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We Asked Canadian Experts on Climate Change: Are We Screwed?

Much of Canada's wealth is tied up in the same extractive industries that are the number one contributor to GHG emissions. On the eve of the Paris climate summit, it and other nations are asking: have we catastrophically screwed ourselves?

by Hilary Beaumont
Nov 27 2015, 7:25pm

Photo by Rinie van Meurs

It's an uncomfortable picture. 

Over the last century, humans have warmed the earth by 0.9 degrees Celsius by way of industrial expansion. Ahead of the Paris talks that begin Monday, the United Nations has projected that collectively we only have the willpower to cap further global warming at 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100 — but according to a benchmark arrived at by compromise between scientists and policymakers, we could trigger dangerous positive feedback warming if we exceed two degrees Celsius.

In Canada, that two-degree goal may be too high for communities resting on the already-melting Arctic permafrost and those near sea level and in flood-prone zones. And the warming the rest of the world will experience will be magnified by two-to-four times in Canada. We can expect more disastrous storms and extreme floods, and even Natural Resources Canada has acknowledged adaptation is a must.

Every aspect of how we live is at risk, and on the eve of the Paris climate summit, developed nations including Canada are asking: have we catastrophically screwed ourselves?

Right now, much of Canada's wealth is tied up in the same extractive industries that are also the number one contributor to GHG emissions. According to StatsCan, our extractive industries — mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction — contributed $139 billion (CAD) to Canada's GDP in 2014. That's just over 8 percent of the total GDP that year. Meanwhile, those same extractive sectors were the largest source of GHG emissions in 2013, accounting for 21.5 percent of the national total.

Each year, Canada provides $2.9 billion in fossil fuel subsidies, and while we have started to phase those out, we have also introduced new tax breaks for natural gas production. While there's a glimmer of hope now that our renewable energy sector has taken off, we still have a long way to go. After a dip in 2009, Canada's GHG emissions are increasing again, and it's unclear whether we will reach our 2020 Copenhagen target of 17 percent below 2005 levels, let alone any targets we set after Paris.

Given that reality, VICE News asked five Canadian climate experts: Are we screwed? Surprisingly, despite the doomsday scenarios, the resounding answer was no. At least not yet.

Andrew Leach, Chair of the Alberta Climate Change Panel and associate professor at the University of Alberta's School of Business

Are we screwed? I don't think so. There's a two-part answer to that question, and the Alberta Climate Change Panel spoke to one side of it, which is the mitigation of emissions, and there I think there's significant room for other jurisdictions to do better. We've laid out a map on how that can go.

The other side of the question is the adaptation and actual damages side, and I think there the answer really depends on what people do, other jurisdictions around the world, and the degree to which Canada can encourage more actions.

What we did in Alberta was put forward a balanced plan that says, If everyone in the world did what we're doing, it probably still wouldn't meet the goals that the world's putting out, but conversely, if Alberta on its own imposed a punitive carbon policy, what you'd see is two things: you'd see a lot of the emissions activity leave Alberta for other places and no real impact on climate change, but also you'd be setting a very dangerous precedent, which is demonstrating that climate change policy can have serious economic impact.

Related: Shocker: 2015 Is Going to Be the Hottest Year on Record

If we agree with the two degrees Celsius target, that gives you a carbon emissions budget for the next century or two that you wouldn't want to exceed. The most cost-effective ways to meet that goal are to drive the replacement of coal with natural gas and renewables, shift the transportation system as rapidly as possible off reliance on fossil fuels, and from there you also want to decarbonize the electricity system, and move from fossil-fuel generated heat to electric heat. That's the transition you've got to drive globally, and I think you can take that transition and apply it to local policies.

The economics here is pretty clear. It tells us that today, we're imposing significant costs on future generations and future versions of ourselves that outweigh the benefits of the things that we're doing. So, fundamentally the economic solution is bring those costs in and figure out how economic activity needs to change as you take account of those costs.

Pushing back against the 'are we screwed,' I'm not a doomsday clock kind of person, but I think you would look at this and say: Is this a problem that is going to have a meaningful impact on our lives? Yes. Is this a problem about which we can do something? Yes. Can we do something if we act on our own? No. But in doing something here in Alberta and in Canada, can we take a more meaningful role in pushing global action? I think absolutely, and all of the economic evidence suggests that that global action would have significant benefit.

