Pundits’ Platform: the environment

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How should parties address climate change? Our experts have their say

Federal parties need to address climate change if they want an effective environmental policy, say experts, and that means addressing home energy retrofits and the oilsands.

All four federal parties have promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if elected. Each has offered cash for home energy retrofits, and each has promised to cut subsidies to the oilsands industry.

Canada has not done a good job of managing its emissions, notes Andrew Weaver, the Canada Research Chair in climate modelling and analysis at the University of Victoria.

“The policy measures that have been put in place in Canada and elsewhere will ensure we break two degrees [of warming]and give us an odds-on chance of breaking three degrees this century.”

Carbon pricing

Global carbon dioxide concentrations are now at their highest level in 800,000 years, according to the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy and, if the rise is unchecked, will warm the world by 6 C by 2100. The group notes that 3 C is enough to double the rate of droughts in the Prairies, eliminate half of Western Canada’s glaciers and raise sea levels by a metre.

Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions have jumped about 24 per cent since 1990, says Clare Demerse, director of climate change policy at the Pembina Institute. According to Environment Canada, we’re now on track to miss our 2020 reduction target under the Copenhagen Accord by about 29 per cent.

“There’s a huge amount of work that needs to be done.”

Economists worldwide agree the only way we can reduce emissions effectively is to put a price on carbon, Weaver says. The Green Party is the only federal contender that’s been up front about this, he says, as they’ve proposed a $50-a-tonne carbon tax. “If climate were the only issue in an election, and it’s not, clearly the Green Party would be the party of choice.”

The Liberals have committed to a cap-and-trade system to price emissions, Demerse says, but are vague on the details. The NDP have previously supported cap-and-trade. The Conservatives oppose cap-and-trade and plan to regulate reductions on a sector-by-sector basis — an approach that would not set a ceiling on emissions, she says, and would be very complex.

Home retrofits

About 85 per cent of the homes that will be around in 2050 are already built, notes Peter Amerongen, president of Habitat Studio & Workshop Ltd., builder of Edmonton’s net-zero homes. If we want to reduce our future emissions, we’ll have to retrofit a whole lot of homes.

A carbon tax would be the best free-market way to do that, Amerongen says, but that isn’t likely to happen. Hiking building codes would improve new homes, but not current ones. With energy prices so low, homeowners will need financial incentives before they will be willing to upgrade their homes.

The Liberals plan to spend $400 million to create a permanent green renovation tax credit, while the Greens plan to raise grants by 50 per cent under the currently cancelled ecoENERGY Retrofit for Homes program. The Conservatives have promised $400 million for the ecoENERGY Retrofit for Homes program, but only for one year.

“Bringing it back is good,” Amerongen says of the Conservative’s measure. “Bringing it back for one year is insane.” Homeowners and renovators need consistent, ongoing support if the government wants serious progress on retrofits, he says.

The oilsands

All parties have proposed cutting some or all subsidies to oilsands development, notes Demerse. “It’s kind of a universal phenomenon.”

It’s also an encouraging sign, Weaver says. “If we have to deal with the [emissions]problem, it’s very clear what has to happen: our emissions have to go to zero.” That means we need to support renewable power sources, not fossil fuels.

Canada agreed to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies at a 2009 meeting of the G20, Demerse notes, and an internal memo to the finance minister leaked from the Department of Finance last year supported an end to those subsidies.

“The oilsands is a mature industry. It’s not an industry that needs help getting started.”

The Conservatives said in their last budget that they would cut a specific oilsands subsidy worth about $100 million by 2016, Demerse says, and have previously committed to eliminating an accelerated capital cost allowance by that same year.

The Liberals say they would eliminate that allowance immediately and put the money towards greening the oilsands.

The NDP and the Greens have both said they would eliminate all fossil fuel subsidies.

Pundits’ Platform

Got an issue for our experts? Send it to kma@stalbert.greatwest.ca, and it might show up in a future column.

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About Author

Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.