Jens Wieting: Canadians must force provincial governments into action on global warming

From June 6 to 17, governments are meeting in Bonn, Germany, for the second round of the UN talks on global warming, preparing for the coming major conference in Durban, South Africa, at the end of this year. By confirming that it will reject a new Kyoto Protocol, the Canadian government once more joined the small group of countries that are undermining efforts to develop a meaningful international framework to tackle global warming in the little time that is left before the existing Kyoto protocol ends in 2012.

As pointed out in a 2010 Nature article, Canada is the “only country that both weakened its ambitions in the course of the negotiations, and effectively argued for an increase of 2020 emission allowances above its current Kyoto Protocol target: 3% above instead of 6% below 1990 levels.” With a Conservative majority in Ottawa, it is as sure as rising temperatures that global warming activists will give the Canadian government another four consecutive “fossil of the year” awards at international climate conferences.

Scientists are telling us that pledges to reduce emissions since the Copenhagen summit are insufficient and will lead to catastrophic warming of more than three degrees. This will likely lead to further warming because of forest die-off, methane release from permafrost, and other responses of the Earth system that will continue to kick in as we pass certain warming thresholds.

Meanwhile, annual global emissions are rising. According to the International Energy Agency, 2010 saw a new record of 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere, mainly from burning fossil fuels, 1.6 Gt more than 2009. More extreme weather events and their consequences are hitting various parts of the world, with record setting tornadoes, floods, droughts and fires in various parts of North America and drought in Europe. 2010 saw unprecedented flooding in Pakistan and Australia, as well as another extreme drought in the Amazon.

Despite the ongoing gridlock caused by Canada and a few other obstructive nations, other countries lead the way, both in terms of delivering emission reductions, and setting new, relatively ambitious targets to reduce emissions further. For example, while Canada’s emissions rose by 25 percent between 1990 and 2005—the biggest percentage increase among G8 countries—the United Kingdom has reduced its carbon emissions by close to 20 percent since 1990. Last month, the U.K. set a new target of a 50 percent reduction by 2025.

In the United States, the member states of the Western Climate Initiative and many major cities are stepping up to the plate to fill, to a certain extent, the gap left by the federal government’s refusal to tackle global warming. Similarly, in Canada the provincial and territorial level is now, by default, the logical place to set the right targets and take action to reduce emissions.

Within the North American context, British Columbia has, until recently, been considered a leader on global warming policy. However, the latest scientific findings show that even B.C.’s once lauded emission reduction target does not set standards required to avoid dangerous global warming.

Unfortunately, in her recent open letter to British Columbians , B.C. premier Christy Clark only reconfirmed that the province will follow the path that has been laid out for the carbon tax until 2012, and continue to develop policies to meet the legislated targets to reduce our carbon emissions 33 percent by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050, compared to 2007.

The confirmation of previously announced policy decisions by the B.C. government is simply not enough. New information about the scope of the climate crisis requires adjustments and enhancements of B.C.’s global warming policy.

Global warming threatens life on the planet as we know it. Indeed, the future of B.C. families and a healthy economy depend on our ability to protect the environment and mitigate climate change.

British Columbia, with its abundant natural resources in a vast province with a relatively small population, has both a unique opportunity and a global responsibility to reduce emissions effectively and in a way that can serve as a model for other jurisdictions.

The latest provincial greenhouse gas emissions data shows that B.C.’s emissions are still on the rise, despite the stated goal to reduce emissions. The official provincial account also fails to report the significant emissions from burning fossil fuels extracted in B.C. and exported to other jurisdictions, as well as the carbon loss caused by degradation of our provincial forests, mainly from logging.

The challenge of global warming requires us to adjust provincial global warming policy in a way that British Columbians expect and deserve. To make a meaningful contribution to the fight against global warming, B.C. must:

• Adjust provincial emission reduction targets by choosing the internationally agreed-to baseline year 1990 (instead of 2007);

• Use provincial influence at the federal level to support an extension of the Kyoto Protocol with appropriate reduction targets to stay below two degrees of warming;

• Expand and adjust the carbon tax to achieve effective and fair results and use revenues to accelerate action to tackle global warming;

• Expedite the introduction of an ambitious cap and trade system within the Western Climate Initiative, dovetailing with B.C.’s carbon tax;

• Support carefully planned renewable energy projects and energy conservation programs;

• Phase out subsidies for fossil fuel industries and count emissions caused by fossil fuels extracted in B.C. as part of B.C.’s annual carbon emissions tally;

• Support the existing moratorium on oil tanker traffic in B.C.’s inner waters and oppose pipelines conveying oil products to and from the B.C. coast;

• Develop new regulations and incentives for increased marine and terrestrial conservation to protect natural carbon sinks and allow species a better chance to adapt to a changing climate.

As other countries have demonstrated, an ambitious global warming policy creates green jobs, reduces energy bills in the long term and tackles other forms of pollution. British Columbia has taken some initial steps but has yet to demonstrate that we can make real progress in slashing emissions, as other jurisdictions have already done.

British Columbia might see an election as early as this fall and only those political parties that develop the most sound policies on global warming, without gambling with the planet and our children, should be considered fit for government.

Jens Wieting is the forest campaigner for Sierra Club B.C.