How far has the Vancouver Declaration taken us?

By Roy L Hales

Screen-shot-2014-03-18-at-3.43.47-PMAfter two days of sometimes heated meetings behind closed door, Canada’s first ministers emerged with an agreement as to their overall goals for a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy.  The contentious issues, like carbon pricing mechanisms, emissions caps and oil pipelines, have been left for another First Ministers meeting in the fall. So How far has the Vancouver Declaration taken us?

How Far Has The Vancouver Declaration Taken Us?

Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a tour of the YWCA in Calgary February 4, 2016 during the Prime Minister's visit to Alberta. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta via Flickr CC BY Sa, 2.0 License)
Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a tour of the YWCA in Calgary February 4, 2016 during the Prime Minister’s visit to Alberta. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta via Flickr CC BY Sa, 2.0 License)

Aside from the meeting in Quebec, prior to COP 21, there hasn’t been a First Ministers Meeting since 2009 and one has to look back to the Mulroney years for a First Ministers Meeting dealing with environmental issues.[1. At the First Ministers Meeting of November 9–10, 1989, the topics were Federal–Provincial priorities, environment/sustainable development and the Meech Lake Accord]

A triumphant Trudeau emerged, flanked by Canada’s Premiers, to tell reporters, “Every single Premier signed on to the Vancouver Declaration which highlights there will be different approaches but pricing carbon which this country, and its’ Premiers, will put forward.”

A senior official told CBC news that this was “a discussion about how we are going to price carbon, not whether we are going to do it.”

Catherine McKenna, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, is “always optimistic” that the first Ministers will reach an agreement, but did not give a clear answer as to whether the Federal Government would impose a price on carbon if the provinces fail to move ahead on their own.

Four working groups will be set up to study how Canada ways can move forward on “clean technology, innovation and jobs; carbon pricing mechanisms; specific mitigation opportunities; and adaptation and climate resilience.”

Their draft reports are to be completed by next September and “Ministers will review these reports and provide their recommendations to First Ministers by October 2016, and make the working group reports public.”

Responses To The Vancouver Declaration

ENGO roundtable with Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna in Vancouver, B.C. March 3, 2016. Photo: Stephen Hui, Pembina Institute via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License). http://www.pembina.org/ http://www.instagram.com/pembinainstitute/
ENGO roundtable with Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna in Vancouver, B.C. March 3, 2016. (Marine Smith of Clean Energy Canada on left) Photo: Stephen Hui, Pembina Institute©

David Tindall,[2. Roy L Hales interview with David Tindall, Associate ProfessorSociology of Environment at the University of British Columbia] Associate Professor of Environment at the University of British Columbia, says the outcome of this conference was similar to COP 21 in Paris. He attended the Climate Conference and  was ” … a little surprised because people seemed optimistic and positive about what occurred there. Another way of looking at Paris is that a bunch of countries made agreements that aren’t legally binding and there were no consequences for not living up to the agreement.”

He described the Vancouver meeting as “both fairly significant and fairly not significant. It was fairly significant in that, as far as I know, (former Prime Minister) Stephen Harper never had a meeting like this.  So it initiates new collective action among the provinces and federal government. It is also significant in that, glancing through the Accord, it seems to build on the principles of COP 21. In that sense it shows there is momentum building on the international agreement. On the other hand, as far as I can see, no one is prepared to do anything in terms of a hard target.”

oilsands bitumen Photo: Julia Kilpatrick, Pembina Institute, Pembina Institute© .
oilsands bitumen Photo: Julia Kilpatrick, Pembina Institute, Pembina Institute© .

“This is not going to be easy. Canada’s provinces have very different climate and energy challenges. But building a clean energy economy requires leadership from the very top, and from every part of this country. Today’s agreement gets the right people—federal and provincial leaders from coast to coast to coast—working to make Canada’s clean energy transition a national success story,” said Merran Smith, executive director of Clean Energy Canada, in a press release.

“The emphasis on investment in Green infrastructure, the idea of increasing our energy efficiency in our buildings and improving transit – who could criticize that?”said Professor Lynne Quarmby,[3. Roy L Hales interview with Professor Lynne Quarmby, Green Party Critic for Science,  an internationally recognized cell biologist and researcher at Simon Fraser University.] the Green Party of Canada Critic for Science Policy.

