The Paris Climate Summit: Here's What Our Leaders Should Aim For
By Terri Chu
With world leaders meeting in Paris next week, environmental groups are holding their collective breath, waiting to see what agreements can get hammered out.
I for one am quite weary of, year after year, watching dignitaries expel more carbon flying from one climate summit to another, and setting targets that don’t get met. Granted, some countries are doing better than others. Canada has been embarrassing itself after a decade of pretending we can will away gravity if we pray hard enough, a policy seemingly practised by the last government.
I am cautiously optimistic that this new government will prove less Jurassic than the previous one, and I’m hoping to see more than just commitments.
I have a small wish list for this year’s climate talks as follows.
Canada’s per capita carbon emissions are one of the highest in the world, coming in behind sparsely populated oil producing nations and our cousins down under. Not a record to be proud of.
One big hold back for Canada is the reality that conservation costs too much. We have built a society on the premise that resources are abundant and will last forever. All we have to do is work hard at exploiting them and good things will happen. Remember those Heritage minutes with the never-ending supply of cod? Well, that played well during the '90s.
Practically all our infrastructure is optimized for maximum resource consumption. Look at our highways. Whenever they get congested, our governments say, “have no fear, we will not interfere with Canadians wanting to burn more gas, we will widen the roads at the expense of public transit”. Why on earth should it cost more to take public transit than to drive a private vehicle?
Electricity is much the same story. Electricity is so cheap that putting insulation in homes, and using energy efficient devices are often just not worthwhile.
Take for example an auto manufacturer in Ontario. I performed a feasibility analysis of putting in a combined heat and power generator at the facility. This should decrease carbon emissions overall since waste heat from the electricity would be reused at the facility.
But the cost of power is so low that the payback on the capital costs made absolutely no sense. It costs Ontario businesses more to be responsible environmental stewards than it does to recklessly consume.
If we are to take climate change seriously, I would love for PM Justin Trudeau to come home from Paris with a clear notion of whose carbon taxation method we will adopt and how to get us to a price point that makes sense economically yet be high enough that conservation and green energy efforts are competitive in the marketplace.
Increasingly, we are accepting the reality that keeping mean temperature increases below 4 degrees Celsius is unlikely. Moving beyond the humdrum of reduction targets, I feel that world leaders need to start planning for a post-warming world, to start planning for adaptation (until the inevitable collapse). A commitment needs to be made to accept climate refugees as their existing homes become unliveable.
This means definitions for who would classify as a climate refugee and priority zones (such as low-lying land).
A commitment to bringing accepting climate refugees does two things: 1) it provides reassurance to those most affected that there is still a future for them; and 2) it shifts a big economic burden to the world’s wealthiest countries (and by extension, the biggest polluters).
True Carbon Accounting Standards
I’d like to see world leaders agree that only counting carbon emitted on their land is insufficient. Too many countries are patting themselves on the back as being big carbon reducers, only to have their goods produced elsewhere and shipped back. While officially being a low carbon emitting country, residents are burning through cheap clothing every season to stay in fashion. This kind of consumption absolutely needs to be accounted for and taxed in a manner to discourage frivolous consumption.
Carbon taxes need to be applied (and paid for by the consumer) to goods imported from developing nations, taxes that take into account the carbon of production as well as shipping. Pretending that what is emitted over the open seas is nobody’s problem is not a model that we can continue to use. While this could hurt economic development in poorer nations, the reality is that they will also bear the biggest brunt of continued emissions.
Green Labeling Standards
People around the world are starting to recognize the importance of choosing “green”. Green washing has gotten so far out of hand that bottled water (the antithesis of eco friendly) now come with various supposedly eco-friendly virtues plastered on the packaging.
At some point it will become important to put standards around how various terms are used, just as how the term “organic" has certain standards, albeit imperfect, depending on who does the certification. Consumers would benefit greatly by having guidance of what “eco-friendly” really means. Convincing consumers that buying water shipped in from Fiji somehow helps the planet should, frankly, be illegal.
A great start would be for leaders to start tackling the major problem of plastic waste in our oceans at this Paris Summit. It would be a significant achievement if world leaders can agree to standards around using the term “biodegradable”. Dog poop bags often come with the tag “biodegradable except in California.” That is because California has gone to the trouble of defining what these things mean. At the moment, one can essentially buy an item labelled "biodegradable" because it has been shown to degrade (even slightly) in ideal conditions (such as in a mound of rice husk covered poop in the baking hot sun.) The fact that foreign bacteria were introduced and oxygen artificially pumped in matters little.
Standards around what can and can’t be called biodegradable should be agreed upon for the sake of the oceans. These definitions should include testing based on normal conditions in various climates and also normal oceanic conditions.
There is my wish list for the summit. A strong dose of reality tells me that I should be pleased if our new prime minister fails to take home the fossil award, but one can dream.