Now what?  Achieving our Paris Accord commitments

Published Tuesday, June 7, 2016 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

Last December, Canada and 195 other countries adopted the Paris Accord in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit the warming of our planet to two degrees Celsius.  Canada promised that its 2030 emissions will be 30 per cent below 2005 levels.  

The Accord was widely toasted as the breakthrough we’d been awaiting for years.  But now everyone’s back home, and the work begins: how are we going to meet those commitments?  Here are a few ideas.

Context

If you were reviewing your home budget looking for savings, you’d probably first scrutinize areas where you’re spending most.  So, when considering how to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, it makes most sense to start with the sectors that generate the most.

Four economic sectors account for over 70 per cent of Canada’s emissions: the oil and gas sector 26 per cent; transportation 23 per cent; buildings 12 per cent; and power generation 11 per cent.

A price signal

We humans are very price-sensitive.  Make it cheap and we’ll buy it; make it expensive and we’ll avoid it.  So it makes sense that putting a price on carbon will give us an across-the-board incentive to burn less oil, coal and natural gas – in other words, to achieve our Paris targets.  It will also give us an incentive to look to renewables for our energy needs.

Revenue-neutrality is critical: all money collected needs to be returned to taxpayers, especially those in lower income brackets, via rebates, lower taxes or other incentives.

British Columbia implemented a revenue-neutral carbon tax in 2008; its emissions have declined by 16 per cent as a result, even as its economy has continued to grow.  

(Concurrently getting rid of subsidies given to the fossil fuel industry would be a double benefit; the OECD conservatively estimates those subsidies at US$160-200 billion annually.)

No new fossil fuel infrastructure

Last week, an internal federal government agency warned that, because of rapid advances in renewable energy technology and growing environmental concerns, a global shift away from fossil fuels could happen much faster than previously believed.  In other words, the end of the fossil fuel era is on the horizon.

That reason alone should question the logic of building a $15 billion pipeline to the Atlantic.  But here’s another: a study done last year by l’Association québécoise de lutte contre la pollution atmosphérique concluded that the 40 year carbon footprint of the Energy East pipeline, including upstream and downstream emissions, is 5.2 billion tonnes.  That’s 350 times the annual emissions of my home province of New Brunswick.

If we ever hope to attain our Paris targets, we need to stop building infrastructure that takes us in the opposite direction.

(Incidentally, at today's prices, $15 billion would be enough to build 2,300 large wind turbines which, if running full tilt, would produce ten times the power of New Brunswick's Mactaquac dam.) 

Transportation

Just imagine how emissions could be reduced if only we had: a national carpooling strategy; more aggressive fuel efficiency standards for vehicles; improved public transit; and a plan for a national network of car charging stations.  A few incentives for electric vehicles, funded either by a price on carbon or higher registration fees for gas guzzlers, wouldn’t hurt either.

Power

Several years ago, maps showing the tremendous – and untapped – potential for wind, small hydro and solar power in New Brunswick were published.  A new test tidal power turbine is to be installed near Parrsboro, NS this month.  Properly developed, and backstopped by power storage and smart grid technology, these renewable energy sources could serve as the backbone of a carbon-less power grid.  Imagine the jobs.

Efficiency

Thanks to advances in design, technology and materials, net-zero or near net-zero buildings are no longer the dreams of idealistic architects; they’re doable in the real world, returning a lifetime of savings.  More aggressive energy efficiency standards in building codes, supported by a few well-placed incentives, could make efficient construction the only kind of construction we do.  Reinstatement of programs to support the upgrading of existing buildings would help too.

Your ideas?

The government of Canada is seeking suggestions on how to reduce our emissions.  Share your idea at www.letstalkclimateaction.ca.  And why not call your MP to convey your thoughts?