“It is difficult to criticize the idea of waiting six months,  getting it right and doing their research,  never-the-less I am critical of that. We’ve known this is coming. Why did we wait until yesterday to decide we need a committee to look into it? We could have had a committee working on this since Paris. Those are six very precious months. I think people who are willing to give them that time are not necessarily appreciating the urgency of the situation.”

Starting From The Right Place

“We are not going to be able to stop a rapid change in the climate, no matter how good and how fast we come up with policies. We are still at a place where we can do things that will make it less bad than it would be.

“For many people around the globe, catastrophic climate change is already here. For many species, catastrophic climate change has come and gone. You have to define catastrophe, but the species that have gone extinct would tell you it is here.”[4. Subsequent to our interview Dr Quarmby sent a link to the official list of extinct species from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. As  of October 2015, there were “15 extinct species, 23 extirpated species.” Quarmby wrote “To be clear, many, even most, are likely related to anthropogenic changes – not necessarily directly to climate change. In fact, most of these are likely not climate change.”]

She added, “I think Trudeau is not starting from the right place. He’s not recognizing the urgency of climate change. He should have come to the table at the First Ministers meeting and said, ‘Look guys, we can’t dig up bitumen. We can’t harvest LNG. We’ve got to get serious about climate. Let’s start from there. How are we going to get together and make this happen.’ That’s how he needed to start.”

Taking Action Against Carbon

The fossil fuel sector is not as resistant to change as some believe. Tindall mentioned people within the industry saying that if Harper had brought in carbon pricing or other policies designed to address greenhouse gases, “perhaps Obama would have approved the Keystone XL pipeline.”

Quarmby says it is too late.

“Scientists tell us unambiguously, that to even have a hope of making 2 (degrees, as the ceiling for average Global temperature rise),  we need to leave things like bitumen in the ground.

By 2022, oilsands development is projected to require 18.6 hectares of forest — or the equivalent of 34.5 football fields — to be cleared every day. Photo: Julia Kilpatrick, the Pembina Institute©
By 2022, oilsands development is projected to require 18.6 hectares of forest — or the equivalent of 34.5 football fields — to be cleared every day. Photo: Julia Kilpatrick, the Pembina Institute©

“If we are going to aspire to 1.5 degrees, we are going to need to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. So we are going to need to scrub the air as well as stop pumping the stuff out and frankly we don’t have the technology, but nature does.”

“The  boreal forest of Northern Canada, that we are ripping up faster than they are tearing down the Amazon so that the oil sands can expand, is the best carbon sink that we have. So not only are we adding more (carbon to the atmosphere) we are removing natures way of pulling it out.”

Including Carbon Pricing Mechanisms

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau identified including carbon pricing mechanisms in their declaration as one of the conference’s major achievements. Several Premiers did not want it included. This term is deliberately vague, leaving the provinces freedom to explore how this could apply in their situation.

After the meeting ended, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall posted to his Facebook page, ” Good meetings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Premiers. Glad there will be no national carbon tax and that there will be an economic impact assessment of any new environmental measures.”

Some argue that is simply a tax grab, but there have been success stories.

David Suzuki points to acid rain, “The 1990 Clean Air Act allowed power plants to buy and sell the right to emit sulphur dioxide. Since then, U.S. sulphur dioxide concentrations have gone down by more than 75 per cent. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times, “Acid rain did not disappear as a problem, but it was significantly mitigated.”

Another example is Chile between 2000 and 2012, where the nation’s emissions decreased 16% at the same time that the economy grew 30%.

The most touted Canadian example is British Columbia. During its’ first five years, this carbon tax is credited with a 16% drop in emissions with no negative impact on the province’s economy.

As a result, Premiere Christy Clark was greeted as a Climate Leader at COP 21.[2. Roy L Hales interview with David Tindall] (The irony being that Clark’s only contribution was to freeze the tax so that there have been no rate increases since she became Premier.[3. Prior to Clark taking office, BC’s carbon tax was rising at $5 per tonne per year]

“One of the reasons the provincial government gives for extending the freeze on the gas tax is that carbon is either cheaper or not priced at all in other jurisdictions. Clark sees that as a problem in term of competitiveness for British Columbia,” said Tindall.

