Canada’s Climate Dilemma
Bill C-12 fails to confront the essence of what drives Canadian emissions: growth.
November 2020 marks a momentous month in the Canadian fight against climate change. Parliament has officially tabled what will be the country’s most ambitious climate change law to date, Bill C-12. If passed, the C-12, known as the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, will require all future federal governments to present legally binding plans to hit emissions targets that bring Canada to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
C-12 is complex, but at its core it creates an advisory body that will be required to make policy recommendations on meeting five year emission reduction plan, and the Commissioner for Environment and Sustainable Development will be required to present reports on how to implement those policies. That reporting and plan-offering is the crux of the legal requirement.
In contrast, the bill offers no legal ramifications for failing those plans. There’s nothing that holds the government accountable for following through what it recommends. There is no enforcement mechanism. In other words, it legally requires the government to showcase ambition.
And ambitious the Canadian government has been. Climate change has been on the government agenda for decades, and billions of dollars have already been invested in plans to decarbonize the economy. As far back as 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Canada pledged to lower its total emissions. It has failed every target by a wide margin.
A federally mandated carbon tax has been in place for over a year, while a host of green subsidies, renewed emissions standards, and educational programs have been showered onto the Canadian public. Yet the country’s total annual emissions have remained stubbornly high. When Canada ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2002, emissions by 2020 were supposed to be 30% lower than 1990 levels. By 2019, they were 20% higher. Canada’s Paris Climate Conference goals are similarly behind schedule. It remains one of few developed countries ranked as highly insufficient by the Climate Action Tracker.
Growth as a Priority
Fundamentally, Bill C-12 — and others like it — exists in isolation from the broader trends that drive Canadian emissions. It fails to mention the key to what is making Canada’s emissions goals so impassable: growth.
In most developed countries like Canada, advancements in efficiency and wider green technology is consistently outstripped by overall growth. While meaningful green investments have been put in place that have brought down per capita emissions, the Canadian economy has almost doubled in size since 1990, while the population has expanded by 35%. The country has simply grown much faster than the technological progress needed to proportionally green our lives. Despite vehicles today being more efficient than they were in 1990, there are far more of them on the road.
It remains a stubborn fact that emissions remain closely tied to overall economic activity. Despite being a key issue in the climate fight, no meaningful progress having been made to decouple the two factors. A 2015 study found that on average, a 1% percent growth in GDP leads to a 0.5% to 0.8% increase in carbon emissions. If the global economy were to continue growing at 3% a year, as it had been doing up until 2020, it will double in size by 2043, with a proportional increase in emissions.
With Bill C-12, the Canadian government is calling for unprecedented emissions reductions, the same way it did in 1992 and again in 2015 with the Paris Agreement. But it doesn’t want to get rid of the growth-oriented paradigm of globalized capitalism that has historically underlined its prosperity.
While the reasons for Canada’s poor showings with international climate agreements are complex, this is the simplest explanation for why Canada has failed its Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen, and Paris goals. The Canadian government prioritizes GDP growth above all else.
You might claim such a position to be reprehensible in light of what we know about climate change, but in truth it’s a virtually impossible dilemma. Of course the government prioritizes growth. Moments in which national GDPs stay stagnant or meaningfully shrink for extended periods are characterized as major crises. We are still feeling the financial, psychological, and cultural after effects of the 2008 Great Recession. That recession led to an 11% drop in US emissions between 2007 and 2013 and a smaller drop in Canada. COVID has similarly led to a 7% drop. In order for Canada to hit net zero in 2050, emissions need to drop by 7.5% every year.
I want a house. I want to travel. I want children. I want to live a life that’s at least materially equivalent to that of my parents. Is that so much to ask? In the context of the climate crisis, it is. Grossly. Our level of consumption and energy doesn’t just need to stop growing, it needs to go down. People can’t just swap out their gasoline-powered cars for electrics ones, they can’t buy new cars at all. Yet if we want to be serious about our emissions, we need to stop growing so fast. In fact, the Canadian economy needs to shrink.
The Canadian government must be willing to ask me to make these sacrifices. And when I don’t, it needs to force me. Bill C-12 doesn’t allude to these hard realities, let alone seriously act upon them. It makes no mention of how to plan for the profound social and economic impact that will affect Canadian workers. A meaningful emissions plan must include serious proposals to limit total energy usage, not just provide money to transition existing energy technology.
No politician is ready to utter the words ‘we need to shrink our economy’. While the national carbon tax has been designed to curb consumption habits, it’s the tip of the iceberg for the sort of paradigm shift that needs to take place.
Is a De-growth Path Even Possible?
A November 2020 study, ‘Providing Decent Living with Minimum Energy: A Global Scenario’, adds clarity to this. It posits that escaping climate destruction and creating a sustainable economy is indeed possible, and can lead to a ‘decent’ living for everyone around the world. The catch though is that global consumption levels would need to be 60% lower than what they are today, and crucially, require a 95% reduction in consumption levels among high developed countries.
That means no more flying. No more red meat. No more globalized supply chains, and no more same day deliveries. Once the global carbon budget is reached, that’s it.
While these changes would be valiant and necessary, in a material sense they would manifest as an unprecedented drop in living standards for the vast majority of the developed world’s population. It would be rightfully seen as act of aggressive class warfare, as the staples of life that we’ve become used to are taken away from all but the wealthiest.
This is a tragic set of circumstances. Despite all the hardship that such a decline would require, it is still morally and economically preferable to 2° or 4° warmer world. The people writing Canadian legislation are aware of this. They write the laws they do because they are bound by the laws of politics in addition to physics, and recognize that what they really need to ask of us is a political unreality.
At least it is for now. The clock is ticking.