Is the Federal Government’s Proposed Climate Test Impossible to Fail?

This op-ed appeared in the Vancouver sun on May 4, 2016 under the title Opinion: Ottawa Must Clarify Climate Test


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently joined over 170 countries in New York to sign the Paris Climate Agreement on Earth Day. Soon after, Trudeau reiterated his government’s commitment to “getting Canada’s resources to market” via new pipelines. Can Canada reconcile expanded fossil fuel production with significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions?

Enter the “Climate Test.” Although assessments of pipelines launched by the Harper government precluded consideration of climate change, the Trudeau government has promised an additional review of those projects’ climate impacts.

This is a critically important undertaking. Production of fossil fuels accounts for most of Canada’s emissions growth since 1990. Canada’s ability to meet its commitment to reduce emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 is inextricably linked to future developments in the oil industry.

In March, the federal government released a draft climate test for comment. Emissions released in getting oil to the pipeline, including from mining and upgrading, are to be estimated. That total then will be compared to the emissions that would be expected in the absence of the pipeline.

The proposal falls short in three important respects.

First, the test will consider only “upstream” emissions associated with oil production, not the “downstream” emissions that occur when that oil is burned.  The latter constitute over 80 per cent of the emissions associated with a barrel of bitumen. It is true that by international convention each country is legally responsible only for the emissions that occur within its borders.

Nonetheless, there is an economic reason to be attentive to downstream emissions from Canada’s exports.  When the countries to which we export seek to reduce their own emissions, demand will fall and our high-cost oil is likely to be the first to go.

A second limitation concerns emissions assumed in the absence of a proposed pipeline.

Consider Trans Mountain’s application to build a second pipeline from Alberta to Burnaby. The business case for the pipeline is based on the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ optimistic prediction of steadily increasing oilsands production. Trans Mountain further asserts that that level of production will occur regardless of whether new pipelines are built, based on a debatable assumption that all the oil will otherwise be transported by rail.

The implication of Trans Mountain’s baseline scenario is that the pipeline would have virtually no impact on Canada’s emissions. However, that conclusion was subtly baked into the analysis from the outset.

An alternate assumption, that additional pipeline capacity will result in expanded production, yields a radically different conclusion: a carbon footprint of the Trans Mountain pipeline equivalent to adding two million cars to Canada’s roads. Alas, the federal proposal offers no guidance as to which scenario should be used, even though the choice of emissions baseline has huge implications for a project’s estimated climate impacts.

Third, the proposed climate test is silent on how the government will weigh an emissions increase from any single project against Canada’s national target. In theory, a project yielding annual emissions up to the national target could be approved if Canada shut downs every other source of emissions nationwide. That is of course unrealistic, but it illustrates the challenge of establishing a test for individual projects in the context of a national target.

The federal government must clarify the principles that will guide its decisions as to whether projects pass or fail the climate test. One could estimate what carbon price would be needed for Canada to meet its emissions targets in 2030 and beyond, then ask whether the proposed development would be economically viable under that scenario. Alternatively, one could predict the international prices needed over time to meet Canada’s goal of limiting climate change to 2C, again asking whether the project is consistent with that scenario.

To do otherwise is to continue the decades-long disconnect between Canada’s economic policies and environmental commitments — all justified by a climate test that may be impossible to fail.

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

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Time for a “Medicare Moment” of Federal Leadership in Canadian Climate Policy

The following op-ed appeared in the Vancouver Sun on 16 March, 2016.  The original piece can be found here:


Earlier this month, the first ministers concluded their climate-change summit with the release of a joint “Vancouver Declaration.” The premiers are on board with the Paris agreement to limit climate change to two degrees C, with a first step to reduce Canada’s own greenhouse gas emissions to 30-per-cent below the 2005 level by 2030.

The first ministers all acknowledge the need to continue the transition to a low-carbon economy beyond 2030. They have committed to invest in clean-energy and climate-change adaptation. And despite looming tensions over pipelines, they committed to continuing collaboration to achieve a “pan-Canadian framework” for climate action by early 2017.

Sounds great. If so, why am I skeptical? As a researcher who has studied federal-provincial relations and environmental policy for 25 years, I have seen that intergovernmental agreement all too often has been a vehicle to limit federal interference in provincial resource development. Moreover, the demand for consensus can be a recipe for deference to the least ambitious province.

