Failing leadership 2.0

When Brad Wall rode off into the sunset from Saskatchewan politics in early 2018, ironically to take on an advising role with a Calgary law-firm, I was looking forward to not having to respond to his smooth rhetoric cautioning against meaningful climate action anymore. I knew his departure wouldn’t change the Sask Party line, but current Premier Scott Moe has shown that all he’s really capable of is saying “carbon tax” at every possible opportunity – unfortunately that’s actually been enough to continue stalling action. In any case, I was overly optimistic about Wall’s departure. I guess nobody should be surprised that he continues to shill for the fossil fuel industry, returning this week with a seemingly well-reasoned op-ed in the Financial Post urging Canada to forget about carbon pricing and domestic emissions reductions, and to focus instead on technology, specifically carbon capture and storage (CCS), which his SK government famously made the linchpin of its approach to climate change, investing well over $1 billion in the world’s first commercial-scale CCS project attached to a coal-fired power plant. It’s funny that he begins the op-ed by reminiscing about COP21 in Paris, because it was his obstruction there that inspired me to start this often-dormant blog more than three years ago (hence this post’s title). Once again, I don’t feel like I can just let his work go unchallenged, and so here we are again.

Wall is so frustrating because he’s quite good at what he does – his arguments appear to make so much sense. That is, until you really place them under scrutiny. Here are two examples.

wri
Check out this cool interactive chart from the World Resources Institute

First, Wall has always liked to fixate on Canada’s “small share” of global carbon emissions. While it’s true that Canada’s slice clocks in at just under 2% of the global pie, that’s actually a lot! It puts us firmly inside the top 10 global emitters. Just think for a second about how many countries there are in the world – approximately 200. Simple arithmetic reveals that the vast majority of countries are going to emit far less than 1% of the global share. Yes, China and the US are particularly egregious, but together, countries outside of the top 10 emitters (i.e. approximately 190 countries) emit more than either of them, and altogether account for more than a quarter of global emissions. In any case, this puts in stark relief just how big a share those top-10 countries, including Canada, take up. And I would argue that Canada is actually particularly egregious, given that within the top 10 we’re surrounded almost exclusively by countries with populations over 100,000,000. In other words, we’re emitting far, far more than what might be considered our “fair share”. The bottom line is, we need to stop pretending that 1.5-2% is not a lot, because it is, especially for a country with a relatively small population. Our emissions do matter. Every countries emissions matter. Global efforts require everyone to act.

Second, Wall distorts the role that CCS may be required to play in mitigating global climate change. Hint – it’s not by enabling us to burn more coal, and it’s certainly not by enabling us to burn more coal and then use the captured carbon to extract otherwise un-extractable oil through ‘enhanced oil recovery’ – what a scam that is! We probably are going to need to rely to some extent on CCS to help us avert disaster, and the IPCC takes this into account. Its role, though, will need to be actively removing carbon from the atmosphere or the carbon cycle through things like direct air capture and biomass with CCS. It simply can’t be used to extend the life of coal.

Wall likes to talk about all the planned coal plants around the world. The thing is, most of our projections around energy and infrastructure are pretty dubious right now. For example, CAPP projections of Canadian oil output increasing by millions of barrels in the coming years assumes – relies on – us not taking climate change seriously. What we’re actually going to see, as countries (and other jurisdictions, including municipalities) ramp up their climate efforts, is many of these projections being re-worked and a lot of infrastructure plans changing. As a good friend put it, projections are based on policy. Wall is trying to convince us to make policy based on projections, instead of making new and better policy that will change projections. Simply, if we actually see thousands of new coal plants constructed, we’re cooked. Some people appear to be ok with that, but I really don’t think we should be.

The thing is, I actually do agree that it’s extremely unfortunate that conversations about climate action in Canada have been almost completely overwhelmed by debates over carbon pricing. At its most effective, carbon pricing will be just one component of a larger, more comprehensive plan. A carbon price alone will do little to get us where we need to be in the time we have to get there, and it has proved to be incredibly contentious. But it’s possible to make a sophisticated critique of carbon pricing while still taking climate change and emissions reductions seriously – see this incisive piece by James Wilt, for example. What we can’t allow is for backlash against carbon pricing to lead to backlash against meaningful climate action altogether.

So sure – let’s put resources into technology. Let’s keep researching CCS and finding ways for it to contribute to the global effort. But let’s not think for a second that that absolves us from needing to make an urgent transition away from fossil fuels. Focusing on technology also means investing in developing our incredible renewable resource potential. Ultimately, that’s the only thing that’s going to get us out of this mess.

 

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