Category Archives: John Baird

Untie your own hands, Mr. Dion

A tear-your-hair-out point-counterpoint in today’s National Post pits Liberal leader Stéphane Dion against Environment Minister John Baird, debating the merits of a carbon tax and green tax-shifting.

Dion, mind you, is at a disadvantage. He doesn’t have any of the specifics of the plan he’s arguing for, even though it is, in fact, his plan. He’s stuck with generalities, in a field where the devil is always in the details. He says things like this:

The Liberal tax shifting plan is as powerful as it is simple. We will cut taxes on those things we all want more of — income, savings, investment and innovation. And we will shift those taxes to what we all want less of — pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and waste. We need to make polluters pay and put every single penny back in the hands of Canadians through the right tax cuts.

Which is pretty unequivocal, but because the details aren’t there, his debating opponent, Baird, can fight against a straw-man version of the plan, like so:

Can a carbon tax ever be truly revenue neutral? If government is collecting $1 in taxes, and “tax-shifts” that one dollar towards spending 50¢ on green programs and fifty cents on programs like health care and infrastructure, how does the government make up that lost revenue on health care and infrastructure? By raising taxes, of course.

That’s a hypothetical that Dion has denied himself the tools to counter. In so doing, he might well end up burying a plan that has broad support from everyone from David Suzuki to the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.

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Dept. of the Bleeding Obvious: Subsidies are not capitalist

smokestacks
Photo credit: “smokestacks,” Flickr/curran.kelleher

I don’t have a Ph.D., so maybe that’s why I have a difficult time following the mental gymnastics needed for Thomas Homer-Dixon and David Keith (Ph.D.s) to spin massive government subsidies for carbon-capture as a free-market measure:

Environmental groups are wrong to argue that we shouldn’t use government funds to support promising technologies before the mess is straightened out. We don’t have the time to wait, because Earth’s climate is changing fast, now. Without carbon prices or regulation, public funding is the only way to ensure that CCS technology gets going quickly. …

CCS will be a big-industry technology: major implementation will require huge outlays of capital and armies of scientists, engineers and construction workers. It will also generate huge profits. So when environmental groups saw that industry representatives dominated the blue-ribbon panel, they assumed that the energy industry was once again positioning itself to line its pockets, and attacked its recommendations. As Dave Martin of Greenpeace Canada put it, “Carbon capture is a public relations smokescreen for the tar sands and coal-fired electricity generation.”

It’s time that Canada’s environmental groups freed themselves of this ideological straitjacket. They need to acknowledge that modern capitalism is the most dynamic, innovative and adaptive economic system human beings have ever invented. It’s true that capitalism has fuelled our climate problem, and that many big businesses have lobbied hard to block serious action, but we’re not going to solve the problem without capitalism’s help.

I don’t want to be snide. These are serious guys, and there’s a lot of truth in much of their Globe essay. There is a lot of unhelpful anti-capitalism built into a lot of environmentalism, advanced by people for whom saving the planet really is a stalking horse for disapproving of other people’s lifestyles on non-environmental principles (“a deep suspicion of big business and big industry that’s a residue of the leftism of the original environmental movement”).

Carbon-capture is almost certainly a necessary immediate response to an immediate crisis, and objecting to it because its not good enough in itself is imprudent. Sure, it’s not enough. And giving four years’ warning, as Environment Minister John Baird did today of his plans to require all oilsands projects to use the technology by 2012, is asking for a rush of dirty plants between now and then.

It’s a fair concern — that carbon-capture will be a stopgap that distracts us enough that we won’t solve the actual underlying problem — but that’s making better the enemy of the good. A world with extensive use of carbon-capture technology is a lot better than a world without it, whatever else is going on.

But spinning government subsidies for the technology as a capitalistic measure is, frankly, bollocks. Subsidies are, in the most generous possible assessment, a necessary evil. They will interfere with the construction of wind and tidal and solar power, unless such projects are subsidized even more to compensate. They will put off pricing of carbon emissions, if only because the federal policy apparatus can only handle so many massive innovations at a time. They will take money that taxpayers would have spent on something else and commit it to helping large corporations that — even if Homer-Dixon and Keith dismiss the significance of this fact — are mostly very profitable.

If you think the subsidies are necessary, by all means say so. But let’s not pretend they’re something they aren’t.

Bali: so what?

BaliPathway

(“A Pathway to Heaven.” Credit: Flickr/^riza^)

The redoubtable Olive Heffernan of Climate Feedback agonizes, like many, over whether the participants at the Bali climate-change conference achieved consensus at the expense of effectiveness. It’s difficult to glean from most general-audience news reports, but the nature of the talks’ result is that every country in the world formally agrees that the climate-change problem is very bad and we need to do something, but we’ll only say what (a cut of developed countries’ greenhouse-gas emissions of 25 to 40 per cent below 1990 levels) very, very quietly. In a footnote to the preamble of the final agreement, to be precise, making general reference to the latest series of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, which reached that conclusion.

Wrangling over just how loudly the countries of the world will state those targets can be expected to occupy most of the next two years’ worth of climate talks.