Evacuees watch was a wildfire rages in Kelowna, British Columbia this year. Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Merran Smith, Executive Director of Clean Energy Canada, an initiative of the Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University

Why am I optimistic that we can get our shit together and solve the climate change problem? Because I think we've hit a tipping point. Clean energy used to be a 'nice to have,' an ideal, but it wasn't considered realistic to power the global economy. But some countries went ahead with it anyway and proved the naysayers wrong. Now there is momentum behind clean energy and that momentum isn't going to be stopped.

Here are some of the key reasons I'm optimistic. First, clean energy isn't boutique anymore, it's big business. Last year $790 billion was invested globally in renewable energy and clean energy technologies like energy efficiency. That is twice what was invested in fossil fuel-powered electricity last year. Clean energy is taking off.

Not only that but technology costs are dropping — wind, solar, electric vehicle batteries — and that means we get more energy, more benefit from each dollar invested. And those trends are going to continue.

Second, climate change is now real for people and something we can't ignore, and clean energy is one of the key climate solutions — a fact that the International Energy Agency and the Canadian Council of Academies have both reinforced recently. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is the path forward.

Finally, we're seeing real leadership from governments. Last year we saw China and the US — the top investors in clean energy — create a joint climate agreement, and now India has joined the energy transition and is going solar. Meanwhile in Canada, we have new federal leadership on climate change, provinces like Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario are taking climate action, and cities like Vancouver are committing to be 100 percent renewable.

This momentum is building and the transition to clean energy, both in Canada and around the world, is well underway. There's a strong incentive for us to figure out how to foster new innovation and new clean energy industries here in Canada, because those first into the game are going to be the winners.

So I don't think we're screwed at all, unless we choose to be. We have the solutions at hand, and people are now standing up and voicing their interest to be powered by clean renewable energy. The momentum is only growing on this one.

Alain Bourque, Ouranos atmospheric scientist who briefed the Prime Minister and premiers on climate change ahead of the Paris talks

Is it too late? No.

It's important to answer that question and make any decisions with the best science available, and according to the science, the climate has changed by about 0.9 degrees Celsius over the last 100 years, and especially over the last few decades. A good portion of the upcoming climate change depends on the emissions of greenhouse gases that humans generate through the combination of fossil fuels, deforestation, etc. So we still have a very strong influence on future climate change. If we take significant action to reduce greenhouse gases, we may be able to limit the climate change below two degrees Celsius, even maybe 1.5 degrees Celsius, if we're pretty drastic in our measures.

So we're not screwed — there's something to do.

On the other hand, there is already a certain amount of climate change that has occurred. There's actually 90 percent of the additional energy generated by climate change which is stored in the ocean, so this is added energy that will continue to influence the climate for the upcoming years, and greenhouse gases are also long lived in the atmosphere, so it means that we have witnessed 0.9 and we will witness more for sure. So we are not screwed, but we will suffer some of the early impacts linked with climate change.

Related: It's Pretty Obvious Not Enough Is Being Done Ahead of the Paris Climate Talks

So maybe I should say, we are partly screwed because of what we did before. We've already signed up for temperature increase, glaciers and permafrost melting, sea level rise and more natural disasters. Those trends are also amplified because of our approaches to land use planning, with big cities in coastal areas that are at risk.

Climate change in polar regions tends to be amplified by two or three times, so two degrees Celsius globally translates to three or four degrees Celsius in Canada, and maybe ever four to six degrees in the Arctic.

The two degree Celsius target represents a compromise between scientists and policy makers, but then it's a question of how much risk the society is willing to take.

I think the role of science is to provide relevant information but at the same time not to substitute to decisions that must be made by decision makers and by the population. Every scientist has their personal opinions on what should be done; our organization tries to provide the opinion of science and not necessarily the people behind the science.

Via Flickr Creative Commons user The Kids and Kahlie 

David Boyd, environmental lawyer and author

Contrary to conventional wisdom, we are definitely not screwed. It is people and places that are distant from us in space or time who will bear the brunt of future climate change impacts. I believe that from an ethical perspective, we are obligated to change our ways to protect their interests.

