by Ian Angus
From Socialist Voice, May 21, 2007
UPDATE: An expanded version of this article has been published in the Sept-Oct 2007 issue of Canadian Dimension magazine. It is posted on the CD website.
Canada’s federal government is fiddling while the world burns. On April 26, Environment Minister John Baird announced what he called an “Action Plan” to deal with climate change — in reality it was a recipe for inaction and delay.
Immediate Action Needed This year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued three major reports that summarize the current state of scientific knowledge about climate change. From those reports, we now know for certain that:
- The world is getting warmer at an unprecedented rate. It is now 1° Celsius above the pre-industrial level. If it increases to more than 2° above pre-industrial level, dangerous changes will become very likely.
- The primary cause of global warming is greenhouse gas emissions, mostly produced by burning oil and coal.
- The principal sources of greenhouse gases are industries in the imperialist “global north,” but the principal victims of global warming will be the countries and peoples of the “global south,” where floods, famine and chaotic weather changes will hit hardest.
- To some degree global warming is irreversible, because greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for centuries. So the goal must be to reduce current emission levels substantially, to prevent the accumulation from reaching catastrophic levels.
- To keep the global temperature increase under 2° the worldwide growth of greenhouse gas emissions must be stopped and reversed by 2015. The technologies to do so exist today.
- Every delay in reducing emissions will increase the cost of later action, and increase the possibility of catastrophic climate change.
Contrary to claims made by conservative critics, IPCC reports are far from “alarmist” — the Panel’s conclusions are a conservative, lowest-common-denominator summary of scientific judgments. That makes the IPCC’s forecasts all the more frightening: the horrors they describe are far from the worst that could happen. This is a crisis that demands rapid and decisive action.
The Tories’ Reluctant Move
Global warming wasn’t supposed to be on the Conservative agenda at all. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a long-time opponent of the Kyoto process — before he became Tory leader, he condemned it as a “socialist scheme.” And the Conservative Party, which receives strong support from corporations in the oil, gas and coal industries, did not want to alienate those supporters by legislating limits to greenhouse gases.
So it’s scarcely surprising that when it took office the government quickly announced that the “6% below 1990 by 2012” Kyoto objective was hopelessly unrealistic – and that one of its first actions was to cancel fifteen existing environmental programs.
What a difference a year makes!
Accumulating scientific evidence and concrete experience with shifting weather patterns broke through the media blackout, promoting widespread public discussion and pushing global warming to the top of the polls as a voter concern. A survey conducted recently for BBC World found that 33% of Canadians are “very concerned” about the effects of climate change, and another 43% are “somewhat concerned.”
The three opposition parties, which together have a majority of seats in the House of Commons, saw the Conservatives’ opposition to environmental action as a weakness they could exploit in the lead-up to the next election. The Kyoto Protocol was the Opposition’s chosen issue.
This put the Tories on the defensive. The Conservatives are walking a tightrope, anxious to please their traditional supporters in energy and resource sector corporations, while needing to appear just green enough to win votes from an electorate that is increasingly concerned by climate inaction.
The solution – lots of talk, but very little action. A plan that sounds good – the headlines read “Canada Seeks 18% Cut in Emissions” – but which actually allows emissions to grow.
Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 and ratified it in 2002, promising to reduce greenhouse gases to 6% below the 1990 level, by 2012. Liberal governments in power until recently did nothing to carry through on that promise. The Liberals didn’t even announce a plan for climate change until 2005, by which time emissions had soared to 30% above the 1990 level.
When the Opposition parties joined forces to push through a bill in support of Kyoto, the Tories fired back with a report that claimed implementing Kyoto “would plunge the Canadian economy into recession and dramatically lower the living standards of workers and families.” Unemployment would rise to 25%. Prices would soar, they said: electricity up 50%; gasoline up 60%, natural gas up 100%. The real disposable income of a family of four would fall $4,000.
This was pure demagogy: the Tories would normally have no compunctions about cutting living standards for working people. Their real concern is for corporate profits — money that is spent on reducing emissions doesn’t go into shareholders’ pockets.
The government did not reveal the calculations that led to these dire conclusions, but the figures it did provide show that it deliberately made very negative assumptions about costs. In particular, it assumed immediate imposition of a tax of $195 per tonne on Greenhouse Gas emissions, vastly more than any pro-Kyoto expert has suggested would be needed. Then it assumed that all other taxes would be reduced to make the tax “revenue neutral.”
