the company’s agreement with the B.C. government.

Should they do so, the political challenges nonetheless loom larger than ever. When the BC Liberal government is defeated in June, as seems inevitable, opposition to the pipeline will no longer be a matter of individual citizens, environmental groups, or even local governments and First Nations, but of a provincial government acting on behalf of all British Columbians.

The B.C.-Trans Mountain agreement does not allow either party to withdraw for 20 years. However, it acknowledges that nothing in the agreement limits the authority of future provincial governments to “pass, amend, replace, revoke or otherwise exercise any rights or authority regarding legislation, regulations, policies or any other authority of the province.” An NDP government, with Green support, seems poised to exercise those rights.

In fact, the province has yet to issue dozens of permits required for the pipeline to be built and to operate in B.C. There also have been proposals for a new provincial health impact assessment, which at minimum would contribute significant delays. Or the B.C. government could concede defeat in one of the First Nations legal challenges against the province.

Enter the federal government. Prime Minister Trudeau on Tuesday restated his government’s support for the Trans Mountain pipeline. But as for Trans Mountain’s IPO investors, that support comes with significant risks. Just how much political capital is Mr. Trudeau willing to spend to see the pipeline built?

The federal government could exercise its constitutional power to declare the pipeline to be “for the general advantage of Canada” and thus a matter of exclusive federal authority. It is hard to imagine the Trudeau government would turn to a power last exercised more than 50 years ago, one that risks the ire of all provinces by threatening the balance of powers in the Canadian federation.

Ottawa could request a Supreme Court reference to confirm that its jurisdiction concerning trade and “interprovincial works and undertakings” (including pipelines) trumps provincial authority. Or it could wait for Trans Mountain to legally challenge a provincial permit denial as an opportunity to argue for federal paramountcy.

However, any effort by the federal government to force through the pipeline over the objections of the provincial government is likely to reinforce opposition within British Columbia, putting at risk at least some of the 17 seats held by the federal Liberals in the province.

It also risks political fallout for 40 Liberal MPs in Quebec, where there is strong opposition to another pipeline, Energy East, and where provincial governments are invariably staunch defenders of provincial jurisdiction.

At the heart of the Trudeau government’s 2016 climate plan lies a political compromise: a commitment to pursue reductions in Canada’s own greenhouse gas emissions in exchange for expansion of fossil-fuel exports to other countries via new pipelines. The looming NDP-Green partnership in British Columbia reveals both the political fragility of that compromise and the contradiction of climate leadership funded by fossil-fuel development.

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2500 Handshakes

As Acting Dean of Arts this year, I had the honour and great pleasure of shaking somewhere between 2000 and 2500 hands of individual students as they crossed the stage to graduate this past week. As always, I delighted in seeing our students’ and their families’ pride and joy and I suspect in some cases simply relief. I am always inspired by the graduating student’s speech at each ceremony. And I continue to be amazed by the graduates’ shoes — this year men’s and women’s! — and their ability to get across the stage in one piece (though the President caught one graduate as she started to topple over.)

Meeting and speaking to each student individually this year gave me some new close-up insights. I was delighted that there were quite a few students who seem to be gender fluid or non-binary. I look forward to how many more there will be as our society’s acceptance and respect for gender difference increases.

I was reminded of how incredibly diverse our student body is. This is not the relatively homogeneous Canada I grew up in 50 years ago, and that is a glorious thing to witness.

I was heartened by the beating of a drum by Aboriginal faculty as each Aboriginal student crossed the stage.

And, it’s amazing how much culture and personality are reflected simply in how each graduate walks (teeters, strides, swaggers) across the stage, and how they shake hands (gently, warmly, fiercely, on occasion bone-crushingly).

This is a photo of my favourite moment in each ceremony, as the graduates turn and wave to say thank you to their families and friends.