Canadian federal and provincial governments have been celebrating the importance of collaboration in addressing climate change for almost three decades — while Canada’s emissions have continued to increase. We should not assume that intergovernmental harmony and doing our part to address climate policy go hand in hand.

Indeed, the trade-offs between effective policies and intergovernmental consensus loom especially large in the case of climate change. The uneven distribution of natural resources across this large country has yielded regional economies that vary tremendously in their carbon intensity. Powered by coal and reliant on oil production, Saskatchewan’s per capita emissions are more than six times greater than those of hydro-rich Quebec. Virtually all of Canada’s emissions growth since 1990, and most projected growth, has been driven by fossil fuel production in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.

In that context, federal-provincial consensus on a transition away from fossil fuels is a tall order indeed. It is telling that the provinces that have adopted concrete programs to achieve the deepest percentage reductions are those that already have the cleanest economies. It is no accident that the strongest opposition to a national carbon price has emerged from Saskatchewan, the province with the highest per capita emissions. Even the newly ambitious Alberta climate plan will only return that province’s emissions to their 2005 levels by 2030, which would necessitate a 50-per-cent reduction from all other provinces to meet Canada’s 2030 target.

More importantly, the Vancouver Declaration follows a strategy that failed in past environmental agreements of relying on provincial governments to take the lead in implementing national and provincial standards. There’s no question that some provinces have demonstrated climate leadership. The problem is that not everyone is following.

The first ministers’ agreement in Vancouver was achieved only by allowing that each government could flexibly interpret carbon pricing and set its own price. Remarks after the meeting by Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil suggest that he considers any measure that would cost money to constitute a carbon price. One wonders what would not qualify. It is also striking that the Vancouver Declaration stressed the importance of developing “energy resources,” an increasingly-popular euphemism for fossil fuels. Only in Canada would we see a climate change agreement that celebrates extraction of fossil fuels.

There are three approaches Canada could employ to ensure that we honour our Paris climate commitment (though they could also be combined):

• We could set emissions limits for particular sectors or individual provinces as needed to meet our emissions target, ideally reducing compliance costs through emissions trading.

• We could establish a fixed carbon price and adjust it as needed until we meet our emissions target.

• Finally, we could purchase emissions reduction credits internationally.

The first ministers’ Vancouver Declaration commits to none of these.

One year ago, Justin Trudeau promised that a Liberal government would take a “Medicare approach” to climate change. He noted that Medicare “began as an ambitious and visionary experiment in Saskatchewan. Gradually, over time, other provinces and territories adopted similar models. And the federal government, at key moments, provided leadership.”

It’s time for the Medicare moment in Canadian climate policy. Federal leadership is essential to ensure not just that Canadian governments get along, but that we achieve our international targets and fulfil our obligation to future generations.

Kathryn Harrison is a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia.

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First Thoughts on the Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement feels bittersweet. It’s a huge relief and a punch in the gut at the same time.

First, it’s good news. For those who don’t spend all their time thinking about climate change (do such people really exist?!), what is most encouraging for me is that this agreement takes a fundamentally different approach. We’ll all hear a lot in the days to come about the 1.5C target and Canada’s newfound ambition, which is all very nice. But don’t be fooled: the commitments in this agreement won’t get us anywhere close to that goal (more like 3 to 3.5C). This agreement has not fixed climate change! Rather, it has put in place a framework by which countries will make their own commitments, report on progress, and thereby apply pressure on each other. What’s binding is the process, not the outcomes.

To non-climate nerds, that undoubtedly sounds pretty feeble, and in many ways it is. But based on past experience I’m OK with that. Canadians more than anyone have seen that targets even 15 years into the future don’t mean much to governments elected for 4 year terms. It’s all too easy to put the hard stuff off, again and again. Given that, I see the commitment to revisit targets and progress every 5 years as the heart of the Paris agreement. The 5-yr timeline is also important given the unanticipated pace of technological change we’re witnessing in the clean energy sector.

The inclusion of all countries is also a critical element of this treaty. In the past, there has been an understandable expectation that the wealthy countries that created this problem, and prospered in so doing, should take responsibility for reducing global emissions. We now know that will not be enough. If developing countries do not achieve a clean development path, we are all lost. So the inclusion of commitments by developing countries, backed by recognition of the need for financial transfers from the wealthy, is also encouraging.

So, we’ve achieved an inclusive framework for progress and accountability, rather than a once-and-for-all solution. Which brings me to my other reaction. It’s a sobering reminder of just how much hard work lies ahead.

