What We’re Not Talking About – But Should Be – in the Canadian Election

Opinion: Impact of Climate Change Should be Election Issue

Published as Vancouver Sun Op-Ed October 7, 2015

Canada’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions are among the highest in the world. Our national emissions have been increasing steadily, with the exception of the global recession from 2008 to 2010. Absent significant policy change, Canada’s emissions are projected to continue to rise.

Against that backdrop, voters are undoubtedly encouraged by the ambitious targets and proposals for regulatory or carbon pricing policies that have been advanced in this election campaign. Yet despite that debate, the major national parties are completely sidestepping much bigger questions. Consider three inconvenient truths that Conservative, Liberal, and NDP politicians are not even talking about.

First, all three parties’ proposals are invariably accompanied by reassurances that we don’t have to choose between a health economy and a health environment. It is true that a national economy can be both prosperous and environmentally sustainable. However, it does not follow that all prosperous economies are environmentally sustainable.

Canada’s current economy, which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels both for our own use and for export, is among the most unsustainable in the world. The task we face is nothing short of weaning our economy off fossil fuels. While that arguably is consistent with the deep emissions reductions targets offered by the three major national parties, it is inconsistent with their economic policies, in particular their receptiveness to new pipelines.

The oilsands account for the majority of Canada’s projected emissions growth. Put simply, expansion of the oilsands is taking us in the opposite direction. And it is locking us into that path, since new pipelines to increase Canada’s bitumen exports are expected to operate at capacity for many decades. We cannot continue to pursue an economic model based on fossil fuels and at the same time reduce our contribution to climate change.

Second, Canadians and the politicians eager to win our votes typically point fingers at big industrial polluters. Companies that have fought greenhouse gas reductions tooth and nail, in some cases working equally hard to misrepresent the scientific consensus on climate change, deserve our condemnation. However, it is too easy to blame industry alone for this one, since industrial sources account for only half of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The other half comes from small sources — such as motor vehicles, furnaces, public and commercial buildings, landfills, and farms. In other words, regular Canadians are a big part of the problem too, and will need to be part of the solution too. We cannot meet the proposed reduction targets without changes in how we get around, build and heat our homes, grow our food, and manage our waste. Politicians don’t want to talk about that because they want our votes, but the risk is that when the time comes to institute those changes, Canadians will feel angry and betrayed.

Voters love the idea of taking a hard line with industry, but prefer government support when it comes to reducing their own carbon footprints. There’s no question that public investment in transit is sorely needed. But when it comes to our homes and cars, subsidies are seldom cost-effective, since a fraction of the funds invariably goes to individuals to make purchases they had already planned. And in the end, public subsidies come from our own pockets anyway.

Third, there has been virtually no acknowledgment in this election debate of the implications of climate change mitigation for Canada’s fossil fuel exports. The parties’ proposals focus on the carbon emissions that occur within our own borders. However, the fossil fuels that we export yield much greater emissions when they are burned at their ultimate destination than at the point of extraction.

The implication is that when the countries to which we export our oil seek to reduce their own emissions, their demand for oil will fall. Not only will they need less oil from any source, but as demand falls so too will the price of oil: Canada’s high-priced oil will be the first to go.

We know that to stabilize global climate, roughly two thirds of oil, and almost all unconventional oil reserves such as the oilsands, must remain in the ground. None other than current Bank of England (and former Bank of Canada) governor Mark Carney last week warned of the looming financial risk posed by these “stranded” fossil fuel assets.

Few countries are more economically vulnerable to that risk than Canada. Surely that’s an issue our political leaders should be talking about during a national election campaign.

Kathryn Harrison is a professor of political science at the University of B.C.

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