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Reflections on Canadian Engineers’ Iron Ring Ceremony

It’s 37 years this month since I got my iron ring. The bumpy surface long ago became smooth, and it has made a permanent indentation in my pinky. The ring is symbolic of important aspects of my professional and personal identity. Although my career has evolved, I still wear the ring (alongside a ring that reminds me of my father, who would surely have been an engineer if he’d had the same educational opportunities as I.)

I received the ring in 1980 from a senior member of the professional in a secret ceremony in a darkened room (there was even black paper over the windows in the door to ensure privacy.) At the time, it was a sexist ceremony, in which we repeated a Rudyard Kipling poem as the “sons of Martha.” I seem to recall something about being brothers in a wolf pack. I imagine (hope!) that at least some of that has changed by now.

More importantly, we collectively read an oath of professional responsibility, not to “suffer or pass, or be privy to the passing of, Bad Workmanship or Faulty Material in aught that concerns my works before mankind as an Engineer…” We even got a little wallet sized card of the oath to remind of us our professional responsibility to public safety (…/Ritual_of_the_Calling_of_an_Engi… ).

All these decades later, I wonder how the engineering profession envisions its professional responsibility for public safety. I hope it has evolved beyond the individual responsibility to design safe bridges, though of course that is still essential. At this critical moment in human history, it is essential for the engineering profession in Canada (and elsewhere) to debate whether it is enough to commit to build pipelines that won’t leak or refineries that won’t explode, when the products flowing through those engineering works pose a fundamental threat to humankind. It is timely to debate our collective responsibility as a profession, in addition to our responsibilities as individual professionals.

We wear iron rings to remember the lives of those lost in a bridge collapse, but must also be mindful of the hundreds of millions, or even billions of lives, that are threatened by extreme heat and weather and rising seas.

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Pipelines are not a Reconciliation of Canada’s Environment and Economy

In announcing approval of the Kinder Morgan and Enbridge Line 3 pipeline-expansion projects, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered the now-familiar refrain that Canadians don’t need to choose between a healthy environment and a prosperous economy. We can enjoy the economic benefits of a growing fossil-fuel industry, even while maintaining our global commitment to mitigate climate change.

It is true that a prosperous economy and a healthy environment can go hand in hand. However, it does not follow that every prosperous economy is also environmentally sustainable. There are reasons to question both the environmental and economic reassurances offered by the Prime Minister.

On the environmental side, Canada has committed to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. The federal government has announced a series of laudable measures, including a national carbon price, a low-carbon fuel standard and accelerated phase-out of coal-fired electricity. Those actions have been more than matched by provincial governments, most notably Ontario and Quebec. However, the combined effort still falls well short of Canada’s 2030 reduction target, let alone the more ambitious reductions that will be needed thereafter.

The leading obstacle is concurrent growth in extractive emissions from the oil and gas industry, which is facilitated by new pipeline infrastructure. The emissions increase from the oil sector allowed within the Alberta climate plan will more than offset the reductions by 2030 from a $50 national carbon price.

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is correct that the transition away from fossil fuels necessarily will be gradual, but to expand fossil-fuel production, with resulting significant increases in Canada’s greenhouse emissions, is a transition in the wrong direction.

On the economic side, it is noteworthy that the two pipelines approved this week represent investments in new infrastructure that is intended to operate for decades. Consistent with that, the National Energy Board (NEB) requires that proponents demonstrate their projects’ long-term economic viability.

Consider the business case for the Trans Mountain pipeline. The project is predicated on an optimistic projection of steadily increasing Canadian oil exports. One underlying assumption, that oil prices will remain sufficiently high that all expansion projects will be viable, has already proved wrong.

Trans Mountain also assumed no change in public policies that might affect oil demand, whether in Canada or in the countries to which the oil in the pipeline is destined. It failed to account for any additional effort to mitigate climate change over the life of the project, let alone the international Paris Agreement to limit the increase in the global average temperature to below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has modelled global oil markets under several scenarios, including existing policies and more ambitious policies consistent with the 2C commitment. The current policies scenario anticipates steadily increasing oil demand, reasonably consistent with Trans Mountain’s projection for Canada. It also is a scenario that promises global warming in excess of 3.6C, which IEA anticipates will lead to “substantial species extinction and large risks to global and regional food security.”

