On Pragmatic Environmentalism, the Paris Agreement and where do we go from here?

This weekend they passed the Paris Agreement at the end of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Twenty-First Conference of the Parties (COP21). As I have discussed in previous posts, it is my opinion that the Agreement involved serious overreach. I have written about why I think the empty symbolism of the deal will hurt it from an implementation perspective. That being said I am a pragmatic environmentalist and as a pragmatist I work in the world we have and not the one I wish we had. Since we now live in a world where the Paris Agreement has been signed, we must decide how we move forward. The intention of this blog post is to discuss one possible approach. My approach is underscored by the understanding that we need to abandon the outmoded left/right rubric of the old environmental movement; we need to bring in the private sector to invest heavily in alternative energy and the transportation sectors; and most importantly we need to establish how we can get as much clean electricity as possible to make up for the void as we wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

A lot has been written about the Agreement so I won’t dwell on it, except to point out that we have not agreed to any enforceable emissions reductions. Apparently this was done for the practical reason that any enforceable reductions would need to be passed by the US Congress and nothing is getting through that quagmire. Instead we have agreed to a process of open and transparent reporting and continual improvement. For a practical perspective all we have done is agree to do what we promised we would do. You see, prior to COP21 each country was expected to provide Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). An INDC represents a “climate action plan” explaining how we can “cost effectively meet their stated objective of keeping a global temperature rise to under 2 degree C”. Canada’s INDC calls on us to drop our greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. Admittedly this was what we planned to do under the 2 degrees Celsius target; presumably we will need to do more under a 1.5 degrees Celsius target, however; in keeping with the idea of working with what we have, under our INDC we agreed to

  • reduce transportation sector emissions
  • phase out coal in power
  • phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and
  • reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.

The Canadian INDC includes two major provisos:

Canada’s regulatory approach is aligned with that of the United States, where appropriate, recognizing the importance of cooperative action in an integrated North American marketplace. Canada will continue take cooperative action with its continental trading partners, particularly the United States, and will work towards further action in integrated sectors of the economy, including energy and transportation.

Canadian provinces and territories have significant authorities over the fields of natural resources, energy, and the environment. Each has its own legal framework and each has its own policies and measures that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Mechanisms exist for the federal government to engage with Canadian provinces and territories, as well as other key partners and stakeholders, on climate change. In particular, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, a minister-led intergovernmental forum, will be addressing climate change on an ongoing basis

The critical features of the Canadian INDC involve the link between Canadian and American efforts and underscore the limitations on our federal government due to the nature of our constitutional democracy.

Under our constitutional structure the federal government has the ability to unilaterally work on the HFCs and methane emissions issues. The phasing out of coal power and the transportation sector changes, however; need heavy help from the private sector and the provinces. This leaves us with the question of how do we do it?

The first thing we, as an environmental movement, need to do is discard the old left/right rubric in the environmental field. As I have written previously, the right is not the enemy of the environment and the left is not always its friend. The greenest Prime Minister in our history was Brian Mulroney. Internationally, the Montreal Protocol would never have been passed without the strong support of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher was the first major politician to develop policies to address climate change. Put simply, the way the modern environmental movement has aligned itself with progressives and anarchists has done nothing to build popular support for the movement and in some cases have hurt those efforts.

My warning to the environmental movement is to go the non-partisan route, because, frankly, the progressives and anarchists have their own agenda. When push comes to shove they will abandon the environmental movement the minute it ceases to remain useful in advancing their cause. The funny thing is that the progressives and anarchists aren’t even hiding what they want to do. I would suggest listening to them and taking them at their words. When a progressive socialist says the Paris deal:

“provides an important hook on which people can hang their demands”

environmentalists should be very worried. Heck it has only been a day and I have already seen it starting with my favourite transit campaigner Eric Doherty out there stating:

OK @JustinTrudeau, I’m ready to help enact #ParisAgreement! #Nopipelines! No #MasseyBridge! Yes to #Transit

Upgrading old transportation infrastructure (like the Massey Tunnel in the Vancouver region) is a straightforward requirement of local government and the suggestion that we should refrain from updating infrastructure because of the Paris Agreement is simply ridiculous. As for the environment, it should not be a “hook” used to push a socialist agenda.

As I have written previously, the main reason we need to abandon this silly left/right idea is because history has shown us that every surge in environmental awareness has occurred during times of strong economic performance. Look at the historical record and check out how environmental issues fall off the table during economic downturns. Look at how fast and how far the environment fell off the public conscience following the crash of 1998. The lesson of history is that if you want to improve our environmental awareness and environmental performance you need a thriving economy. The current aim of the socialists and progressives to stagnate our economy in the name of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, is thus guaranteed to backfire. In good times governments have the money to invest in research and the environment, in bad times those priorities can become sidelined. So if the environmental movement wants to help us work our way out of this dilemma, it needs to ensure that the average voter is not worrying about his/her next paycheck. In a global sense, the environmental movement has to understand that hungry families care more about feeding their children than protecting the environment and that 800 million Indians living in energy poverty will choose coal power over nothing.

