Julie Smyth

Record breaking temperatures in Ottawa as panelists discuss ways to curb carbon emissions

March 20, 2012

Ottawa – Canada needs a comprehensive strategy for reducing carbon emissions but there is no clear consensus on how to go about squaring the carbon circle.

As Ottawa reached summer-like temperatures on the last day of winter and patio discussions turned to global warming, a distinguished panel organized by Canada 2020 examined the challenges facing our environment, including how to manage our emissions, and the consequences of continued inaction at all levels of government.

More than 300 people packed a room at the Château Laurier last night to listen to leading academics and industry experts debate solutions for reducing carbon emissions.

Eugene Lang, a co-founder of Canada 2020, told the audience that reducing greenhouse gas emissions has been one of “the most challenging issues” facing Ottawa over the past 15 years. “The efforts of three successive federal governments since the late 1990s on carbon emissions have been disappointing, to put it mildly,” he said.

He noted the inherent conflicting interests: Canada is an increasingly significant producer and exporter of fossil fuels and is already the developed world’s second largest per capita emitter, yet public opinion polls show that Canadians increasingly favour government action to reduce carbon emissions.

The panel members agreed the world depends – and will continue to depend for many years to come – on fossil fuels. Energy demand is increasing rapidly. On a global scale, the consequences are staggering: According to an OECD report, without new polices, by 2050, “more disruptive climate change is likely to be locked in, with global greenhouse gas (GHG)emissions projected to increase by 50%, primarily due to a 70% growth in energy-related CO2 emissions.”

The Canada 2020 event was timely, coming after Canada pulled out of Kyoto and at a time of intense debate over oil sands expansion and plans for the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines.

Canada 2020 brought Joseph Aldy, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and former Special Assistant to President Barack Obama on energy and environment, to Ottawa to provide the American perspective.

Aldy said that progress on the climate issue in America has been stalled by the problems in the economy, though at state level there are a wide array of initiatives in place. He advocated a price on carbon, and even provided some hope that this might become a reality. He predicted there might be “a window of opportunity” for a carbon tax largely because the US federal government will urgently need new sources of revenue in 2013: a carbon tax may end up being one of the more palatable options. He also noted how natural gas has “changed the game”, providing an immediate and affordable option for critical emissions reductions in the US.

On Canada’s decision to pull out of Kyoto, he said he “did not wish a long future for the agreement,” and he added it was more important that countries implement meaningful and legally binding domestic policies. These can help build trust among nations so “we can all move together in concert to deal with this problem.”

The other panellists were all authors in the Squaring the Carbon Circle section of Canada 2020’s 2011 book The Canada We Want in 2020: Towards a Strategic Policy Roadmap for the Federal Government.

Lorraine Mitchelmore, President of Shell Canada Ltd., spoke about framing a dialogue around the critical convergence of Canada’s economy, the environment and our energy future. Hers was the long view: “We need to look well beyond 2020. Indeed, we need to start thinking about 2050.” She said that Shell favours a price on carbon and already operates internally with a shadow price of $40/tonne of carbon.

Stuart Elgie, Founder and Chair of Sustainable Prosperity, and Alex Wood, Senior Director, Policy and Markets, at Sustainable Prosperity, argued that we urgently need to dispel erroneous beliefs that get in the way of effective change. One such belief is that we have to choose between developing our fossil fuel resources and moving to a low carbon economy. (It was this false dichotomy that recently played out in an exchange between the Alberta and Ontario Premiers). Another is that serious measures to reduce our carbon emissions will harm our competitiveness.

Elgie and Wood believe Canada should follow a middle, smart path (neither slow nor fast) when it comes to carbon. They pointed to the example of Australia, which has brought in a serious carbon tax but also invests heavily to help its coal and mining industries develop clean technologies. Also supporters of a carbon tax, their core message was that “Canada should start to view the emerging low carbon global economy as an opportunity not a threat.”

Ian Mallory, President of Pickworth Investments LP, a Calgary venture development firm focussed on natural resources, advocated a carbon price but not immediately, as there are too many obstacles in the way and insufficient public agreement on the need for such a measure.

He argued Canada needs to meet its international targets for carbon reduction and do so in a way that keeps the economy moving forward. “I believe there is a consensus we need to get with the program.” Mallory believes that Canada needs to shift to natural gas wherever it can, both because it is cheaper than oil and far less emission-intensive. Like other panellists, he argued for investment in energy conservation and noted the needs for better rapid transit and support for the next generation of renewable energy. His overall message echoed that of the other panellists at the Canada 2020 event: Canada can be a leader instead of a laggard.

Following the panellists presentations, a lively discussion took place, covering issues such as the economics of carbon capture and storage, the progress of the narrative on climate issues in Canada and the potential of shale gas.

With much food for thought, participants then headed out to those overly-warm Ottawa patios to enjoy the last of the melting snow.

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