In contrast, IEA’s 2C scenario anticipates that oil demand would peak in 2018 and decline thereafter. Demand in 2040 is projected to be 20 per cent less than in 2015. Although IEA’s 2016 analysis does not report specific implications for Canada, modelling of a 2C scenario by researchers McGlade and Ekins projected that “open-pit mining of natural bitumen in Canada soon drops to negligible levels after 2020 in all scenarios because it is considerably less economic than other methods of production.”

Put bluntly, the business case for the Trans Mountain expansion project is predicated on a world of unchecked global warming. In approving infrastructure that promises to increase Canada’s bitumen exports for decades to come, the federal government is not reconciling the environment and economy but, rather, placing a bet against the success of the Paris climate agreement.

This post appeared in the Globe and Mail on November 30, 2016.

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Violence, Gender, and Childishness in the House of Commons

Yesterday’s melee in the House of Commons exemplifes all that is wrong with parliamentary behaviour in this country.

It was ridiculously inappropriate for the Prime Minister to take it on himself to wade into a group of MPs — using language that was both inappropriate for the House of Commons and downright violent — to grab a colleague against that colleague’s will. It goes without saying that such behaviour has absolutely no place in Canada’s parliament, or any workplace for that matter. And it calls into question the Prime Minister’s respect for the institution, ego (it’s the speaker’s job, not his, to move things along), temperament, and judgment. He acted like an entitled child, not a government leader.

Yes the Prime Minister’s elbow to Brosseau was unintended. Yes, he apologized, as he should have. No, I don’t see his actions as exemplifying violence against women. But I do see the PM’s actions through a lens of gender. Trudeau’s behaviour was characteristically male. In my experience women just don’t march into groups and start asserting their will through physical force (of course, not all men do either). It’s called “manhandling” for a reason. Consider what images the term “womanhandling” brings to mind in contrast! Such behaviour has predictable consequences, as we teach our children from a young age. Trudeau may not have intended to hurt Brosseau, but when you march into a crowd and start tossing your elbows around, it’s predictable that someone will get hurt.

Mulcair’s anger was also righteously male and his actions inappropriate in my opinion. It was, again, up to the speaker to restore order not Mr. Mulcair. Mulcair should have expressed his outrage to the House as a whole. The whole knight in shining armour protecting the damsel in distress scenario was a bit much. Mulcair could have waited for Brosseau to return and speak for herself. Was Mulcair going to challenge Trudeau to a duel, for God’s sake? There are reports that he had to be restrained.

Last, and a little remarked upon aspect of this sorry business, was the reaction of the Liberal MPs, who applauded enthusiastically at the Prime Minister crossing the aisle to grab the Conservative whip, and who cleared the benches like a pee wee hockey team thereafter as the PM and Mulcair started yelling at each other.

The saddest thing for me is how entirely predictable that part was. MPs routinely interrupt each other, bang on their desks, yell childish things, and applaud their “team” as if they were at a hockey game rather charged with the responsibility of governing Canada in the democratically-elected House of Commons.

A few years ago I was giving a lecture on Canadian democracy to a group of non-traditional students from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Many of these students are recovering from drug and alcohol addictions, so I’m guessing they have spent a lot of time surrounded by people in altered states behaving badly. Many have lived or still lived on the streets, where I assume decorum does not always prevail. Yet they were shocked by a clip I showed them of day to day behaviour in Canada’s parliament. These (bright, brave, committee) students, who have presumably “seen it all,” were shocked to see that Canada’s MPs act like badly behaved children.

If there was ever a moment to reform behaviour in the House of Commons, this is it.

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