The government never considered that emission tax revenue might be used to promote conservation by expanding public transit, or by retrofitting homes for energy efficiency, or by retooling the auto industry to build more efficient vehicles.
And there is no suggestion in the Tory plan that the government could stop pouring billions into the military adventure in Afghanistan, and use the money instead to replace coal-fired electrical plants with non-polluting technology.
A few weeks later, the Conservative government unveiled its own “Clean Air Regulatory Agenda,” which is entirely built around “emissions intensity” — reducing the amount of greenhouse gas produced for each unit of production. As virtually every analyst pointed out, if production rises faster than the decline in emissions intensity then total emissions will increase under the Tory Plan.
That’s not just a hypothetical possibility: between 1990 and 2004, Canada’s emissions intensity improved 14%, but total emissions rose 27%!
If that weren’t enough to condemn his proposals as a hoax, Baird’s “Action Plan” will let the polluters buy their way out of doing anything at all:
- They’ll get credit for intensity reductions they made between 1992 and 2006. For many corporations those “business as usual” reductions could match all of the cuts that are supposedly required in the new plan.
- They can contribute $15 a tonne for part of their excess emissions to a climate change technology fund. That’s a no-brainer if improving efficiency might cost more than $15/tonne.
- They can buy “emissions credits” from other Canadian companies, and possibly internationally.
- They can invest in projects that purportedly reduce emissions elsewhere in Canada or the Third World.
Exemptions and Loopholes
There is nothing in the plan that would stop corporations from closing down or moving high-emission production to other countries, and no suggestion that they should be required to reduce emissions produced by factories they have already moved to the Third World directly or by outsourcing.
Canadian facilities that began production in 2004 or later will be exempted from all the regulations for three years, and other facilities will be exempted entirely if they can show that there is no available technology to reduce their emissions.
To complete the picture, while details are limited, it appears that the Tory plan depends on self-reporting by the biggest polluters. They’ll report their 2006 emissions this year to set a baseline, and then report their intensity results starting in 2010. The foxes will be in charge of the henhouse, and the opportunities for fraud will be unlimited.
The measures proposed in the Conservative plan won’t reduce greenhouse gases — and what’s more, the government won’t even implement its proposed regulations this year. First they have to consult with stakeholders — meaning the lobbyists for big polluters. Then draft regulations for greenhouse gases will be published in the Spring of 2008, and the actual emission intensity targets won’t come into force until 2010. Vehicle fuel efficiency standards won’t be imposed until 2011.
Even if it is all implemented exactly as described, and even if the most optimistic projections in the Tory plan are realized, the best that John Baird will say is that absolute emission levels will begin to decline “as early as 2010 and no later than 2012,” and that by 2020 emissions will be 20% below the 2006 level. The Conservatives have refused to release any of the calculations these promises are based on — but even if the figures are correct, emissions in 2020 will still be much higher than they are supposed to be under Kyoto eight years earlier, and vastly higher than the targets that climate scientists say are necessary to head off the worst effects of global warming.
The Conservative plan is so underwhelming that even Al Gore — no radical critic of capitalism! — called it a “complete and total fraud” that is “designed to mislead the Canadian people.” Well-known British journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot said that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper had joined U.S. President George Bush, and Australian Prime Minister John Howard in a new climate change “axis of evil.”
The real nature of the Harper government’s policy was shown clearly at last week’s UN-sponsored conference on climate change in Bonn, Germany. Knowledgeable observers describe Canada’s role as a “Trojan horse for anti-Kyoto countries, such as the United States and Australia.” The World Wildlife Fund’s Director of global climate change said that “Canada was part of a small group of rich countries that chose to stall urgent efforts to stop dangerous climate change.”
* * * * *
The federal government’s plan puts “our” economy ahead of lives of the millions who will suffer and die if global warming continues. It assumes that the right of corporations to profit and grow is sacrosanct. Nothing, not even saving the planet, can be allowed to interfere with the divine rights of capitalism.
But it isn’t “our” economy, it’s theirs. Their system is fouling things up so badly that much of the earth could become uninhabitable. It must be replaced by a society that puts people before profits. The choice is between EcoSocialism and Barbarism – and it’s a choice that humanity must make soon.
The Tory plan is fraud. But the fact that the Canadian government felt required to produce any plan proves that there is growing support for action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. To stop the capitalist threat to our planet, we must build that sentiment into a movement.