Some negative impacts of climate change are locked in for decades and centuries ahead because of humanity's burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and appetite for cheap meat. But the worst climate change impacts can be avoided by changing our actions, which for Canadians means reducing our energy use, switching as rapidly as possible from fossil fuels to renewables, protecting our forests, reducing wood and paper consumption, and switching to a predominantly plant-based diet.

There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. The massive shift from fossil fuels to renewables is happening faster than even the most wild-eyed greens anticipated. Investment in renewable electricity surpassed investment in new fossil fuel electricity in 2011 and has widened the gap since. Worldwide, installed solar electricity generating capacity doubles every thirty months, surpassing 200 gigawatts earlier this year. To put that number in perspective, consider two things: in the year 2000 the global total was one gigawatt; and the International Energy Agency, considered the world's foremost energy forecasting organization, estimated that with effective policies and bullish investment the world could reach seven gigawatts by 2020. In 2015, instead of being the global total, that volume is added to the grid every six weeks. Wind energy is also growing at an exponential rate.

New building codes enacted in Europe and California herald a revolution in construction, reducing energy demands for heating and cooling by 80 to 90 percent compared to current standards. Walking, cycling and public transit are growing rapidly in popularity, with nine in ten people commuting this way in leading cities like Stockholm. Car-sharing businesses are experiencing tremendous growth, with each shared vehicle replacing 10-to-20 private vehicles. Electric vehicles, which produce no direct carbon emissions and no indirect emissions if powered by renewables, are surging in popularity and comprise one in three new cars purchased in Norway.

Vancouver has a detailed new plan to become 100 percent renewable by 2050 — for electricity, buildings, and transportation — demonstrating that seemingly immense changes are economically, socially, and politically feasible. Even Alberta, home of the tar sands, just announced a significant carbon tax, the phase-out of coal-fired electricity, and other steps to reduce emissions. It's time to stop talking and accelerate the implementation of solutions.

Photo of David Suzuki via Flickr Creative Commons user Kris Krüg

David Suzuki, climate activist

Since 1988, there have been 20 COP meetings to hammer out a program to reduce the risk of climate change. That year, carbon dioxide levels passed 350 parts per million [ppm] for the first time, and climatologists meeting in Toronto called for a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gases in 15 years. Had we taken that target seriously, we would now be reaping a reduced threat of climate change and savings of tens of billions. But we didn't.

Instead, fossil fuel companies have spent tens of millions to sow public confusion labeling climate research "junk science," and suggesting current global warming is natural.

In 1997, at Kyoto's COP3 — CO2 363.7ppm — delegates agreed fossil fuel use primarily by industrialized nations had created climate change, and an emissions reduction of five-to-six percent below 1990 levels was needed by 2010 when all the other nations were brought on to the next target. Instead, atmospheric carbon passed 400ppm in 2015.

Canada is especially vulnerable to climate change as a northern country where greater warming occurs and sea level rise threatens the world's longest marine coastline. Costs are exploding from floods, drought and storms as well as climate disruption in agriculture, forestry, fisheries and tourism. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper's abrogation of our Kyoto commitment was an act of willful blindness, a repudiation of science and victory of climate denial.

Related: The World Is Paying a High Price for More Frequent Extreme Weather Events

If the past twenty COP meetings are an indication, we will fail in Paris because politicians must focus on reelection while corporations pursue profit. Unless confronted with an invasion from outer space, delegates will not subordinate their political and economic agendas for all of humanity.

However, there is a sliver of hope for serious action. People around the world are seeing changes directly related to climate, calls for action are becoming more urgent as our worst predictions come true, the world's biggest emitters, China and the US, have both acknowledged the risks and are promising to mitigate them, and Pope Francis has challenged all humankind with his magnificent, inspiring encyclical.

COP21 will fail if 195 nations attempt to negotiate through the perspective of 195 national borders and 195 economic agendas. We cannot shoehorn nature to fit our economic and political needs. Negotiations must focus on creating economic and political tools to achieve that goal in a fair and equitable way. The Pope has issued the challenge: can we act together as a single species? 

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont