So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed Into Climate Action: On Harper’s Promise to End Fossil Fuels

Stephen Harper’s participation in the G7 leader’s declaration to decarbonize the global economy by 2100 was a massive headline generator in Canada, and not surprisingly so.

For a Prime Minister who has openly mocked the idea of carbon pricing, mercilessly driven an expensive (both financially and politically) energy superpower agenda and earned a reputation for pulling out of or stalling climate negotiations, the very idea of an ‘end’ to fossil fuels would seem … counterintuitive.

Although the shock of seeing Harper even touch something called ‘decarbonization’ is still reverberating, experts were quick to point out a long-term goal that shoves off concrete climate policy is likely just what Canada was hoping for.

Long-term Goals Are Easy

Michael Levi, senior energy and environment fellow writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, said the G7 agreement merely rearticulates what diplomats and policymakers have basically agreed to for several years now: dramatic emission cuts are required by mid century if we are to avoid surpassing the two-degree target.

“If the-two degree target didn’t motivate deep enough emissions cuts to actually meet it, recasting it in terms of global emissions won’t change that,” Levi wrote. “And the idea that an 85-year goal will have much impact on present policy or investment is a bit ridiculous. (Had you told a physicist in 1905 that a fifth of U.S. electricity would be generated by nuclear fission within 85 years, they would have said, ‘What’s a nucleus or fission?’)”

Levi said the bottom line is this: “Fiddling with distant targets is a great way to generate headlines, but doesn’t do much to affect policy and emissions themselves; at best it’s marginally irrelevant, at worst it lets people feel good without doing anything.”

Mark Jaccard, energy and climate economist from Simon Fraser University, agreed, saying the goal to end fossil fuels by 2100 makes it easy for politicians like Harper to detract from the short-term.

“Harper has gotten good at shifting timeframes, helped by a forgetful opposition, media and public,” Jaccard told DeSmog Canada. “His 2006 promise for reduced emissions in 2020 slides into a 2015 promise for reduced emissions in 2030. His 2007 promise for reduced emissions in 2050 slides into a 2015 promise for reduced emissions in 2100.

“It would be funny — like Lucy lying to Charlie Brown that she would hold the football — if it weren’t so tragic." 

Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Canada, said the G7 agreement does have the upside of legitimizing discussions around decarbonizing.

"The important thing here is that for the first time we have world leaders acknowledging that we have to ditch fossil fuels; not just reduce emissions at the margins, but go cold turkey on our fossil fuel addiction,” he said.

“Of course we'd be crazy to wait 85 years to do it. But it's now a question of when, not if, we go to a 100 per cent renewable energy system."

David Keith, professor of applied physics and public policy at Harvard University, who lives in Calgary, said the agreement does nothing more than score cheap political points.

“It’s not groundbreaking,” he told the CBC. “It is politically cheap to pledge a non-binding commitment that falls way behind someone’s time in office.”

“What we really need is specifics in the next few years or decades.”

Keith was one of more than 100 natural and social scientists who recently called for a moratorium on new projects in the Alberta oilsands, Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Canada’s Climate Target Weakest in G7

Environmental Defence recently gave Stephen Harper’s conservative party a ‘C’ on a climate scorecard, saying Canada currently has the weakest post-2020 climate target of all G7 nations (although Japan has yet to submit its plan).

Canada’s target to reduce emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 was recently assessed as “inadequate” by the Climate Action Tracker, a coalition of four research institutions including Climate Analytics, Ecofys, NewClimate Institute and the Potsdam Institue. The groups determined Canada’s reductions targets will not be sufficient for Canada to do its fair share for the world to avoid dangerous climate change. 

In its report, Environmental Defence said Canada has shifted its climate targets over time as a way of appearing to do more than it actually is:

“The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) and the Kyoto Protocol (1997) both used 1990 as the reference or base year. Most countries still use 1990 as the base year but some have started using more recent base years. Since the Copenhagen summit in 2009, Canada has been using 2005 as a base year. This makes comparison between targets more difficult. It also makes targets look stronger than they are since Canada’s carbon pollution increased significantly between 1990 and 2005. For example, the Canadian government’s pledge to reduce emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 by 2030 is actually less than half as strong (-14.4 per cent) when expressed using 1990 as the base year.”

Environmental Defence adds Canada has consistently refused to address the Alberta oilsands when discussing climate targets, a subject of some controversy during last year’s UN climate talks in Lima, Peru.

Canada has pledged to regulate emissions from four sectors: natural gas-fired electricity, the chemical industry, methane emissions from the oil and gas sector and sources of hydrofluorocarbons.

For years the federal government has failed to deliver on its promise to regulate carbon from the oil and gas industry. Last year Harper said it would be “crazy economic policy” to regulate the oil and gas sector and indicated (incorrectly) that no other country was doing so.

Last year, Canada's environment commissioner Julie Gelfand said the country has "no overall vision" when it comes to oil and gas regulations and as a result will not even meet its 2020 international greenhouse gas reductions targets agreed to in Copenhagen.

Ed Whittingham from the Pembina Institute said he thinks industry will begin to pick up the slack, now that definitive dates for decarbonization are being discussed.

"We are all clear, we are still going to need fossil fuels for some time to come. Now we have, at the global level, the latest day for when we need to be off fossil fuels," he told the CBC. "CEOs in Calgary are smart; they will do the planning that needs to be done." 

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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