WITH ALMOST 20 YEARS of negotiations behind us and greenhouse gas emissions rising faster than the federal deficit, perhaps the time has come to look for alternative approaches to tackling climate change. As University of Victoria professor Michael M’Gonigle suggested in The Tyee in December, could it be that Copenhagen’s failure was a good thing?
Opportunities for multilateral co-operation on emission reductions within forums such as the G8 and G20 summits, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and Association of Southeast Asian Networks have arguably been sidelined because of people’s faith in the UN process. But smaller forums may be better at bringing about effective action. They can’t be any worse, when it comes to success in handling what two-thirds of Canadians, according to recent polls, believe is humankind’s “defining crisis.” Indeed, success is blooming across the pond in the more manageable European Union, which has reduced emissions by nine per cent since 1990 despite a corresponding economic growth of over 40 per cent.
Guy Dauncey, author of The Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming, would dominate the discussion at a vegetarian dinner party. He throws out ideas with the enthusiasm of a CFL quarterback. Dauncey insists that we need to replace our defensive approach to climate change with an offensive one that promotes solutions. Rather than be penalized for burning coal, nations could be rewarded for ramping up solar production and installing a certain amount of solar power by 2020. “Right now, the move towards lower-priced solar is being entirely driven by the taxpayers of Germany, Japan, California and to some extent China,” says Dauncey. A co-ordinated global solar push would distribute development costs more fairly. It would give investors and manufacturers the confidence to increase production because they have a guaranteed market. Ontario’s feed-in tariff program, which offers long-term contracts at a stable price, demonstrates how it can work.
Another impediment is the broad-strokes approach that fails to differentiate between the six major greenhouse gases. Dauncey says, “We need to break open the basket of gases and have separate treaties, separate approaches for each gas.” If this were the case, we could consider the global warming potential (GWP) – or warming potency – of individual gases, and focus emission reduction efforts on the most potent gases first. For example, methane has a very high GWP in the short term. Over time, however, it is reduced. Lowering methane emissions now would bring about the early wins that are urgently needed since we’re quickly approaching tipping points that could activate runaway climate change.
Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) is used mainly in the electric-power industry. Its massive GWP (22,800 times carbon dioxide) has created the perverse incentive whereby some entities are intentionally raising their SF6 emissions so that they can reduce them later and then sell the credits to emissions traders. Individual gas treaties would lessen such opportunities for abuse.
The UK Carbon Trust has devised an effective program that elegantly sidesteps the barrier of high upfront costs for energy efficiency measures. Low-interest or zero-interest loans available through this agency can eliminate those high upfront costs. But that’s not all. The loans are invisibly repaid through savings resulting from the retrofit. “When the government puts those solutions together, people can move ahead with home retrofits with zero costs,” says Dauncey. With a modicum of imagination, Canada could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in ways that don’t require harmonization with the US. It could put substance behind its underfunded renewable energy programs, and distribute its “clean technology” investments beyond dubious carbon capture and storage.
Canada was the recipient of the Colossal Fossil award in Copenhagen for its inaction on climate change, and the target of an audacious Yes Men campaign that involved a fictitious press release outlining what Canada might do if it were serious about the issue. Perhaps it’s time for the Harper government to come up with a “Made in Canada” solution that actually does something.