The Environment Commissioner warned last week that the federal government must do "something drastic" to begin to deal meaningfully with climate change. But don't count on anything more than hot air when Harper releases his long awaited "Made in Canada" climate policy sometime this month.
The reason dates back to a deal quietly penned between Ottawa and Canadian oil industry in 2002 that essentially killed any chance Canada had to meet our obligations under Kyoto agreement.
It seems that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers was concerned that the newly ratified accord to limit emissions of greenhouse gases would limit their profitability. Apparently, Ottawa was only too happy to accommodate.
Calling these documents (including this one and this one) a "deal" is a bit of a misnomer, since the Canadian public got essentially nothing in return. Incredibly, this sellout was almost completely ignored by the mainstream press.
Among other things, Ottawa committed to the fossil fuel sector that they would "set emission intensity targets for the oil and gas sector at no more than 15 per cent below the projected business-as-usual levels for 2010."
"Large final emitters" like the oil sector account for fully 50 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. In order to comply with Kyoto, the rest of the Canadian economy -- namely you and me -- would have to cut our emissions by more than 40 per cent.
Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry has cheerfully increased their emissions by 47 per cent since 1990, and they are set to double again in the next decade.
But wait, there's more. Ottawa also committed that the oil industry would pay no more than $15/ton for greenhouse gas offsets until 2012. In contrast, a study conducted for the National Climate Change Process estimated the true cost of such offsets would be closer to $250/ton.
Oil sands trump all
Given these sweeping concessions to the fossil fuel lobby, complying with Kyoto is now virtually impossible. For instance, we could shut down the entire transportation sector in Canada (a mere 25 per cent of all emissions) and still not meet our Kyoto commitments. This also creates the convenient situation where those pundits who oppose any meaningful movement on climate policy could crow that Kyoto is not doable and never was.
Realistically, the likelihood of Stephen Harper, an Alberta Tory, reneging on this sellout to the oil industry is vanishingly small. This deal was crucial to the oil sector because the oil sands development produces such astronomical amounts of carbon emissions.
The choice, if there was one, was to pick either Kyoto compliance or the oil sands. The political calculation around this remains simple: the oil sands are driving the latest economic boom in Alberta. End of conversation.
So if the development of the oil sands is Canada's big payoff for ignoring both climate change and our international commitments, what exactly did we get? Not much.
So energy intensive is this bitumen boondoggle, it takes up to 1,500 cubic feet of clean natural gas to produce one barrel of dirty crude. The oil sands now consume 600 million cubic feet of natural gas per day -- enough to heat 3.2 million Canadian homes.
The gluttonous appetite of the tar sands for dwindling natural gas supplies is expected to more than triple by 2012. Hence the need for the proposed 1,200 km Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline from the Artic Ocean to Fort McMurray, at a cost of $7.5 billion.
Smog up the debate?
Besides the fact that this outrageously inefficient project creates three times the carbon emissions of conventional oil development, why would it even make economic sense to convert our finite deposits of natural gas into oil? From an energy efficiency point of view, we are turning caviar into Kraft dinner.
The simple answer is that China needs oil to fuel its ballooning love affair with the automobile. There is only so much oil in the world and politicians are falling all over themselves to sell it, even as they publicly spout platitudes about climate change.
So when Harper rolls out his "Made in Canada" strategy, don't expect much. We will likely see the usual tough talk minus any deadlines. More cynically, the government spin-doctors may also attempt to deflect attention away from inaction on climate change by talking instead about smog.
This hoary tactic of attempting to confuse the public by talking about smog and greenhouse gases interchangeably is typically reserved for only the most desperate PR situations. That time is now.
If there is a bright side, it's that this is what early childhood educators would call "a learning moment." The planet's life support systems do not fail all at once, or even gradually over time. Our environment is degraded incrementally -- bad decision by bad decision. It is important to take note of such milestones. This one happens to be a doozy.
In their pedantic and qualified way, the world's leading scientists are telling us that climate change is nothing short of a hair-on-fire planetary emergency. The most recent study was presented last week by James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, showing that the Earth has not been this warm in the last 12,000 years.
"If further global warming reaches two or three degrees Celsius, we will likely see changes that make Earth a different planet than the one we know. The last time it was that warm was in the middle Pliocene, about three million years ago, when sea level was estimated to have been about 25 meters (80 feet) higher than today," Hansen said.
Assuming we want to avoid that outcome, there are some practical options. While the Canadian oil and gas lobby has been spectacularly successful at bullying our government, their counterparts elsewhere in the world have taken a very different tack.
For instance, British Petroleum in the U.K. committed in 1998 to reducing greenhouse gas emissions 10 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010 -- a target they reached in 2003, seven years ahead of schedule. Thirteen major U.K. companies, including PB and Shell, also penned an open letter to Tony Blair urging clear and strong regulation of greenhouse gases, and a long-term plan that would further reduce emissions by 60 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.
Another case in point is California, with a population similar to Canada. Many of us cringed when the "Terminator" became governor, but Schwarzenegger last month signed a landmark deal that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent by 2020, making California the first U.S. state to legislate a cap on emissions.
Regulation of greenhouse gases will come sooner or later, whether industry likes it or not. Business leaders in other countries have taken the long view that it is better to volunteer than be drafted. Governments elsewhere have provided clear goalposts to those industries and got on with the business of governing.
Ottawa can step back from our emerging image as a global climate pariah, and take a leadership role on creating a sustainable future. However, the first step must be to tear up the sweetheart deal with the oil industry.
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