No Reference To “Oil,” “LNG” Or “Pipelines”

pipeline infrastructure Photo: Julia Kilpatrick, Pembina Institute.
pipeline infrastructure Photo: Julia Kilpatrick, Pembina Institute©

There is no reference to “oil,” “LNG” or “pipelines” in the Communiqué of Canada’s First Ministers.

Prior to the conference, Trudeau announced new pipelines will finance the nation’s transition to a greener future.

Quarmby dismissed the idea as bizarre.

In a live interview with the Prime Minister,  the Daily Planet‘s Ziya Tong pointed out there have been 28,666 oil pipeline leaks during the last 37 years.

“To use the cliche, Trudeau wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to promise that he is going to take real action on Climate Change but also, for various political reasons, he wants to promise he’s going to promote the oil industry and facilitate the building of new pipelines. I personally don’t think you can do both. The scientific evidence is that most of the oil has to stay in the ground,” said UBC’s David Tindall.

Quarmby pointed out that when scientists say 80% of the oil will have to stay in the ground, they are referring to oil, not unconventional fuels like bitumen or LNG.

Alberta pipeline by jasonwoodhead23 via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)
Alberta pipeline by jasonwoodhead23 via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

“(The pipelines coming from the oil sands ) … are not oil pipelines. They are pipelines for diluted bitumen. Diluted bitumen is far more toxic than oil. It is virtually impossible to clean up. I  n spite of a very poorly conducted study that Kinder Morgan supplied to the National Energy Board (NEB) and that the NEB has accepted as the only data on this issue. This study purports to show that bitumen floats. Bitumen does not float, bitumen sinks. There is a very well done study, which is peer reviewed, documenting this, done by the National Academy of Sciences in the United States,” said  Quarmby.

“This is no oil. This is toxic stuff that will be impossible to clean up and the diluent part of it are these volatile chemicals like benzine that are neurotoxins and carcinogens and lethal in some concentrations if you are near an accident.”

The Push To Build Pipelines

Though the transition to a clean economy is not going to occur overnight, Tindall does not believe Canada needs more infrastructure. “I think (the push to build pipelines) … is all about getting oil out of the ground as fast as possible before there is the shift (to a cleaner economy).” Once that happens, they are stuck.

That said, Tindall does not believe that the general public is as strongly opposed to building pipelines as the environmental movement likes to think. Polling data shows the Canadian public tends to be “more concerned about spills and local environmental damage” than emissions. They are somewhat supportive of pipelines,” unless they are in the path of a major project (as is the case in British Columbia and Quebec).

The Healing Walk procession passed alongside the central operations sites of two major oilsands producers, Syncrude (pictured here) and Suncor.
Traffice on road to olisands refinery Photo: Julia Kilpatrick, Pembina Institute©

“The nimby thing is understandable. I’m not surprised it is not even stronger. Climate Change is abstract. It is big. Maybe people do not recognize the ways it is already impacting us. Maybe the fact there are now $7 cauliflowers is starting to ring a few bells that something is going to change and we are going to be paying a lot for our groceries very soon,” said Quarmby.

“I think I agree with the prof at UBC who said there is not so much opposition. That is a shame. I think we need to get out there and educate people and build that opposition.”

The U.N. Meeting of April 22

Meanwhile, Quarmby points out, “We have a U.N. deadline of April 22, when the countries are all coming back together and signing an agreement on how they are going to meet the targets that they set in Paris. The impact of Canada missing this deadline is incalculable. We have the opportunity of going to that meeting and saying here’s our goals and here is how we are going to meet them. We have a plan. These are our national targets. We could go and we could influence what happens on April 22. ”

If we go to that April 22 meeting and all we have to take is what Harper gave us, we are making an enormous space for other countries who are dealing with the same political pressures, to come in and behave badly. .”

Top Photo from the Alberta Oilseeds, courtesy Julia Kilpatrick, Pembina Institute©

FootNotes

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