Clearing the Air on Climate Change

A new book goes a major distance but not far enough.

What do Canadians want to know about climate change? Most are not, and don’t aspire to be, climate change experts. My guess would be that most Canadians, who the polls tell us are aware of and concerned about climate change, are happy to leave the details of the science to the scientists, but would like to know both how big a problem it is for this country and what can be done about it.

There is another type of information that might be of some interest, although I suspect it would appeal mainly to a smaller, and perhaps more jaundiced, audience. This is a discussion of the sorry history of Canada’s response to climate change and, in particular, the reasons why Canada is among those industrialized countries that have done the least to address climate change.

If these are the kinds of things that are of interest to you, then Jeffrey Simpson, Mark Jaccard and Nic Rivers have written the climate change book you are looking for. Hot Air: Meeting Canada’s Climate Change Challenge is roughly divided into three parts: about 30 pages on the kinds of climate change risks we are facing, about 70 pages of information about the failure of successive Canadian governments—of various political stripes—to do anything meaningful at all about the issue and about 150 pages on what kinds of policies might actually significantly reduce future greenhouse gas emissions.

The authors of the book represent an interesting combination of The Globe and Mail’s national affairs columnist (Simpson), a well-known energy economist who has written several very well-received books on energy and climate change issues (Jaccard) and an accomplished research associate in Jaccard’s institute (Rivers).

So we have the right topics and a good team. What story do they tell?

The discussion of the climate change risks facing Canadians follows a script that has emerged out of a large number of climate impact studies. Canada is not immune to climate change impacts and, in fact, as a northern country, will face larger changes than many other parts of the world, since the amount of temperature change will be greater in polar regions. The list of expected impacts includes increases in average temperatures in some regions (with consequent impacts on drought frequencies in dry areas, air pollution, heat waves, etc.), decreases in others; a greater incidence of extreme weather events (storms, flooding and related phenomena) and infestations of various kinds; water shortages in some areas, with consequent drier soils and impacts on agricultural productivity; increased fertilization effects in other places; increased precipitation in rainier areas; expected year-round opening of the Northwest Passage; loss of ice roads; and sea level rise affecting coastal areas. All of these changes are likely to have consequences for fish, wildlife, crops, livestock and other ecologically based systems. None of this is new, or surprising, but it perhaps continues to need to be said.

With these arguments as context, we are set to enter the house of mirrors (complete with smoke) that contains the history of Canadian government responses to the climate change issue. Certainly the tale is a sorry one. Successive federal governments, of both main parties, have engaged in a depressing mixture of bold international commitments and targets and a complete absence of any serious steps aimed at ensuring that emissions would decline, or even grow more slowly than in the absence of such policies. The general lesson is clear: no Canadian government, in addressing the challenge of climate change, has been willing to take on the oil and gas industry in this country, or even to approach the question of changes in behaviour and lifestyles. Since this effectively rules out confronting the issues of how energy is produced, on the one hand, and consumed, on the other, it is easy to understand why we have witnessed two decades of climate change policies that were in effect predestined to fail.

While this point is made strongly and effectively in this part of the book, two other aspects of the discussion raise some concerns. The first is a sin of omission: the authors make no mention at all of the extensive analysis and arguments in favour of alternative approaches to energy policy that characterized the whole period they are discussing. It is as if the whole set of arguments about the potential for energy futures based on improved efficiency and alternative sources such as wind, solar, biomass, and so on, which provided a counterpoint to official views and also influenced policies significantly in some countries (although not, alas, in Canada), did not exist. I will return to this issue below.

The second concern relates to what amounts to a diatribe against environmentalism. I count at least eleven occasions in the book when the authors see fit to criticize what they characterize as “environmentalist” views. Although they acknowledge the danger of caricature, Simpson, Jaccard and Rivers provide a sketch of what they call the “majority position” of environmentalists, followed by a discussion of how wrong this position is. Having myself taught in environmental studies programs for my whole professional life, I have to say that the attempt to avoid caricature does not seem successful to me. In trying to position themselves between what they consider the extremes of the environmentalists and the energy industry, environmentalism becomes a kind of whipping boy for some specific views with which the authors disagree.

In particular, the authors argue that the agenda that environmentalists are blinded by is a belief in the potential for significant improvements in energy efficiency, usually tied to a belief in some form of alternative, “Arcadian” lifestyle. The following quotation conveys this view clearly:

So the focus of intelligent policy should be on reducing emissions through much more effective thinking than the pious belief that energy efficiency will solve our GHG [greenhouse gas] challenge, let alone the wishful thinking that Canadians will trade in their cars for bicycles, take Johnny or Sally and their equipment to hockey games on the bus, stop wanting conveniences and gadgets that improve their lives, hang their sheets to dry outside in –20-degree winter weather, and throw away their television sets and toasters.

One important consequence of this caricature of environmentalists is that it allows the authors to set themselves up as the unbiased and presumably objective arbiters of the questions they are discussing. Environmentalists and industry are self-interested or blinded by their preferences or agendas; the authors, however, are detached from any such agendas. This seems to me to be simply naive. As discussed below, the authors are not, of course, immune to biases of their own.

More germane, however, is the consequence of this view for the third and most important part of the book. This is where the authors discuss at length what kinds of policies will actually reduce future greenhouse gas emissions. Following discussion of the criteria we should use to evaluate policies, the authors devote some space and analytical energy to arguing that the policies currently being proposed by all sides in the political arena will be just as ineffective as past policies. This sets them up to propose their own policies, based on a simple principle that has been entirely neglected in past policy making:

The only way Canada can lower emissions appreciably over the coming decades—and this will be a decades-long challenge—is to design and implement either charges on emissions or regulations on emissions or technologies, or a mixture of both. We need economic tools and/or regulations to get the job done. There is no effective alternative.

