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Why Is Climate Change Too “Earth-Shaking” To Remain a Political Football?


I recently presented to hearings on Saskatchewan’s energy options. These were called by the MLA's on the Standing Committee on the Crowns, in the wake of widespread public rejection of the pronuclear Uranium Development Partnership, to advise government how to affordably meet projected increases in electrical demand. A leaked report suggests that if we stay the present course our power rates could double over the coming decade.

I presented for the Fort Qu’Appelle KAIROS, an ecumenical group working for climate justice. I noted there’s a global as well as local dimension to energy futures. In December a meeting in Copenhagen will broker an international agreement to follow the Kyoto Accord after 2012. While some regions, notably in Europe, will meet their Kyoto targets, globally we are still moving towards catastrophic, irreversible climate change. We need a steady annual 3% decrease in greenhouse gases (GHGs), yet we continue to go the other way, with 3% annual increases. We need to stabilize CO2 atmospheric levels around 350 parts per million (ppm), yet we are already at 385 and, unless we quickly show restraint, are on our way to 450 ppm.

If unchecked this trend will lead to a 2 or 3 degree C rise in average global temperature, passing the threshold where huge amounts of GHGs are released from the oceans, tundra and forests. Then we go on a climate change “escalator”, with increases of 4, 5, 6 or more degrees. We already tasted the power of nature’s “feedback”, when, in 2002-2004, record-breaking, super forest fires, related to climate change, created nearly half of Canada’s total GHG emissions.

Thankfully there was international agreement last summer to “never exceed” the 2 degree rise; however, reductions to avert this are not occurring. The prestigious Hadley Centre projects we are on track to have a 4 degree C increase by 2060, which would bring unprecedented drought, famine and ecological dislocation. On Oct. 16th, World Food Day, over one billion (1 in 6) humans went to bed hungry for the first time ever. Unless we quickly change course and lower GHGs, by mid-century we could see a 30-40% reduction in food production, with 2 billion more humans on the planet.

Globally, GHG emissions are about 4 tonnes per person per year. Though China recently surpassed the US as the largest single emitter, its per capita emissions remain close to the global average. It’s the industrialized countries that are primarily responsible for creating the climate crisis, and it will take a steady downscaling of emissions, and developing countries pursuing a sustainable path, to turn this around.

Whether such information startled some MLAs, or left them in disbelief, I cannot say. But I continued, noting that Saskatchewan was now Canada’s largest per capita emitter, at 72 tonnes a year; nearly 20 times the global average. I laid out the sources of these huge emissions. Most (33%) are from the oil and gas industry, and if you add in other industrial sources, it rises to 39%. Next comes electrical generation (24%), about two-thirds of which involve fossil fuels, mostly coal. Then come transportation (16%) and agriculture (14%), with the residential sector responsible for only 3%. Harper’s federal stimulus package highlighted energy efficiency in our homes, further subsidized heavy oil as well as nuclear power, and cut funding for wind power. There’s no sustainable future here.

Getting scientific perspective on the urgency of our situation is vital if elected representatives are to put their backs into finding solutions. I suggested several things, with policy implications, followed from the trends. First, to reduce GHGs we have to do more than convert our electrical grid; we could phase out all coal plants and hardly make a dint in our total emissions. Second, expanding the oil and gas industry, already the top-emitter, into even dirtier, tar sands projects, as has occurred in northern Alberta, is not going to reduce GHGs. Instead we need policies that protect the boreal forest, as a major global carbon sink, and encourage value-added activities in the renewable sector.

I proposed we lower future electrical demand by at least 20% by using energy more efficiently. After all, in July 2008 the Council of the Federation, including Premier Wall, agreed to a 20% increase in energy efficiency by 2020, which could translate into 500-700 MegaWatts (MW) savings here. I also proposed that we target getting 20% of our electricity (e.g. 800 MW) from wind power, something already achieved in some regions; and that we use existing hydro, including from Manitoba, to help back this up. We need to start using biomass, which, unlike bio-fuels, is carbon neutral; as well as more co-generation and run-of-the river hydro. These actions would be more cost-effective than building expensive thermal plants, which contaminate water and release toxic wastes; and could reduce projected utility rate increases. Enhanced public transportation and a shift towards less fossil-fuel intensive agriculture are also urgently needed. With the price of renewables like photovoltaic (PV) electricity continuing to fall, today’s electrical consumers can become net producers. We need policies promoting decentralization, paying small business, farmers, villages, towns and First Nations a fair feed-in fair tariff for producing energy. More jobs would be created and they would be more fairly distributed across the province than with debt-ridden nuclear power.

I did not count on talking to the converted. The previous Calvert NDP government resisted the Kyoto Accord, and only set a target before its electoral defeat to cut emissions by 32%. And, like the federal Conservatives, it moved the goal-posts - from 1990 to 2004. Then, to protect the biggest polluter, the oil industry, the Wall government reduced this target to 20%, and moved the goal-posts even further, to 2007. Both parties, whether of the traditional left or right, have been playing Russian roulette with our grandchildren’s future. We must do better.

There’s a way out if both parties have the wherewithal to be non-partisan. The public should accept nothing less than the government quickly starting to make the necessary shift towards sustainable energy. The climate crisis is “too earth-shaking” to remain a political football.

Presentations to the energy hearings are at: Agency