Putting a price tag on a warming world

Canada can expect some severe criticism since the Harper government is refusing to sign on to a second commitment to the Kyoto Protocol.

Just as a new Canadian report confirmed that the recent loss of sea ice in the Arctic is greater than any natural variation in the past 1,450 years, the 17th UN Climate Change Conference got underway yesterday in Durban, South Africa. For the next two weeks some 7,000 delegates representing 195 countries and organizations will be wrestling with the consequences of a warming world.

And Canada can expect some severe criticism since the Harper government is refusing to sign on to a second commitment to the Kyoto Protocol.

“The Kyoto Protocol doesn’t meet our simple criteria,” said federal Environment Minister Peter Kent during a speech to the Economic Club of Canada earlier this month. “It has not been signed by all of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters.”

So what happened to the concept of a leadership role?

The Harper government has never been warm and fuzzy about Kyoto. Under that Protocol, we had committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. That’s not going to happen. The Copenhagen accord committed Canada to reducing emissions by 17 per cent below its 2005 level by 2020.

Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan, who tabled his 2011 report in October, said he thought it next to impossible that Canada would be able to reach its Kyoto target. The gap is too wide. The calculated emissions in Canada in 2008 were 734 million tonnes, or 31 per cent above the Kyoto target. Making matters worse, the government has consistently lowered its greenhouse gas emissions targets since 2007. In fact, emissions targets have dropped from 282 million tonnes in the first plan to a mere 28 million tonnes in the latest plan, a drop of some 90 per cent. No wonder Vaughan is highly critical of Canada’s performance.

The problem isn’t only commitment to reducing GHGs but a commitment to a game plan.

Vaughan said in his report that “despite allocations of more than $9 billion, the government has yet to establish the management systems and tools needed to achieve, measure and report on greenhouse gas emission reductions. Key elements missing include consistent quality assurance and verification systems to report actual GHG emission reductions and clear and consistent financial reporting systems for the measures in the plans.”

He added that the plan is made up of at least 35 different programs that are disjointed. One of the main problems, he said, was that there are too many information gaps, or non-transparent information, make it impossible to quantify cause and effect. Then there’s the issue of the Alberta oilsands and the inefficient environmental monitoring systems at play which, said Vaughan, is one of the country’s most serious ecological hotspots.

During his speech in Toronto, Kent announced that $148.8 million will be spent on climate change adaptation funding over the next five years spread through 10 programs in nine departments. But that’s pittance.

Look north. Along with melting Arctic sea ice, thawing permafrost is causing buildings to sink. Inuvik, which has experienced the largest increase in air temperature in all of Canada, is looking at costs of close to $121 million to try to fix the problem. That town alone would gobble up Kent’s five-year budget.

But climate change isn’t about a simple five-year plan on adaptations. The consequences of global warming stretch in front for many decades and will bring complex challenges such as  economic development or hardship, population shifts as huge numbers of people migrate to new regions, increasing needs for sustainable development, resource management, food production, and the response to rising sea levels.

This week Canada will deservedly face tough questions in Durban. The Harper government has to do better.

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