These meetings seem to end up in one of a handful of ways. They can reach consensus on meaningless things (Bali), reach consensus on meaningful things many will ignore (Kyoto), or achieve basically nothing at all (Montreal). Because envirocrats hail each one as a historic/landmark/watershed/breakthrough event, they give the illusion of progress — and then when the breakthroughs fail to yield detectable policy changes (the U.S. is already backtracking on the meaningless commitment it made just days ago), green-skeptics get to say it’s all a scam ginned up for the benefit of the negotiators.

Consider Lorne Gunter:

Every year, these same signatories meet. Every year, they go over (and over) the same territory. Every year, they dicker, blather, preach, assail, negotiate, draft and redraft (not to mention flying from one exotic location to another eating, drinking and living off fat publicly funded expense accounts). And every year, they leave claiming to have reached an historic consensus to save the UN climate change process.

The “historic” Bali agreement is no agreement at all. Rather, it is a compromise on a promise to negotiate an actual deal within the next two years. It contains no emissions quotas on any countries, developed or developing.

I hardly agree with Gunter on anything, but he’s not wrong. He’s taking an exceptionally hard line, it’s true, asking a lot of fabulously complex and difficult negotiations among dozens of parties with conflicting agendas. Progress in these things is made in millimetres, and to condemn the UN process for not serving up kilometres of improvements with every session is not entirely fair.

But seriously — what good does this all do? The IPCC and its science are certainly useful, but what positive effect has the Kyoto Protocol had aside from being a supernova-sized distraction?

I say screw it. We should stop going. Stop sending words to do the work of deeds. Instead, let’s recognize that reducing greenhouse-gas emissions makes sense not only on its own account, but because it means economic improvements (in the name of efficiency) and more tangible environmental improvements at the same time. Less spewing means less wasting means more money in our pockets. We can even find ways to support investments in efficiencies abroad without having to necessarily play by the Kyoto Accord’s Clean Development Mechanism.

Do not take this as an endorsement of the Harper government’s foolishness, by the way. Canada’s Environment Minister John Baird obviously went to Bali to be a spoiler and he mostly failed and was embarrassed and that’s good. I do believe he didn’t even want to send words, let alone deeds; in the case of Canada’s current government, having to cough up some words was progress.

But for serious people, attending meetings is not a substitute for getting on with the job. That’s all.

Canada will miss greenhouse-gas targets by a mile: environmental economist Mark Jaccard

Mark JaccardThe Canadian government’s policies on greenhouse gases will more or less freeze the country’s emissions at 2007 levels over time, according to experts at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia (PDF). Not bad, except that the governing Conservatives say their goal is to get emissions down 20 per cent by 2020 and 65 per cent by 2050.

In a paper written for the C.D. Howe Institute, a centre-right think tank, SFU professor Mark Jaccard — about as serious an environmental economist as Canada has — and grad student Nic Rivers run the numbers. Even using some assumptions that tend to nudge the numbers in the Conservatives’ favour, they find the government’s policies don’t come anywhere close to its stated goals, let alone to the dramatic cuts in emissions that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s constellations of scientists say are needed to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

Something really significant was missing from the Conservatives’ big climate-change document (PDF) when it was released April 26: exactly what the Tories’ models said their proposed emissions-cutting measures would do. There were policies, and there were targets that Environment Minister John Baird swore up and down Canada would meet, and there was no material bridging the gap between them.

The policies came in for a lot of criticism from environmentalists, including me. The major problem is that while they set limits on how much greenhouse gas heavy industry could emit, the limits are intensity-based, not absolute. As long as you’re growing, in other words, you can keep emitting more, as long as you’re getting more efficient in each unit of production (one barrel of oil or one pair of shoes or a truckload of cement or whatever). That dramatically reduces the pressure to make significant changes, particularly since the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases in Canada are the western oilsands, which are growing at a phenomenal rate and are expected to triple or quadruple production in the next 10 years or so.

Well, Jaccard and Rivers are figuring out what that weakness really means.

For context, remember that Canada’s current emissions today are about 750 megatonnes of carbon dioxide and its equivalents.

Current policies are likely  to reduce emissions substantially compared to their business-as-usual evolution. By 2020, emissions would  be 120 megatonnes below projected levels and by 2050 the reduction would be almost 400 megatonnes below the business-as-usual projection. However, the results also indicate that overall emissions in Canada are unlikely to fall below current levels. The government is likely to miss its 2020 emissions target by  almost 200 megatonnes. Moreover, because of this gap in 2020 between target and reality, it is unlikely that  a future government would be able to achieve the ambitious 2050 target.

So not only is the Conservatives’ plan not enough, it’ll be bad enough to tie the hands of future governments trying to clean up the mess they leave. Ironically, this is exactly the explanation the Tories use for why their targets, the ones they’re going to miss according to Jaccard and Rivers, are comparatively mild.

The assumptions the writers make that benefit the Tories are twofold. First, they assume that the Conservatives — if they stayed in power — would extend the policies that they’ve plotted out to 2020 for 30 years after that, ordering an annual cut in industrial emissions intensity of two per cent a year until 2050. Second, they assume the Conservatives will adopt California’s tough emissions standards for cars, which they’ve made vague noises about but not actually done. Between them, these assumptions account for about 330 megatonnes of the 388-megatonne emissions cut that Jaccard and Rivers forecast by 2050, compared to the business-as-usual projections.