Another reason for abandoning the antiquated left/right rubric is that the public sector does not have the resources to make the fundamental changes necessary to fundamentally re-organize our transportation/energy systems. We need resources from people like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg to change the way we run our vehicles. We need companies like Ballard Power Systems and Westport Innovations Inc. to lead the way away from fossil fuel and/or diesel engine technologies to cleaner, lower carbon alternatives. We need to encourage innovation and private sector involvement in this task and that is exactly what the socialists don’t want to see happen. Instead they look towards the command economies that gave us the Lada and the Yugo.

As environmentalists, we also need to acknowledge that we need to compromise to get to the next phase of energy. We need to develop Geothermal, allow the construction of transmission lines and we need to find additional sources for the necessary rare earth metals needed for our low-carbon future. One area that I have previously discussed, in depth, is the reality that if we are going to make major cuts in our carbon emissions in the transportation sector we need to make up that energy from other sources. As I wrote in my blog post Starting a Dialogue – Can we really get to a “fossil fuel-free BC”? if we were to completely decarbonize our transportation sector we would need to replace it with about 46,000 GWh of power. That is the equivalent of about 9 Site C dams. So when activists say that we don’t need clean energy from projects like Site C, then you know they either aren’t serious about addressing climate change or simply lack the depth of understanding of what it will take to achieve the goals they profess to desire.

The environmental issue is big enough that it cannot be faced by governments alone. We need to unleash the innovative power of our whole economy. We need to encourage investment and provide rewards for those willing to use their financial resources and intellect to advance the cause. The last thing we need is for government to go about trying to pick winners and losers since history has shown that government is very bad at picking winners and losers and exceedingly bad at fostering innovation.

For those who like the visuals:

Naomi

Eric

Addendum: For an interesting alternative to the left/right rubric consider this post on upwingers vs. downwingers in the environmental field.

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3 Responses to On Pragmatic Environmentalism, the Paris Agreement and where do we go from here?

  1. geoffmprice says:

    Appreciate the spirit, but it seems like relatively thin anti-Left rhetoric dressed up as “moving beyond left/right”. Hand-waving about the “real agenda of the progressives”, nefariously implied in lieu of addressing the more humdrum reality (Klein’s “hang” quote is clearly about climate change itself – the linked article is about Paris not being enough but that it opens room to demand action behind the promises.) Interesting how it is so frequently Klein who is invoked as the proof of the need of an anti-Left ideological approach to the climate topic, e.g.
    https://pressingwax.wordpress.com/2015/12/05/lessons-from-how-we-broke-the-climate-change-debates/

    What is left after the ideological scare-mongering? A call to ‘bring in the private sector’. Which again only seems meaningful if one accepts some assumption about the forces of climate change action trying to destroy the private sector or some such – where are the signs of this in the mainstream discussions? It is a bit painful to read so many appeals to use the private sector that fail to address the economic elephant in the room, namely the (incorrectly) low price of fossil fuels given the rather enormous negative externalities at play (i.e. costs paid heavily by the public and the public sector over time). The spirit certainly is something all parties seem to agree on already.

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    • Blair says:

      Geoff,

      And here I thought I had not hidden my disdain for the leftist rhetoric of Naomi Klein and her ilk. It is she who veils her clearly political ambitions in the cloak of environmentalism. I did not go into any detail as it would have made the post too long and would only have repeated what those of us who have followed her work already know. She is a socialist first and, even after having written her book, remains woefully uniformed about the environmental field . Instead she framed her entire “environmental” book about politics. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of progressives who know what they are talking about, but, as I have written, it is not a left/right issue.

      As for bringing in the private sector, the whole point is that the public sector lacks the resources to address the problem on its own. The private sector has more capital and brainpower than is available in the public sector and has to be working on side in order to make the changes necessary to address climate change. By creating incentives, or removing disincentives, the private sector can be leveraged into doing the lion’s share of the work. That activists should complain when Bill Gates decides to invest billions into clean tech just makes no sense.

      Finally I have no idea where you get the idea that I have made any assumptions about “the forces of climate change action trying to destroy the private sector or some such” since I have written over 150,000 words on this blog and never even implied such a thing. The private sector has, for the most part, been indifferent to the topic of climate change. It has been shut out of many of the opportunities to address energy issues by governments who have preserved that field as a private fiefdom. As I have written in my blog, unnecessary regulations have restricted our ability to develop the rich alternative energy resources available in BC. As an example, strict regulations on access to the power grid have left potential private sector power producers out of the loop. Inane tenure rules for geothermal in BC mean that investors have no opportunity to make back their investment before their tenure rights expire on power projects.

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  2. Pingback: On the global climate change math supporting BC LNG | A Chemist in Langley

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