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Gordon Campbell's Moving Targets

In search of a level playing field in the climate change numbers game.

By Tom Barrett 22 Jul 2008 |

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee with a focus on global warming policy and politics. You can reach him here.

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How to make the environment's numbers add up.

Last fall, Premier Gordon Campbell was boasting that his government's plans would cut between 24 and 33 million tonnes of greenhouse gases by 2020.

"That's enough to get us anywhere from 60 to 82 per cent towards our target of a 33 per cent reduction," said Campbell. Then, a couple of weeks ago, he announced the government's plans will cut 23 million tonnes of gases -- one million tonnes less than last fall's most conservative prediction.

Campbell went on to boast that those 23 million tonnes will take us 73 per cent of the way to the target.


If 24 million tonnes took us 60 per cent of the way last fall, how can 23 million tonnes take us 73 per cent of the way today?

Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer, a man steeped in the ways of government spin, looked at those figures last week and concluded that the government had moved the goalposts.

The thing is, it's not just the goalposts that are moving. The whole gridiron's bouncing up and down like a crowd doing the wave. And you'd better get used to it because we're going to see a lot more of these sorts of numbers as governments argue about climate change policies.

Always look on the bright side

Let's start with those numbers from last fall. Back in September, Campbell gave a much-anticipated climate change talk to the Union of B.C. Municipalities.

"Later this fall," he said, "we will be releasing phase one of our climate action plan that will detail strategies we've identified so far which have the potential to reduce our [greenhouse gas] emissions by 24 to 33 million tonnes."

Notice the word "potential" there. Politicians are an optimistic bunch, at least when it comes to the potential good their policies might possibly do.

Not long after, the Pembina Institute took a look at the government's plans. Except they looked at the government's commitments, as opposed to possible potential changes. They concluded that B.C.'s policy commitments would cut only five million tonnes.

Since then, the government has brought in the carbon tax, the outline of a cap and trade system, and a number of other measures. All of these policies were run through a computer model by M.K. Jaccard and Associates, a company headed by Simon Fraser University environmental economist Mark Jaccard. These modelling results were incorporated into the government's Climate Action Plan and released a few weeks ago.

Tonnes of fun

So here's where the moving goalposts come in. When you try to predict what emissions will be in 2020 -- and what cuts government policies will make -- you have to set a benchmark. The benchmark is the "business as usual" estimate of emissions in 2020; it forecasts what emissions would be if we do nothing to cut back.

This figure is understandably imprecise. The numbers Campbell was boasting about last fall were based on a business as usual figure for 2020 of about 85 million tonnes a year.

That Pembina report we mentioned projected 84 million tonnes. At around the same time, the government's chief climate dude, Graham Whitmarsh, was going around the province predicting a range of 80 to 85 million tonnes.

The math is straightforward: if your target is roughly 45 million tonnes in 2020 (more on that later) and your business as usual projection is 85 million tonnes, you need to cut 40 million tonnes a year to hit your target.

But when the Jaccard company ran its computer model, it got a much lower benchmark. If oil prices are in the US$50 a barrel range over the next dozen years, 2020 business-as-usual emissions will be around 79 million tonnes, they predicted. They call this the "low energy price" scenario.

If crude sells at US$85 -- the "high energy price" scenario -- then the forecast for 2020 drops to 74 million tonnes. This figure is lower than the number from last fall because we're looking at higher energy prices today, the government says.

Like a hoop around a barrel

Now, $85 a barrel might not sound like much given what we're paying now. It is, in fact, "significantly below the current price of oil," as the Climate Action Plan understates. However, the plan adds, $85 is "higher than the long-term price forecasts of many leading international agencies."

In any event, the Jaccard company took the policies announced by the government to date, ran them through the computer model and came up with a total cut of 22 million tonnes a year by 2020 in the high energy price scenario.

Again, you can do the math. The 2020 business as usual forecast of 74 million tonnes minus the goal of 45 million tonnes equals 29 million tonnes that need to be cut. Twenty-two million tonnes -- what the computer model predicts will be cut -- is 76 per cent of that 29 million tonne gap.

Oh, wait. Seventy-six per cent? Doesn't the Action Plan say 73 per cent?

Yes it does. The government took the Jaccard company's numbers and, because the computer model doesn't factor in land use, adjusted them to account for the effects of deforestation.

Cutting trees, hiking emissions

Every year, B.C. mows down enough carbon-storing-and-absorbing trees to release about four million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the Action Plan says.

So the government took the Jaccard numbers, added the consequences of unchecked deforestation, subtracted the gains it plans to get from a policy of "net-zero deforestation" -- and came up with numbers that say we're 73 per cent of the way to the target.

Strictly speaking, this means that the Action Plan is wrong when it says that "according to independent economic analysis and modelling based on standard practices, the initiatives included in this plan will take us 73 per cent of the way to our 2020 emissions reduction target."

The independent analysis actually says 76 per cent. But it's hard to accuse the government of cheating when their numbers actually move us away from the goal by three percentage points.

Forecasting last year

If all these numbers put you in need of a soothing beverage, you'd better hold on. We've only looked at half of it.

Remember that target for 2020 of 45 million tonnes? You might be wondering where that comes from.

The government's targets say emissions will be cut to 33 per cent below the 2007 level. The problem is, we don't yet know what the 2007 level was.

The federal government recently published emissions data for 2006; numbers for 2007 won't be out until next spring.

That means we have to guess at what the 2007 level will be and then subtract one-third to set the target. The target of 45 million tonnes -- or 46, depending on who's doing the calculating -- is based on an estimated 2007 level of around 70 million tonnes.

It might turn out to be a few million tonnes under that, because emissions levels in B.C. have been falling slightly in recent years.

Those falling levels aren't a trend that anyone seriously expects to continue long term, but they could produce a lower-than-expected figure for 2007 -- which will mean a slightly lower target.

The goalposts will have moved again.

The point to remember is this: if the population grows faster or slower than expected, if the economy heats up or cools off, or if the price of energy changes, the numbers change. And all these numbers assume that government policy makers get the details right. Policies won't reduce emissions unless they're well designed.

Politicians like to quote precise-sounding numbers even when the reality is less than precise. That's why, sometimes, this year's 73 per cent is less than last year's 60 per cent.

Related Tyee stories:


Read more: Politics, Environment

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