This argument lies at the heart of the book’s critique of past policies and proposal of new policies. It should, in my view, be inscribed over the door of the boardrooms of all energy and environmental ministries in the country. As this book documents, the complete absence of any such policies is the most important reason that all previous climate change policies have failed.

Simpson, Jaccard and Rivers go on to discuss different ways in which these two approaches (charges and regulations) can be combined. Putting their own arguments to the test, they then model the effects of such policies using the Canadian Integrated Modelling System energy framework that Jaccard has built over the past 15 years or so, and that has now been used by many agencies and analysts. In this way they look at emissions charges and carbon taxes; they look at market-oriented regulations such as the cap and trade system being used in Europe, or the obligation and certificate system, which sets minimum targets for new technologies (such as renewable portfolio standards or fuel economy standards for vehicles); and they look at emissions standards for buildings.

When they subject various versions of these policies to the test of the CIMS energy modelling system, it appears that what they call “more aggressive” policies could have the effect, by 2050, of reducing total Canadian greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent relative to expected emissions in 2010. Although we would not reach our Kyoto target until about 2025, about 15 years later than Canada originally agreed to, this level of reduction is generally in accordance with what the literature is saying is required by all countries by 2050 or so if we are to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the climate system.

Simpson, Jaccard and Rivers go on to caution that, although these savings will not happen overnight and will take decades to accumulate, the policies need to be implemented now, in order for such accumulated savings to take place by 2050.

In essence, this is a good news story. It appears that we can avoid the mistakes of the past, institute sensible (i.e., real) policies and achieve our climate change goals with minimal negative impact on the economy, albeit more slowly than anticipated when we signed up for our Kyoto targets. I agree with this conclusion, but think it does not go far enough, since the analysis that leads up to it is flawed in ways that make much stronger conclusions possible. In essence, I believe that what the authors have unintentionally presented is a kind of worst case scenario. Much more positive things can be said about the potential for emission reduction.

To see how this can be so, we need to return to what I have called the caricature of environmentalism presented in this book. I have said that the authors conflate their portrait of environmentalists with the view that strong forms of energy efficiency will require a return to a “simpler, Arcadian, smaller-footprint life.”

There are two problems here. First, there are many arguments for energy efficiency that have nothing to do with lifestyle change. In my view, the relatively small contribution that energy efficiency makes in the CIMS model simulations shown in the book is less the result of the unrealistic Arcadian lifestyle changes required by efficiency improvements than it is of the structural aspects of the CIMS modelling system itself, which is based on historical data about consumer behaviour that may not be very useful in exploring the quite different future conditions, including technological changes and large price increases, associated with high efficiency scenarios.

Second, by relegating all lifestyle changes to the realm of Arcadian fantasy, the authors ignore the potential for there to occur very significant changes in economic structure, technology and lifestyle that are associated with a general shift to more sustainable patterns of living, for example, changes toward a more information-intensive, eco-efficient and service-based economy. In other words, consistent with the above-noted omission of any discussion of the rich alternative energy futures tradition in Canada, Simpson, Jaccard and Rivers also omit any discussion of the potential benefits of bigger changes in societal direction, such as those needed to reduce the material and energy intensity of industrial production systems or to substantially increase urban densities, all of which are driven by larger concerns than climate change.

As Jaccard and Rivers know very well, there is a well-established literature on global scenarios that charts the consequences of changes in the socioeconomic and technological development paths of societies at different scales. Most of this literature, based on models as complex and sophisticated as CIMS, shows a much bigger role for energy efficiency and conservation than shows up in the CIMS results. Ironically, the most extensive set of such analyses were prepared for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and demonstrated that changes in these underlying development paths, such as urban intensification, for example, are probably more important in achieving our climate change goals than climate policies themselves. This work has led to a rich literature on the links between climate change and sustainable development, a topic not addressed in this book, except by implicit dismissal.

Both of these points—the size of the technical and economic potential for energy efficiency and the degree to which changes in underlying socioeconomic and technological development paths can contribute to climate change goals—are the subject of considerable controversy. And I know from past exchanges with two of the authors that I have a different view on these two issues than they do. My point here is not that I am right and they are wrong. It is that if I am right, then the conclusion reached in this book actually underestimates the potential for achieving our climate change targets.

Put another way, this book outlines the kinds of climate change policies that can be expected actually to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly, if we focus strictly on emission reduction and energy policy. I think this is correct and important. I would only add that a more expansive approach to the problem, which contextualizes climate change in the wider framework of sustainability goals and aims more explicitly at improved energy efficiency, offers the potential of going beyond these results and achieving greater, perhaps much greater, levels of emission reduction. Contrary to the view ascribed by the authors to environmentalists, I do not believe that such gains can be achieved quickly. But I believe it is important that we consider this wider context and do not sub-optimize on climate policy.

So my final message to the reader of this book would be this: Hot Air provides indispensable information about what went wrong with Canadian climate policy and how that may be fixed. But climate change is only one of a set of critical issues confronting our world, and it is likely that putting climate goals and policies in the context of the larger changes required to achieve sustainable futures will allow us not only to address these other issues, but also to reach our climate change goals more effectively and comprehensively. In other words, read this book, but don’t stop there.