Nov 27, 2008

Setting sustainability and environmental targets (1): Recent announcements on GHG emissions

The science, or rather the art, of setting targets for sustainable societies and reducing greenhouse gases depends a great deal on who is doing that and their context. In setting these kinds of targets, governments -- for the sake of their survival -- need to tread carefully and balance the need for addressing the threat and reducing the risks and costs of climate change, with potential disruptions of their domestic economy.

Last week saw two major pronouncements on targets to address climate change: President-elect Obama’s address to the Bi-partisan Governors Global Climate Summit in Los Angeles, and the Speech From the Throne by the Canadian Governor General to open the new session of parliament with the re-elected conservative government of Stephen Harper.

Obama pulled no punches in describing the urgency of combating climate change: “The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Sea levels are rising. Coastlines are shrinking. We've seen record drought, spreading famine, and storms that are growing stronger with each passing hurricane season.”

But for Obama, the challenge of climate change is also closely linked to the US’s dependency on foreign oil, and “if left unaddressed, will continue to weaken our economy and threaten our national security.”

As the largest US provider of oil, the Canadian position is somewhat different. It’s difficult for any Canadian government at this time to set climate change targets and ignore the strong regional and wealth generating dimensions of the oil industry. So this explains the more nuanced approach in Governor General Michelle Jean’s Speech From the Throne of November 19. It states that "economic prosperity cannot be sustained without a healthy environment, just as environmental progress cannot be achieved without a healthy economy."

The speech recognizes that Canadians need “affordable and reliable energy” and that energy “is a source of wealth and Canadian jobs” but that there's also a need for "cleaner energy sources". It talks about Northern natural gas pipelines and nuclear energy. No mention of oilsands or carbon capture and sequestration.

It also reiterates the government's target of "reducing Canada's total greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020". This position was first announced by then Minister of Environment John Baird in 2007.

Obama on the other hand, promises to “start a federal cap and trade system. We will establish strong annual targets that set us on a course to reduce emissions totheir 1990 levels by 2020 and reduce them an additional 80% by 2050.”

The Pembina Institute compared several targets for reducing GHGs. With regards to Canada’s targets of reducing GHG emissions “to 20% below the 2006 level by 2020, and to 60-70% below the 2006 level by 2050”, they note that “this would leave Canada’s emissions about 2% above the 1990 level in 2020 and would reduce them to 49-62% below the 1990 level by 2050”, i.e. well above the Obama targets.

They continue: “Other nations have already committed to targets more closely aligned with the science. The European Union's governments have made a unilateral commitment to reduce their emissions to 20% below the 1990 level by 2020. If other developed nations make comparable commitments, the EU says that it will strengthen its 2020 target to 30% below the 1990 level.
“In the longer term, California has committed to reduce its emissions to 80% below the 1990 level by 2050, and France to 75-80% below the 2004 level (which was slightly below the 1990 level). Even more ambitiously, Norway is proposing to be “carbon neutral” – or to make a 100% reduction in its emissions – by 2050.

“Based on a detailed analysis presented in our report The Case for Deep Reductions, Pembina believes that the Government of Canada should adopt targets to reduce Canada's net GHG emissions to 25% below the 1990 level by 2020 and 80% below the 1990 level by 2050. Given the scale of the challenge, Canada must start working towards these targets immediately. Any delay will almost certainly result in greater costs over the long term.”

Now, our study “Making it happen – the transition to a sustainable society” of course is not limited by political constraints. Our approach is to define plausible, hypothetical but stretch targets for reaching sustainability in 50 to 100 years. The idea is to use these to identify and explore the institutional barriers that impede the deployment of innovation and change to reach these targets and reduce the effects of climate change. And that is our major focus.

So in the next few posts, we will further explore various sets of targets and arrive at a reasonable selection of hypothetical but stretch objectives and metrics for a region like Ottawa Gatineau to make it a sustainable society. Stay tuned.

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