Climate change has forced the world to a crossroads, presenting countries like Canada with a choice and a challenge: we can try to hold on to our dying and outmoded economic activities, risking the future of all humanity, or we can innovate and adapt, creating a new economic model that will assure our prosperity for another century.
Canada, with the disappointing announcement of its latest climate change plan, has clearly chosen to bury its head in the oily sands of the old ways. We have chosen to protect the kings of yesterday’s economy at the risk of our environmental health – and our economic prosperity – in the future.
There is no longer any question that climate change is an issue that threatens to bring humankind to its knees. Even if people continue to argue the details of the Stern report setting out the prohibitive costs of NOT addressing global warming, the world’s best scientists, and its smartest economists, all agree that’s an option we can’t afford.
But the Canadian government seems unable to digest that truth, choosing instead to try to scare the electorate with poorly researched horror stories of the cost of addressing global warming. Just a week ago, the current administration told us that moving quickly to address climate change would shatter the Canadian economy.
This is ludicrous - and beside the point.
The way to address climate change is to reduce the use (or misuse) of energy - especially energy generated from fossil fuel. California, with three million more residents than Canada, has been doing just that for decades without suffering any economic devastation whatever. California has reduced emissions by 30 per cent since the 1970's compared to the rest of the US, while Canadian emissions have risen by almost 30 per cent since 1990.
The trigger in California was an energy shortage. When it appeared in the early ‘70s that the state would soon need new nuclear plants to assuage its growing appetite for power, the California government passed legislation toughening up its building code and forcing manufacturers to produce more energy efficient appliances.
The result, in the short term, was a cry of anguish – a complaint that the government was making California uncompetitive.
But the state seems to be surviving just fine. California has the sixth largest economy in the world, generating something in the order of $1.6 trillion a year. Canada – incredibly rich in natural resources – languishes around 10th place with GDP of $1.1 trillion.
How about the effect on individual Californians? Well, they spend an estimated $800 less a year in energy bills; that’s no crisis. California has also led the world with pollution legislation aimed at the automotive industry. If we can draw an easy breath in any major city in North America, it is partly because California forced the automakers to clean up their act. California has beaten a proven and prosperous path to environmental health, technological innovation - and prosperity.
But that is not to be Canada’s way. Instead, the federal government has announced a strategy that sets out an unconvincing “18-per-cent reduction” in emissions from current levels by 2020. But this target, too modest by half, is not a serious limit. It’s an “intensity” target. That means that the government has asked industry to reduce emissions per unit of production. But if you reduce the amount of energy it takes to make a widget by 18 per cent and then you increase the number of widgets you make by 100 per cent, CO2 emissions continue to go up. That makes this plan a sham that will only embarrass Canada further in the international community.
When this plan was first announced, I was excited about the possibilities. It sounded like the government was finally making a step – even if only a baby step – in the right direction. But looking at the fine print, I feel instead like I have been spun – again – by people who are more interested in scoring political points than in addressing the problem.
Canada, as one of the richest countries in the world, has the capacity to be a leader, to get out front in figuring out how to conserve energy and develop new clean energy technologies. And Canadians are stating with increasing clarity that they want that leadership.
No luck. Instead of coaxing us toward the front of the international pack, our leaders have chosen to stick to their tired old horses, leaving some modern-day Henry Ford to invent the replacement technology in some other jurisdiction.
It is an important opportunity - lost.