University of Winnipeg

Punching above our carbon weight: Canada could be low-carbon leader

Punching above our carbon weight: Canada could be low-carbon leader

2_scene2b_crop_v1Pundits and politicians sometimes argue against taking action on climate change because Canada is responsible for a relatively low percentage of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Why, they ask, should Canadians be expected to make deep greenhouse gas cuts while the real culprits, including China and the United States, do nothing? Won’t that end up harming the Canadian economy while making only a small dent in global carbon emissions?

Like a lot of arguments against taking action on climate change, this is both misleading and misses the point. Our relative role in causing the problem doesn’t matter. What matters is our role in creating the solution. Canada is in a position to become a technological, political, and economic leader in the coming low-carbon world economy. But we’ll only be able to pursue this political responsibility and economic opportunity if we can get past knee-jerk defences of the high-carbon status quo.

Consumer spending power

The transition to a low-carbon economy will cost us all some money, at least in the short term. But our relative wealth means that we can afford this transition better than many other places. Although we hear a lot about China as a manufacturing powerhouse, most Chinese people employed in the manufacturing sector make less than $1 per hour. How can a family in China living on these wages be expected to make sacrifices to help save the planet? They simply do not have the money and power needed to make meaningful change.

Canadians, on the other hand, can on average pay more for goods and services produced in a more environmentally friendly way. When we change our purchasing habits, we force countries like China to transform their manufacturing practices. If we decide, as a country, that lowering greenhouse gas emissions is a priority, then the market will respond by making more low-carbon products available.

With more demand come improvements in both productivity and economies of scale that make these products cheaper and therefore more widely accessible. For example, when Canadians ask for more solar panels, countries like China respond by manufacturing more solar panels. Once the solar panels become more affordable, China can also begin using these panels to help transition away from dirty energy sources like oil and coal. In fact, this transition is already underway.

World energy leadership

The world’s largest GHG emitters rely heavily on dangerous-to-the-atmosphere sources of fuel, such as coal. Many are also rapidly developing economies that have taken the energy path of least resistance to prosperity, which also turns out to be the most damaging for climate change. As an established, affluent energy power, Canada is in a great strategic position to develop and test the large-scale renewable energy technology that will not only help us improve our own terrible GHG performance, but that can help other countries transition to low carbon economies.

One reason Canada could take on this position of leadership is our extensive experience with just about every possible facet of energy production and transmission. Our energy sector, although heavily invested in high-carbon petroleum production, has so much experience and expertise with large-scale energy projects that making the pivot to renewables is more plausible here than many other places. Moreover, Canada has a diverse mix of energy sources, and is well positioned to take advantage of the full range of renewable sources simply because we have an abundance of wind, water, and sun.

Our relative affluence means that we can afford to fund the R&D required to make that pivot on the large scale. As we have argued elsewhere, the revenue from a carbon tax offers a great mechanism to promote renewable options even as its pricing effects curtail the use of high-GHG fuels.

The technical and policy innovations required to move us to a low-carbon economy can be exported to the rest of the world, which means that reducing our own GHG pollution is only the bare minimum of what Canada could accomplish on the world stage. If Canada is a relatively small contributor to the problem, we can really punch above our weight when it comes to creating innovative solutions.

When Canada makes the shift to practical renewable energy, we won’t just be meeting our responsibilities and commitments as global citizens; we will also position ourselves as a global source of leadership and solutions. And the initial costs of this important transition are perhaps best seen as an investment in both Canada’s future environmental sustainability and economic prosperity.

Spend less now or a lot more later

There are also, of course, the scary facts. Canada is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Climate models show that Canada will continue to warm faster than the global average, and this warming will have disastrous consequences, including sea level rise, an increase in forest fire risk, and the loss of crops to more intense and frequent droughts. So, not only could Canada have a disproportionately strong role to demand and lead change worldwide, Canada also stands to lose the most from continued inaction.

We have a lot to lose environmentally, and of course that will mean economic losses too. The Suzuki Foundation reports that: “The world’s most in-depth analysis of the economic costs and opportunities of climate change is The Stern Review, a 700-page report released by former World Bank chief economist Lord Stern. The report concludes that early action to reduce the impacts of GHG emissions could cost only two per cent of GDP, but it warns that the costs of delaying action will result in significantly higher economic costs—up to 20% of GDP.”

Closer to home, Canada’s own National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy reported in 2011 that “Climate change costs for Canada could escalate from roughly $5 billion per year in 2020—less than 10 years away—to between $21 billion and $43 billion per year by the 2050s.” Thus, on a purely self-interested level, Canada is positioned to reap huge political and economic benefits from climate leadership, and at the same time faces enormous risks—and enormous costs—if we fail to act.

Finally, it remains the fact that climate change due to GHG emissions is a global problem that requires global solutions. Every country, large or small, affluent or impoverished, will have to take action in order for everyone to benefit. Climate change isn’t an inconvenience we can wish away, and the sooner we take responsibility for our part of this unfolding global catastrophe, the sooner we can do our part to improve things. This isn’t a challenge we can just choose to ignore.


By Steve McCullough & Ryan Smith

Prairie Climate Centre