Election 2015: action needed on climate change, expert says

U of T's John Kirton says carbon taxes, consultation are not enough

Whoever wins the federal election must “move further and faster” to outlaw the use of major carbon pollutants, especially coal and methane, says political science professor John Kirton.

Kirton, director of the G7 Research Group at the Munk School of Global Affairs, is co-author of a new book, The Global Governance of Climate Change, with the Munk School's Ella Kokotsis. In its first sentence the book describes climate change as “arguably the most compelling global issue of our time.” 

Climate change shares with nuclear war the prospect of ending human life. But there is a distinction. Preventing nuclear war, Kirton points out, requires the rational behaviour of a handful of leaders. “With climate change it’s all of us all the time, every day and every way.”

The scientific consensus is overwhelming, Kirton says, that catastrophic climate change can be avoided only if we limit the rise in the mean surface temperature to two degrees Celsius above the levels that prevailed at the start of the Industrial Revolution. “We’ve already used up about half of that allowance,” he points out, “and it’s going up, up, up pretty fast.”

It is essential, he says, to outlaw major carbon pollutants such as coal and methane. According to the Natural Resources Canada website, about 12.6 per cent of Canada’s electricity supply comes from coal. Ontario has phased out its coal-fired plants. 

Methane is the main component of raw natural gas and produces carbon dioxide when burned for energy. A joint report by the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation released in 2011 cites an Environment Canada estimate which found that carbon dioxide emissions from natural gas as an end product represent approximately four-fifths of total greenhouse gas emissions.

The remaining one-fifth comes from upstream emissions – production, processing, transmission and distribution of the gas. Of these emissions, about half comes from the burning of natural gas, which acts to release methane into the atmosphere.

This is no time for political parties, including the parties contesting the federal election, to be talking about consulting others or doing more studies. “Act now, It’s the precautionary principle. We will have no regrets because we know a lot of this stuff is deadly.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has done the right thing by moving to ban the use of “killer” coal,” Kirton says. “While he should be going further in outlawing pollutants, he is moving in the right direction.” The carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs espoused by some, he adds, are useless. These schemes make it possible to “pay to pollute” and privilege the rich.

Kirton credits Harper also for having embraced the “inclusive” or “all-in” principle that engages all rich countries in the battle against climate change, including China, which has overtaken the United States as the world’s biggest polluter. U.S. President Barack Obama has acted to control carbon and now so has China.

Kirton concedes that “it may already be too late” to halt the devastating effects of climate change. “But when you say that, you disempower everybody – let’s all party before we die.”

Two clear examples of climate change are the melting of Arctic ice and the great permafrost in Russia, which has stored methane. As it thaws, the methane entombed in the ice – a deadly greenhouse gas – is released into the atmosphere. This constitutes “another runaway system.”

One of the problems affecting environmental awareness in Canada, Kirton says, is that we are “well insulated” in the central areas from the most disastrous effects of climate change, which will start in the oceans.

Nevertheless, long-term polling data suggest that from a foreign-policy perspective, Canadians believe the environment is the number one issue. “I find it amazing that for decades (political parties) haven’t acted on that basis,” Kirton says. “It could be very popular in a national unifying way.”

Kirton believes that his book carries a message of hope rather than doom. 

“The world has discovered that the old United Nations view – putting development of third-world countries first, allowing them to pollute at will – doesn’t work. We are moving to the inclusive all-in principle, putting the environment first.”

The next major climate change summit is in Paris in December. Kirton is confident that the rich countries will come through with the $100 billion a year they have promised to fight climate change.

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