Mitigating Climate Change

The pressure to meet international goals will be Canada’s biggest policy challenge going forward, say Michael Howlett and Nigel Kinney.
By: /
June 11, 2014
Burnaby Mountain Chair in the Department of Political Science at Simon Fraser University

Following intense debate over Canada’s use of its own natural resources and the conduct of its mining companies abroad, the Canadian International Council is curating a project on natural resources over the next five weeks to examine Canada’s future policy environment for domestic resource extraction, energy security, and international regulatory standard-setting. The project will glean its insights from a variety of stakeholders from government, the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations in order to present a number of perspectives to better explain the challenges that we face moving forward and to delve into some of the controversial aspects of international, national, and provincial politics.

Below is the second response from Professor Michael Howlett and Nigel Kinney of Simon Fraser University discussing what they consider the greatest challenge facing policymakers in Ottawa vis-à-vis Canadian policy concerning natural resources.

Currently, the greatest challenge facing Canadian policymakers, like all others throughout the world, is climate change. The pressure to meet international climate change goals represents Canada’s largest challenge for policymakers in both the short, medium, and long-term. No government or country is immune from changes caused by climate change and Canada, as one of the world’s largest Arctic countries, is especially vulnerable to changes associated with global warming. Dealing with these issues requires careful, long-term thinking based on excellent data and analysis as well as joint efforts with partners around the globe dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dealing with the consequences—otherwise known as “climate change mitigation and adaptation” measures.

Canada was in an enviable situation to generate the kind of support and forward thinking needed to deal with these issues until very recently. The current government, however, in its single-minded pursuit of extraction of oil from the world’s largest energy project, the Alberta heavy Oil (Tar) Sands, has destroyed much of Canada’s own analytical capacity and the international goodwill required to deal with the climate change issues affecting this country. Put simply, the extraction process of the Athabasca oil sands is more complicated than the ‘traditional’ drilling methods. These complex extraction methods of surface mining and steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) require significantly greater consumption of water and natural gas. And the effect of the sale and use of this oil on greenhouse gas emissions is also enormous. Instead of measuring these impacts, the Harper government has systematically gutted the analytical capacity of federal departments through cuts to Statistics Canada and layoffs of government research scientists and the muzzling of those that remain at work. In addition, successive rounds of stealth amendments to key environmental protection legislation in the guise of budget bills have exempted most tar sands and associated pipeline construction from environmental assessments and regulations. Meanwhile, opting out of the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, the only viable international vehicle for joint action in this area, has destroyed Canada’s credibility of climate change issues worldwide.

Environmentalists are currently pushing for “full cost accounting” which would add social and, vitally, environmental costs to the standard cost-benefit formulas used by governments to determine project feasibility. If implemented, these accounting standards would drastically change the (perceived) costs of the natural resource extraction, which may aid in climate change prevention. Environmental full cost accounting (EFCA) also holds the potential to help policymakers account for climate change impacts in all of their policy decisions. With that said, there is no sign from the current government that it will support any such initiative while many analyst’s underline Ottawa’s opposition to anything that might stand in the way of increased resource exports, whatever the cost.

The shortsighted fixation of the government on facilitating Alberta-based (its home constituency) tar sands ‘development’ underscores Ottawa’s failure to realize that climate change presents challenges to Canada and Canadians that far exceed the current challenges of oil sands exploitation and profiteering. Climate scientists’ models predict that Canadian policymakers will be forced to make drastic changes to reduce the impact of the climate alterations. The impacts of climate change will be far reaching, impacting all Canadians no matter where they live and not just industries that rely on Canadian natural resources for inputs in the governing party’s home province. The longer Ottawa waits to address climate change in a serious manner, the more difficult it becomes for future policymakers to address the challenges down the road.