Bill Henderson: Climate mitigation—leadership, business leadership, is required

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      By Bill Henderson

      Promised Canadian climate mitigation is failing.

      The Trudeau government will be the fifth consecutive Canadian government to promise needed climate mitigation but then do nothing effective to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a scale now required. (As well, it's doing everything within its power to ramp up Canadian fossil-fuel production.)

      Effective emission reduction within an energy transition to a thriving post-carbon economy is still possible. But our government is just time wasting—refusing to take climate change as seriously as it should, given the probable implications of failure for Canadians.

      Canada must be a climate leader in that we have a very fortunate way of life to lose if the worst consequences of human-induced warming occur. Despite producing fewer than two percent of global emissions, Canada has a very high per capita carbon footprint and we are one of the world's largest fossil-fuel producers.

      We are wealthy and competent—we could make the transition and we have more to lose if we don't. We could also be fortunately positioned to profit if we lead in development of that post-carbon economy.

      If you agree that instead of failure we need effective emission reduction, here's the hard part:

      * it will take an emergency coalition government;

      * the mitigation path must be a regulated wind-down of fossil-fuel production and use;

      * and business must stop being the major impediment and lead.

      Effective climate mitigation isn't possible in our present business-as-usual approach to politics and economics.

      Governments globally have agreed to wear a "golden straitjacket" to protect investment into the future.

      Trade agreements and fierce trade competition constrain governments from facilitating now-needed disruptive change.

      We must protect investment and the health of the economy, but disruptive change is now mandatory for the speed and scale of the energy transition required.

      There would have to be broad cross-party support in a coalition, wartime-style government. There would have to be negotiated agreement with our trading partners that emission reductions must now come first.

      There would have to be agreement between all Canadian governments that effective emission reduction must come first to preserve the basis for all our economies.

      The main mitigation path must now be a regulated wind-down of all fossil-fuel production—and importation—on a carbon-budget schedule following the McGlade-Ekins approach.

      The present mitigation path—decarbonization aided by weak carbon pricing—will just keep fossil fuels in the game for far too long. (Check out International Energy Agency, Energy Information Administration, or industry projections of little-changed fossil-fuel use even past 2040. However, to stay under a 2° C global rise in temperature, emissions must be cut by at least 75 percent by 2040.)

      This pretend mitigation, instead of effective treatment, could prove fatal—like not really stopping smoking or not sticking to a treatment regime when the doctor says you must.

      Business would have to lead; there will be no effective mitigation with business continuing to be the main force opposing needed climate action. Business would have to accept that there has to be creative destruction on the path to a safe post-carbon economy and that disruptive change is in everybody's long-term best interest—including the most rabid antiregulation ideologues.

      A regulated wind-down could not only be effective—the best path to reducing greenhouse gas emissions at a scale now needed—but would also be also the best mitigation path for using and protecting our market-based governance.

      A regulated wind-down would provide the necessary strong, certain signal to markets but under an agreement that life will go on, and that our social and market evolution will continue. But now, it would be with a real climate solution factored in and, hopefully, enabling optimal use of the remaining fossil-fuel production allowed.

      The coalition government would regulate production and do what's necessary to stabilize the economy, save capital and sunk costs, end subsidies, et cetera, and make sure that nobody would be left behind. Investors and innovators in still functioning markets would do the heavy lifting on the transition and earn their fair share of reward after the primary goal of effective mitigation with real emission reduction is achieved.

      Our shared vision should be a return to prosperity in our regular market economy.

      It's late and our government is intent on wasting precious time. There is no leadership in taking climate change seriously and putting alternative mitigation paths and governance possibilities on the menu for public debate. This is a deadly trap that keeps us from taking needed action.

      What is needed is agreement that we now have only pretend mitigation for a problem that is threatening to become fatal. We need leadership—especially from the business community—to finally take climate seriously and take action necessary to protect all we know and love, and that includes protecting our economic evolution.

      We need leadership in confronting the reasons why we have failed over the past three decades. We need leadership in opening up the debate about what effective emission reduction entails.

      We need leadership in helping governments globally rise to the occasion with real action to protect all of our futures. We need leadership urgently.

      Getty Images/iStock

      Climate analysts highlight scope of the challenge

      "Despite the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally if we are to lower the risks of catastrophic climate change, wealthy industrialised nations persist with a widespread public silence on the issue and fail to address climate change. This is despite there being ever more conclusive evidence of its severity. Why is there an undercurrent of inaction, despite the challenge of climate change being ever more daunting? One element is denial."

      Kari Marie Norgaard, University of Oregon sociologist and author of Living In Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life

      "George Marshall discovered that there has not been a single proposal, debate or even position paper on limiting fossil fuel production put forward during international climate negotiations. From the very outset fossil fuel production lay outside the frame of the discussions and, as with other forms of socially constructed silence, the social norms among the negotiators and policy specialists kept it that way.”

      George Monbiot, Guardian columnist and author of Heat: How We Can Stop the Planet from Burning

      "Global climate leadership is being redefined. There is a growing recognition that you cannot be a climate leader if you continue to enable new fossil fuel production, which is inconsistent with climate limits. If no major producers step up to stop the expansion of extraction and begin phasing out existing fields and mines, the Paris goals will become increasingly difficult to achieve. Wealthy fossil fuel producers have a responsibility to lead, and this must include planning for a just and equitable managed decline of existing production."

      The Sky's Limit California: Why the Paris Climate Goals Demand that California Lead in a Managed Decline of Oil Extraction

      "The (emissions reduction) curve we’ve been forced onto bends so steeply, that the pace of victory is part of victory itself. Winning slowly is basically the same thing as losing outright. We cannot afford to pursue past strategies, aimed at limited gains towards distant goals. In the face of both triumphant denialism and predatory delay, trying to achieve climate action by doing the same things, the same old ways, means defeat. It guarantees defeat."

      futurist Alex Steffen

      "A fast, emergency-scale transition to a post-fossil fuel world is absolutely necessary to address climate change. But this is excluded from consideration by policymakers because it is considered to be too disruptive. The orthodoxy is that there is time for an orderly economic transition within the current short-termist political paradigm. Discussion of what would be safeless warming that we presently experienceis non-existent. And so we have a policy failure of epic proportions. Policymakers, in their magical thinking, imagine a mitigation path of gradual change, to be constructed over many decades in a growing, prosperous world."

      David Spratt and Ian Dunlop, authors of Disaster Alley: Climate Conflict & Risk and What Lies Beneath: The Scientific Understatement of Climate Risks

      "It is genuinely difficult to wrap your head around the scale of action needed to avoid catastrophic changes in the climate. It would mean an immediate, sustained global mobilization of a sort that has no precedent in human history. If something like that mobilization were to happen, it would not be gentle or pretty. It would not unfold according to the best-laid plans of wonks. Some people, landscapes, and legitimately worthwhile priorities would suffer in the short- to mid-term."

      David Roberts, climate journalist with Vox

      Bill Henderson is a long-time Canadian climate activist.

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