Paris deal on firmer ground than Kyoto, experts say

December 14, 2015
Ottawa Citizen
By: Tom Spears

Close observers of the Paris agreement on climate say that this deal — unlike the disastrous Kyoto Protocol of 1997 — has working technology behind it, and we stand a chance of keeping our promises to the planet.

“There’s a level of political commitment to this in Canada that was never there” for past climate agreements, said Stewart Elgie, an environmental law professor who chairs the climate think tank Sustainable Prosperity.

After the 1997 Kyoto agreement, provinces were reluctant to get involved, he said. Today many are leading the way: British Columbia with its carbon tax, Ontario by closing coal-fired generating stations, Alberta promising to close its coal plants.

Technology has also matured, making renewable electricity and electric cars more commercially practical today than they were in the 1990s, Elgie said.

“There is much more economic momentum behind this,” though he cautions that changes will take decades.

He sees business as a leader in the low-carbon drive as well, with many already pricing carbon prices into their long-range plans in order to thrive as low-carbon rules take over.

There are two main ways in which Canada’s economy must change: Getting away from fossil fuels to run vehicles and to generate electricity, he argues.

“Changing those two things will do most of the heavy lifting … The big challenge there is going to be power storage,” and he predicts that someone’s going to get rich by making power storage work.

The costs of solar power have fallen by 60 per cent in the past six years “and solar power in many places is almost competitive with coal,” he said.

As well, electric car battery prices have fallen to where they are approaching being competitive with gasoline and diesel engines.

These prices “make it possible to believe we can really do this, in a way that wasn’t possible 15 years ago. We can reduce our carbon footprint while maintaining a good quality of life.”

Clean Energy Canada, a non-governmental organization that promotes renewable energy, also believes the falling prices for renewables are key to making the Paris deal work.

“The technology is available, it’s cost-competitive, and what we need is a plan. And that’s the missing piece from the times before, really,” said the group’s executive director, Merran Smith.

“We need to phase out the coal, first, and phase out the (natural) gas. We need transmission lines between provinces that have hydro storage and provinces with a lot of renewables.”

Step One should be to end coal-burning in Alberta and Saskatchewan and replace them with wind and solar power, Smith said. She also predicts an end to gas- and oil-fired house furnaces.

Catherine McKenna, minister of the Environment and Climate Change who led the Canadian delegation in Paris, said the agreement “sets the stage for us to build a greener economy, one that is full of opportunities for our businesses and for individuals.

McKenna said what makes the Paris agreement different is the fact that it “brings big and small, rich and poor countries to the table … it sends a signal to the world that the international community and governments are committed to building a long lasting solution.

“We will have targets, we will have to report on them in a transparent manner, and review and improve them every five years to make sure that we limit global average temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and striving for 1.5 degree Celsius.”

One observer who is skeptical about our technical ability to phase out coal, gas and oil is Tom Adams, a Toronto energy analyst.

While he sees many of the new technologies as useful in our economy, he doesn’t believe they are powerful enough to let us use all the electricity we want, day or night.

For instance, battery technology is improving, but only by “little tweaks,” he said — not enough to let an electric car perform as well as a gasoline-powered car.

“The notion that some kind of sodium-sulphur battery, or something, is going to come along and knock our socks off and double the efficiency — that’s just not happening.

“Solar has an exciting future, but it does not, I’m convinced, have a future as grid electricity supply” — i.e. the main electrical supply that’s available all the time to everyone. “The primary reason is that most people want electricity after dark,” which requires storing electricity during the daytime. He says this large-scale storage, too, needs development.

Adams also says that pricing fossil energy higher to make us use less will hurt the poorest people in society more than anyone else.

“The climate change activists (say) that we can de-carbonize without punishing the poor and the unemployed. I don’t buy it. I think the poor and unemployed have a lot of skin in this game and I do not see a credible case that (they) would be anything but disastrously impacted by any kind of rapid de-carbonization.”

And given the choice, many people still prefer a big, powerful car or truck if they can afford to fuel it, Adams said. “Horsepower envy is real.”

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About the Project

The goal of this project is to shed light on the relationship between economic activity and the environment by exploring the linkages between changes in our natural capital and our measures of productivity generally, and through the construction of an environmentally adjusted measure of productivity specifically.

While it is now commonly accepted that economic activity and the state of our environment are linked, many economic measures still fail to incorporate the environment – both the things we draw from it and the pollution we release into it. By developing and calculating measures of productivity that include natural capital, Canada may be able to better understand these linkages. This, in turn, may lead to the identification of strategies that can help Canada become more efficient and innovative in the use and protection of natural capital, and thus more productive and more prosperous.

Using the forestry sector as a case study, this project aims to construct an environmentally adjusted measure of multifactor productivity. In doing so, we aim to add another layer of understanding to the environmental and economic performance of this sector. The proposed measure will have relevance to the Canadian economy as a whole.