For Canada, the challenge will be particularly great. As a wealthy country, we bear a heavy burden of responsibility to financially support countries pursuing a clean development path, to say nothing of helping those countries, which tend to be more vulnerable, adapt to the inevitable climate change still to come. At home, not only do we rely more than almost anyone else on this planet on fossil fuels for our own comfortable lives, but our economy relies heavily on them for export. In that sense, this agreement is a road map for the disappearance of our current markets. Noteworthy that an agreement that implies phasing out fossil fuels over 50-60 years comes as we’re entertaining building new fossil fuel infrastructure that could operate for that same length of time. The decisions we make today will cast a very long shadow.

That brings me back to the 1.5C, and even the interim 2030 target. Canada joined the “high ambition coalition” in supporting the 1.5 C aspiration. Our job, as citizens will be to hold our governments to all that implies, and to back them up when they adopt politically challenging measures needed to launch a fundamental and just transition of our economy.

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Representation in Cabinet

As a political scientist, I’ve often talked in class about the value of diverse representation in government. How it can make a difference for little girls growing up, and indeed for grown women, to see women in leadership roles and know that they can do those jobs too. How having women’s voices in Cabinet, in caucus, and in the public service increases policymakers’ ability to understand and thus take into account the diverse experiences of women.

But that was all kind of abstract and intellectual until today, when I saw a Canadian Cabinet that was half women being sworn in for the first time. My own tears took me by surprise. I saw versions of myself in that line of Cabinet Ministers. I heard voices that sounded like mine as female Ministers were sworn in. And I suddenly felt better understood in important ways by my government than ever before.

Yes, there have been women in Cabinet before, and we’ve even briefly had a woman Prime Minister.  But the fact of equal representative means that this Cabinet looks like Canadians, at least with respect to one critical dimension, gender.

I hope other historically-underrepresented Canadians saw or will soon see some version of themselves too.

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Voting as an Act of Community


I’m a traditionalist. I love to vote on election day. For 21 years I have gone to the polls with one or more of my children, starting when they were in strollers. This election is the first time they’ve been able to vote, rather than just observe (and listen to Mom’s lecture about democracy — again! — as we walked to the polls). I’m not sure who was more excited about that, Sophie or me (though we missed Sam, who is in Toronto). We were lined up with about 100 other people at our local elementary school in the dark before 7 am. It felt urgent. We had butterflies in our stomachs.

But, as in all previous elections, I was reminded of what a sense of community comes with voting. Strangers in the line smiled at each other and some chatted. When we got in to the gym, we met up with several neighbours we know well, a great way to start any work day. The poll officers seemed as excited as Sophie that she was getting to vote in person for the first time.

And that doesn’t count the volunteering. Both of my kids have volunteered long hours on this election for environmental NGOs. The inspiring students of UBCC350 were out at the university gates with a big “vote” sign at 7:30 am, having spent countless hours over the last weeks knocking on doors and talking to fellow students to encourage them to vote.

Voting is a solitary and necessarily private act, but the decision to vote is an expression of commitment to a community. And the act of voting can be wonderfully social. It feels good, a reminder that we are in this together. We need to find ways to acknowledge and celebrate that.

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Comparing the Parties’ Climate Change Platforms

Opinion: Comparing climate policies

The countries of the world will convene in Paris this November in a last-ditch attempt to limit global warming to 2 degrees C. That meeting is especially important for Canada, since by virtue of our northern latitude we can expect roughly twice the global average temperature increase.

The Paris meeting is also important because, with our highly carbon-intensive economy, Canada is one of the countries with the farthest to go to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. It is thus fitting that each of the four national parties’ election platforms includes plans to address climate change. How do they compare?

The Conservative government has committed that Canada will reduce its emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. The Green Party has committed to 40 per cent below 2005 by 2025. The NDP have promised a 34-per-cent reduction related to a 1990 baseline, equivalent to 46 per cent below 2005 levels, by 2025. The Liberals have not stated a reduction target. However, it would be difficult to backtrack on the 30 per cent by 2030 target that Canada has already submitted to the UN.

Targets are easy to announce but much harder to meet. Indeed, Canadian governments have announced seven different climate action targets over the last 25 years, but moved the goalposts each time it became apparent that the latest target would not be met. With emissions steadily increasing, Environment Canada has projected that, yet again, we will fall well short of our current target to reduce emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels. At least as important as targets is what the parties would do to meet them.

The Conservatives would stay the course with their government’s sector-by-sector regulatory strategy. Although some new regulations are proposed, the party has rejected regulation of emissions from oilsands extraction. Since that sector alone accounts for the majority of Canada’s continuing emissions growth, it is not credible that the Conservatives’ strategy would meet their own 2030 target, short of a deep recession.

The other parties all have embraced variants of carbon pricing. The Greens would impose a fee on all carbon pollution, returning all revenue to Canadians via equal dividend cheques. The pollution fee would need to be increased over time to prompt deeper reductions to achieve near- and long-term targets.

The NDP would adopt a cap-and-trade program for “big polluters.” As with a carbon fee, the national cap would need to be steadily decreased to meet the 2025 target. While resulting pollution control costs that would be passed on to consumers are less visible than under a carbon tax, they would in fact be identical to meet the same emissions target.

A critical gap in the NDP plan is how it would address small sources, such as motor vehicles, homes, and farms, which collectively account for half of Canada’s emissions. We simply cannot achieve the proposed scale of reductions by targeting industry alone.

The Liberals have promised a national carbon price to be developed in collaboration with the provinces, but have provided little detail. A critical question for the Liberals is how they would gain agreement from provinces with conflicting goals.

In that regard, the proposed “Medicare approach” is less than convincing. Conditional federal grants helped to induce provincial participation in Medicare, since that program involved significant costs for provincial governments. Federal funding provides less leverage over climate policy, since pollution control costs will be borne primarily by the private sector, not provincial governments. The NDP proposal only to allow provinces that meet or beat federal criteria to opt out of a federal carbon pricing program is more credible.

Proposed pipelines also are connected to climate change, since they demand expanded oilsands production, which in turn will yield increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Conditional on environmental assessments, the Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP each have left the door open to one or more pipelines, though the NDP assessments would include climate impacts. The Green Party opposes expansion of oilsands production and all proposed pipelines.

In sum, the Green Party has offered the clearest program to fight climate change. The NDP is close behind, but questions of feasibility remain given the party’s focus on industrial emissions. The Liberal platform is least clear with respect to either goals or means, though a commitment to a consistent national price on carbon is an important step forward. As a continuation of current policy, the Conservative platform seems destined to yield a continuation of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and yet another failure to meet domestic and international climate action targets.

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

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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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My first and undoubtedly last interview on Miley Cyrus

Really, it’s about celebrity environmental activism…

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The Harperman Debate

At the risk of promoting howls of outrage, I don’t think the “Harperman” case is as straightforward as the government “muzzling a scientist” — the composer/scientist wasn’t presenting scientific results after all — or even violating a citizen’s freedom of speech. There is a tricky balance to be struck here between public servants’ rights to political speech and the principles of neutrality and loyalty that are essential underpinnings of a permanent public service (and the memory and expertise that flow from that). For me, a lot depends on the type of work Turner does: does he directly or indirectly provide input to policy decisions? What management functions if any does he have? Questions for which I don’t know the answers, but neither, I suspect, do many of those who are outraged.

I’m trying to think about it in terms of the partisan flip side. Under an NDP or Liberal or Green government, under what circumstances would a government be justified in suspending an Environment Canada staffer who publicly campaigned against a “job-killing carbon price,” given the questions that would raise concerning the public servant’s loyalty in developing and implementing a government priority?

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10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

New Orleans, February 2015

New Orleans, February 2015

On the 10th anniversary of Katrina, I’ve been reflecting on the lasting effects my partner and I witnessed in New Orleans earlier this year, and the lessons they offer about the differential impacts of “natural” disasters depending on one’s income. In the wealthy Garden District, vintage homes remain perfectly restored. In an upper middle class neighbourhood, modest older homes are interspersed with huge, new ones, presumably built by those with adequate insurance. In a lower middle class neighbourhood, at least half the lots are vacant, often with only the concrete stoop remaining. In low-income wards, so many boarded up, abandoned, and increasingly unstable dwellings covered in graffiti.

There is a parallel to the impacts of climate change, which are already happening and certain to get worse. The poorest global citizens will experience the greatest impacts (most hot days, highest sea level rises) simply by virture of their location, they are most vulnerable when that occurs (e.g., by virtue of substandard housing and sanitation and already-compromised health), and they don’t have resources with which to adapt to these huge, new challenges. And as in New Orleans, the wealthiest global citizens have just been just ignoring that as we drive away from the global deluge in our air conditioned cars.

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