Trump’s climate change denial a test for the world: Dispatch from COP22


Entrance to main plenary tent

The venue for COP22 here in Marrakech is a mini village assembled just outside of the old city walls. The buildings holding the negotiations and side events are all temporary. Like an old Saharan caravan, the entire complex of tents and temporary shelters can be dismantled when the event is complete. With the surprise victory of Donald Trump, people across the world are worried that the agreements being made inside those buildings may also be dismantled.

The Trump victory and Republican sweep of the Senate and Congress is clearly bad news for the climate. As we’ve all heard by now, the incoming administration may cancel programs aimed at reducing emissions, helping Americans adapt to climate change, and supporting the developing world. It may withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, at least in spirit. Doing so may give a number of other countries from Saudi Arabia to India to yes, even Canada, an excuse to delay climate action.

I don’t know what will happen. No one here in Marrakech does. Take every story you hear about the “behind-the-scenes” talks with respect to Trump at COP22 with a heaping mound of Moroccan desert salt. We’re all guessing until he takes office.

I can only add this: Maybe the world’s governments need this test.

For years, international climate policy has been steered by the immense gravitational pull of U.S. politics. The waxing and waning of U.S. government willingness to address climate change effectively controlled the position of almost every country on the planet outside of Western Europe.

This outsized role of the U.S. was also never going to be sustainable in the long-term. Certainly U.S. leadership was critical at the beginning of this process and in creating the Paris Climate Agreement. Eventually leadership was going to have to come from other nations. The U.S. share of the global economy and of global greenhouse gas emissions has been declining. Its influence on the path of international climate policy was eventually going to follow.

The child just may be grown enough to walk on its own. These are not the Bush years. The Paris Climate Agreement is not the fractured Kyoto Protocol. The Paris Climate Agreement has come into force with the willing participation of developed and developing nations, including rapidly industrializing nations like China, once a real and rhetorical obstacle to progress. The agreement was designed to be somewhat Congress-proof. Now there is a real push here to make the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement – the work of this conference – Trump-proof.

Keep in mind much of the progress internationally in the past few years is not a result of U.S. leadership. China’s promises in the bilateral deal with the U.S., the deal that paved the way for Paris, did not result from the U.S. extracting concessions. China pledged what it intended to pledge, thanks to internal decisions about addressing climate change, air pollution, and energy needs (not necessarily in that order!). That’s not going to change.

It is possible that Trump’s approach to the UN climate process will end up demonstrating that the world is ready to forge ahead in addressing climate change with or without the U.S. Ironically, it could actually confirm the concerns of many of Trump’s supporters that Americans are ‘losing’ to the rest of the world.

Five myths about Canada’s carbon pricing plan

On Monday, the federal government announced plans for a price on carbon, beginning at $10 per tonne in 2018 and rising to $50 per tonne in 2022. Since the announcement, there have been all manner of claims about what it will mean for the provinces and for average Canadians. Here are some of the common myths – and the reality:

Myth 1: The announcement was shocking to the provinces.

Reality: Unless the provincial leaders have been in a cave for the past year, the announcement of a federal minimum carbon price should come as no surprise at all. Justin Trudeau and his team said throughout the election campaign that, if elected, one of their first actions would be to put a federal price on carbon. It was repeated after the election. It was a key discussion point in all federal-provincial meetings. It was stated in the Vancouver Accord on Clean Growth and Climate Change. It was signaled throughout the summer. And with a vote on ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement coming any day, it was pretty obvious the pricing announcement was imminent.

Myth 2: The decision was a unilateral move by the Trudeau government.

Reality: Not exactly. The provinces are being offered a framework that has been discussed for almost a year: there will be a minimum price set federally, but the provinces can do whatever they want, so long as their carbon pricing system at least meets the federal minimum. Yes, the minimum is unilateral, but otherwise, this is about as flexible as a federal “tax” could possibly be.

Myth 3: This is a federal government tax grab.

Reality: Flat out false. The proceeds from federal carbon tax – a tax only imposed if a province decides against creating its own pricing system – would be returned to the provinces.

Myth 4: The carbon price is not revenue-neutral / The carbon price will increase tax bills for Canadians.

Reality: Not necessarily. First, the provinces can choose their own carbon pricing system. So it can be revenue neutral, as in the case of British Columbia’s carbon tax. Second, even if a province refuses to implement its own pricing system, and is thus required to pay the federally required minimum tax, the proceeds come back to the province. The province could therefore choose to return it to the citizens.

Myth 5: The carbon price will cripple the resource industry.

Reality: Not really. Only companies that have been paying zero attention to science, Canadian politics, global trends, etc. over the past 20 years will be unprepared. A 2013 study of ten energy companies operating in Canada showed that seven of the ten had adopted a “shadow” carbon price for making decisions, and the other three had informally examined carbon pricing. The “shadow” prices ranged from $15 to $68 per tonne, right in the range proposed by the federal government. In other words, the companies have been preparing for a price on carbon for years. For resource and energy companies, having a system finally in place is much preferable to years of policy uncertainty.

To be clear, I’m not defending the structure of the system. The price is far too low, on its own, to bring Canada close to its target of a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by the year 2030, let alone for Canada to play its part in avoiding the global temperature limits agreed to in Paris. But we have to start somewhere. You have to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run.

The pricing plan may be a crawl. At least we are finally out of the crib.

I know what you did last summer, fieldwork edition

South TarawaOver the past summer, I had the opportunity to do fieldwork related to climate change and coral reefs in both Kiribati and the Marshall Islands.

I’ve put together a slideshow that gives a window into the effect of rising sea levels and warming temperatures on these atoll countries, as well as the joys and challenges of the research. Click on the first photo and then the “i” icon in the top right corner to watch the slideshow with the captions.

For more on what it is like to live in the Marshall Islands, I recommend listening to my student Sara Cannon’s interview with CBC’s Quirks and Quarks and reading her stories from the field. Sara spent the summer helping the Marshall Islands Marine Resource Authority with coral reef monitoring and some training programs. There are also a few dispatches from the Marshall Islands on this site.

If you’d like to help, we are collecting used scuba and snorkeling gear, as well as books, to donate to people in Kiribati. For more on this effort, see here.

Statement on greenhouse gas emissions associated with the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion

I delivered the following statement this morning at a meeting of the Ministerial Panel on the proposal to expand the Trans Mountain Oil Pipeline:

My name is Simon Donner and I work as an Associate Professor of Climatology in the Department of Geography at the University of British Columbia. For the past 15 years, I have conducted research in the area of climate change science and policy.

I am here today to explain the effect of upstream greenhouse gas emissions due to the proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion on Canada’s international climate commitments following the Paris Climate Agreement.

Let me be clear at the outset. I am here as neither an opponent nor a proponent of the proposed activity. I am personally agnostic about the pipeline expansion. My statement speaks only to whether the project is consistent with Canada’s climate policy.

There are two key points in this statement:

First, the draft upstream emissions analysis conducted by Environment and Climate Change Canada features critical methodological shortcomings. These lead to incorrect conclusions about upstream emissions.

Second, the proposed pipeline expansion “locks in” future greenhouse gas emissions at a level that is not compatible with Canada’s international climate commitments, unless aggressive actions are taken to reduce net emissions from other sectors of the economy.

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