(By the way, whenever you’re assessing anything Environment Minister John Baird says about emissions cuts, make sure he’s being clear about what his baseline is. A 400-megatonne cut in emissions from today’s levels would be very significant; a 400-megatonne cut from the levels projected for 2050 if we did nothing at all is good but far from enough.)

The rest of the menu of Tory regulations and subsidies and whatnot, the long list they like to trot out when people say they’re doing nothing, the EcoENERGY and EcoTRANSPORT and EcoAGRICULTURE and EcoTRUST plans — all together, a cut of 30 megatonnes by 2050. Effectively squat, Jaccard and Rivers say.

Now, projecting anything 43 years out is a pretty foolish thing to do. Weird things happen. Technological breakthroughs burst upon the scene, a Krakatoa erupts and obscures the sun, the nature of the economy shifts, aliens descend from space. God only knows what will throw your forecasts off.

The point here, though, is that Jaccard and Rivers are using the same assumptions the government is, and they’re saying the government’s full of it.

(Photo of Mark Jaccard cribbed from a Simon Fraser University PR page.)

Hallucinating Canadian opposition demands adherence to Kyoto

The Canadian Press is reporting on a coalition of Quebec politicians and environmentalists demanding (1) that Canada live up to its Kyoto Accord commitments, and (2) that Environment Minister John Baird resign.

The beginning of the period in which those commitments start to count is January 1, 2008. Between then and 2012, Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions are supposed to average 6 per cent below 1990 levels. They’re now about 35 per cent over 1990 levels.

The Tories had that study this spring — supported by the same economists who turned on the Conservatives when they released their own actual climate-change plan a few days later — showing the utterly devastating consequences of trying to live up to the letter of the Kyoto Accord with less than a year’s lead time. It’d be awful, possibly so bad that any measures designed to achieve that end would be roundly ignored by emitters and the population at large. Even with the army, the government might not be able to enforce rules that would simply shut down factories and power plants, shutter the oilsands, and order cars off the road.

This is the consequence of the country’s having done nothing to speak of in pursuit of the Kyoto targets between 1997 and 2007.

And yet here’s the New Democratic Party’s star Quebec candidate for the next election, former Quebec environment minister Thomas Mulcair:

Thomas Mulcair, the former Quebec environment minister who will represent the NDP in the next federal election, called Harper an “international embarrassment.”

“Start respecting our international obligations,” Mulcair said at a news conference in Montreal where four opposition parties joined forces to pressure the Conservatives over their environmental stance.

The only purpose of a demand like Mulcair’s is to make the government look bad for not meeting it — and he has a point inasmuch as the Kyoto Accord, having been ratified by Parliament and made the law of the land, needs to be repealed and formally abandoned, which could be difficult for a minority government.

The trouble here is that actual environmentalists who understand the issue will recognize just how cynical the opposition parties’ message is. By demanding the impossible, jerks like Mulcair are making the Conservatives the only party with a reasonable position on one element of the environment file.

Not smart.

Liberal contempt

The Liberals’ success in pushing a bill reaffirming Canada’s commitment to the Kyoto Accord through the Senate committee process is nothing much to be proud of. Naturally, they’re trumpeting it to the beautifully polished rafters.

Under the rules of the Senate, committees can’t sit while the Senate as a whole is in session. Last night the Conservatives tried to artificially extend the Senate session until midnight to prevent the committee from voting on the implementation legislation, known as Bill C-288. The Conservative stalling tactic failed, enabling Liberal Senators to pass the bill in Committee. It now returns to the Senate today for third reading which will begin Thursday.

“If they want to oppose Kyoto and real action on climate change, they should just say so, and let Canadians have a real debate.”

The Conservative plan for climate change has been panned by critics, including such leading environmentalists as Al Gore and David Suzuki. In fact, most economists and environmentalists have said that there will be no way that Minister Baird’s plan will accomplish what he suggests.

Unfortunately, the Liberals are fighting John Baird’s hollow plan with a non-plan. Bill C-288 just orders the minister of the environment to present and follow a plan to meet Canada’s Kyoto targets.

Baird won’t do that, but he will take every opportunity to point out that the Liberals’ David Anderson and Stéphane Dion didn’t, either. And he’ll wave around the entirely plausible and economist-supported report showing that trying to meet Kyoto targets by the Kyoto deadlines, which the Liberals ignored for almost a decade, would devastate Canada’s economy.

Passing Bill C-288 is meant to position the Liberal party, not to actually get anything done. It can only work on people who aren’t really paying attention, and as such, demonstrates contempt for those who are. The Liberals, who already occupy the extremely limited high ground in Canada’s climate-change debate (which is not very high at all) should cut it out and behave like serious people.

Baird defends his plan

Environment Minister John Baird met the Ottawa Citizen‘s editorial board to talk about his greenhouse-gas plan for heavy emitters (among other things, since he’s an Ottawa MP as well). You can give it a listen here.