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Restoring the National Climate Change Process

Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Shortly after, the National Climate Change Process was set up to bring provinces, industry, environmental groups and ordinary Canadians together to study ways to meet the goals of Kyoto in reducing greenhouse gases prior to Canada ratifying the treaty. 

I'm a participant in the National Climate Change Process of the Government of Canada. I was a member of the Technology Issue Table. I recently reviewed the federal Climate Change Plan for Canada as a member of the Integrative Group.  I am sad to see how political imperatives have overtaken a thoughtful process that was inclusive of the provinces and other stakeholders and replaced it with a hastily prepared federal plan aimed at promoting and securing ratification of Kyoto.  The plan will be put to parliament for discussion and a vote of support before December 13. There is no rational reason to be in such a rush to ratify Kyoto. 

The Climate Change Plan for Canada is a master of compromise and salesmanship. It includes a number of efficiency and conservation "measures" intended to please Kyoto advocates. Alberta and industry concerns are countered with a generous allocation of freely issued emission permits. The proposed measures may do little to reduce emissions in Canada. Not to worry. Canada can buy emission permits and reduction credits from the international market, thus providing financial help to other countries. The plan flexibly suggests needed financing could come from current programs.  Thus international credits might be purchased with funding currently directed to other forms of foreign aid. The cost to consumers is estimated to be essentially zero aside from making some personal effort to reduce emissions by one tonne annually - perhaps by buying a new more fuel-efficient car. Some measures to initiate the development of technology are cited. This plan seemingly fits all.  

Unfortunately, the plan will likely not work beyond its first goal of ensuring the ratification of Kyoto. The efficiency improvement   proposals of the plan seem an obvious way to go, as they can indeed reduce an individual's use of energy for the specified applications. However, history tells us that energy efficiency improvements do not reduce overall societal energy use. Steam engines of 200 years ago were less than 1 % efficient. The current day equivalent gas turbine power plant approaches 60% efficiency. Where have emissions gone? Up and up. Increased efficiency leads to new applications for energy. For example, humans developed huge inefficient expensive computers about 50 years ago. Now they are small, efficient, cheap, numerous and collectively use significant electrical energy. It seems efficiency improvements ultimately lead to the development of the technology, increasing population, and the use of even more energy. 

International credits for CO2 emissions may be available at low cost initially. Canada's federal plan envisages they will be available for $10/tonne during the Kyoto period and also evaluates the economic impact of a $50/tonne cost. These costs will do little to change Canadians behavior to actually reduce emissions in Canada. At $10/tonne we can buy Canada's entire emission reduction target of 240 million tonnes for $2.4 billion per year. This is trivial in comparison with our trillion-dollar economy. Even at $50/tonne, Canadians could buy permits for all of the emissions from a car for about $250/year. Again this is trivial with respect to the overall operating cost of a car. The federal plan therefore implies we can go ahead more or less with "business as usual", happily increasing our emissions with little personal cost. However, it seems inevitable, as constraints on emissions are tightened to achieve a global cap on them, that they will become very scarce and precious - likely very suddenly.  

This brings us to the third main aspect of the plan - the development of greenhouse gas reduced clean energy technology. It is the technology component of the plan to meet Kyoto that seems to arouse the most controversy between our federal and provincial governments and has led to the breakdown of communication between them. A long lead-time is needed to develop, prove and deploy new technology. Alberta has come forth with one alternative plan that recognizes this and seeks to extend timelines for such development.  So far there seems little effort to consider such proposals as our federal government embarks on unilateral action to ratify Kyoto. 

Energy is essential to life on earth. Our society depends on, and has been built on, the production and use of energy for human benefit.  Canadians have been at the forefront of harnessing energy sources. The federal plan, in its fine print, does recognize "that larger emissions reductions will be required over the longer term, and that this will require more than efficiency in our use of fossil fuels. It will also require improved reliance on cleaner energy."  

The technology development goals spelled out in the plan seem inadequate to meet this challenge. A very significant program of clean energy development is needed if we are to maintain the global atmosphere anywhere near current carbon dioxide content. Major established sources of clean energy such as hydropower, and nuclear fission require further development and deployment to achieve their full potential.  The technology of sequestration of emissions from fossil fuels and nuclear fusion are both promising technologies warranting very substantial research and development. Wind power, and perhaps even direct use of solar energy will prove useful in the very long run although many proponents feel they will able to sustain only a much-reduced global population. Biological sinks have considerable potential. So -called "enabling" technologies such as hydrogen production and distribution for use in fuel cells promise to extend the use of energy from these large stationary, and sometimes intermittent, energy sources to transportation. Canada has a good start on developing many of these. Much more research and development effort is needed. 

There is an urgent need to restore the National Climate Change Process. Canadians are being led into an international treaty with very little understanding of the need or the consequences. Governments, industry, and the public must work together on a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is a global problem requiring a global solution. Commitment to Kyoto may not be the best way for Canada to proceed.  Canada might be more effective in bringing this about in some kind of partnership with the United States. Provision for the possibility that greenhouse gas emissions are not driving climate change should be explicitly included. Alternatives should be considered in depth before we make a final commitment to Kyoto. 

Embarking on the management of greenhouse gases is a major step for Canada, perhaps second only to our commitment to the Second World War. At that time decisions had to be made on an urgent basis.  We still have time to plan the best response to the climate change issue. The first commitment period for Kyoto does not start for five years.  

Minister Anderson stated a few weeks ago "Provinces will be Provinces" in relation to concerns voiced. That implied greater wisdom from our federal government parent. Wise federal political leaders and parliamentarians will step back from their self-imposed brink of ratification before Christmas. If another year or more of consultation and study is needed to establish a Canadian plan consistent with the global nature of the problem - so be it.

(Dr. Duane Pendergast, Ph.D., P. Eng. is a mechanical engineer who has been studying the climate change process since the 1990ís.  He served   the   federal governments National Climate Change Process as a member of the Technology Issue Table. He currently represents the Canadian Nuclear Association on the Integrative Group, another advisory committee under the umbrella of the National Climate Change Process.)

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