Pembina Institute

Why should Canada act on climate?

By Matthew Bramley

Published in Globe and Mail (Dec. 14, 2010).

Matthew Bramley

In the U.S., the mid-term elections have taken national climate legislation off the table. At the UN, climate negotiations are moving at a snail's pace. And Canada only accounts for two percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Why should Canada act on climate change?

We should act, and act now, because the benefits will outweigh the costs.

Decision-makers don't need to devote a lot of energy to sifting the scientific evidence. The world's major national science academies have called for "urgent action to address climate change" and deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Prestigious science bodies would never speak in those terms if the overwhelming majority of scientists working professionally on the issue didn't agree.

The most comprehensive review of the economics of climate change calculated that the cost of uncontrolled global warming would equate to a permanent loss of at least five per cent of global GDP, possibly much more.  It's not hard to imagine the costs — both financial and human — of impacts like widespread flooding of coastal cities, or global disruption of food and water supplies.

In contrast, studies consistently show it would cost less to make the deep emission cuts needed to avoid the worst impacts. This shouldn't surprise anyone. Most emissions are related to energy, energy expenditures are a small fraction of GDP, and we already know how to produce energy with zero emissions. Technologies like concentrated solar power, geothermal energy, or the capture of the carbon in fossil fuels are just waiting to be scaled up.

It's true that the mid-term election results virtually ensure Congress won't legislate a price on greenhouse gas emissions in the next two years. But the economic case for Canada to wait for the U.S. is weak. The C.D. Howe Institute says initiating a Canadian cap-and-trade system without waiting for the U.S. would be a "low-risk strategy." Only a few trade-exposed industry sectors that combine very high emissions with low profitability are at real risk from a Canadian emissions price higher than the U.S. price. Governments can design policies to protect such sectors.

On the other hand, Canadian dithering on climate policy is already harmful to business, because it's not possible to invest with confidence in energy infrastructure without clarity on the future policy direction. And to succeed in a world that's tackling climate change, Canada needs to establish itself as a supplier and implementer of clean energy solutions.

It's true that progress towards a new global climate agreement has been painfully slow. But with or without a global agreement, it's national (and subnational) governments that actually implement emission-reduction policies. Both the U.S. and China are already investing aggressively in clean energy, while Canada is not.

What's missing most in the UN climate negotiations is the trust and confidence that can only come from more countries taking stronger action. Canada is expected, as a member of the G8 and one of the world's top-ten emitters (despite our two percent of emissions), to be one of the leaders in solving the problem. When we sit on our hands, it only creates ill-will and excuses for others to hesitate.

Yes, our federal government is regulating emissions from cars, investing in carbon capture projects, and proposing to regulate coal-fired electricity. But there are real question marks over the effectiveness of these initiatives. They are currently too limited and piecemeal to achieve absolute cuts in Canada's emissions. The government's present direction — sticking close to "business as usual" — amounts to a risky bet that the world will not take climate change seriously.

Even if that bet turns out to be correct, partial action to cut emissions is still worthwhile. Because preventing uncontrolled emissions is cheaper than dealing with their consequences, even a single country's action to cut emissions should produce global benefits (reduced climate impacts) that outweigh the costs. Saying we shouldn't act on climate change unless others do is like saying you shouldn't donate to the food bank unless everyone else in the neighbourhood does too.

We shouldn't wait to do what's rational, especially when it's also what's right.

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