Category Archives: International relations

Why divest from fossil fuels?

Campaigns at universities especially can benefit from this document, prepared for the University of Toronto:

The Fossil Fuel Industry and the Case for Divestment: Update, by

Contributors to original brief: Milan Ilnyckyj, Emily Barrette, Stuart Basden, Tim Berk, Tamara Brown- stone, Mie Inouye, Neal Lantela, Amy Luo, Monica Resendes, Jessica Vogt, Miriam Wilson, Cameron Woloshyn, and Jon Yazer

Contributors to update: Milan Ilnyckyj, Anne Ahrens-Embleton, Jacqueline Allain, Lila Asher, Jody Chan, Ben Donato-Woodger, Joanna Dowdell, Rosemary Frei, Graham Henry, Katie Krelove, Amanda Lewis, Ariel Martz-Oberlander, and Monica Resendes

Climate change and status quo bias

One perpetual question in climate politics is whether radical political change is necessary to achieve climatic stability, or whether the necessary energy transition can be achieved in a ‘stealthy’ technocratic way.

This question is linked to the general question about radical versus incremental change, which is in turn touched upon in Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape:

“This bias relates to what has come to be known as ‘the endowment effect’: people demand more money in exchange for an object that has been given to them than they would spend to acquire the object in the first place. In psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s words, ‘a good is worth more when it is considered as something that could be lost or given up than when it is evaluated as a potential gain.’ This aversion to loss causes human beings to generally err on the side of maintaining the status quo. It is also an important impediment to conflict resolution through negotiation: for if each party values his opponent’s concessions as gains and his own as losses, each is bound to perceive his sacrifice as being greater.” (p. 75 – hardcover)

When it comes to political change, there are at least two rational reasons to favour the status quo. Firstly, through radical change we risk losing things that we currently possess and which have value. For instance, if we radically altered our political system to take into account the interests of future generations, it may stop serving some of the functions it serves effectively now. Secondly, there is the danger of unwanted side-effects accompanying change. In addition to losing old capabilities, we may take on new problems.

All told, I think our collective status quo bias is far too strong. We want to keep economic growth happening, maintain our lifestyles, and generally avoid large-scale political change. Unfortunately, by trying to keep our own lives as similar as possible to the past, we are condemning the Earth to a future unlike anything humanity has ever seen. If we are to tackle the problem of climate change, we need to find ways to effectively drive the transition away from fossil fuels. The psychological potency of loss – which Harris and Kahneman highlight – may be one mechanism for that. By highlighting everything that is put in jeopardy by climate change, it may be possible to drive people to reform their lifestyles and institutions in ways that limit its severity.

Canada should phase-out fossil fuel exports

There are a few scientific facts about the world that are vital and increasingly well understood. Foremost among them is the reality that human beings have already put a dangerous amount of greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere. Nonetheless, the world as a whole continues to demonstrate a ferocious appetite for fossil fuels. Burning those fuels will inevitably contribute still more to climate change, turning a dangerous situation into a potentially catastrophic one.

In order to avert the worst-case outcomes, humanity as a whole needs to work toward keeping most of the planet’s remaining fossil fuels underground, while achieving a global transition to a low- and ultimately zero-carbon economy.

In a world where states, companies, and individuals behaved rationally, we would already be working aggressively to phase-out fossil fuels. As it is, nothing like the necessary level of effort is being made. In an ideal world, Canada would be finding itself with fewer and fewer willing buyers of coal, oil, and gas; as it is, we should choose to restrain production and exports unilaterally.

Right now, Canada is helping to feed the fossil fuel addiction of the United States. Under the current Conservative government, we also aspire to help feed the addictions of China and others. If the world is to avoid catastrophe, those addictions must be curbed. By voluntarily reducing our exports of fossil fuels, Canada can play a disproportionate role in driving that necessary transition.

Canada may not have much population or total wealth when compared to giant states like China and the United States, but we do have vast reserves of coal, oil, and gas. When we export those fuels, we help keep the world on an economic development pathway that is tightly linked to fossil fuel use, and in which well over 2ËšC of climate change will eventually occur.

Catastrophic global climate change would serve the interests of nobody, but states are not thinking ahead and responding appropriately to the dangers we face. Within that context, Canada has the choice between continuing to be an enabler of unethical and destructive fossil fuel use or voluntarily restricting fossil fuel production and export. Hopefully, Canada will eventually find itself in a situation where nobody wants to buy these dangerous fuels, and where the world as a whole recognizes the value of keeping them underground. In order to help drive the emergence of such a world, the best thing Canada can do is to stop fueling the fossil fuel addictions of other countries, while also working to decarbonize our domestic economy.

Keystone XL rejected

The Obama administration has officially rejected the proposed Keystone XL pipeline! That is the pipeline that prompted me to travel to Washington D.C. this summer to volunteer at the protests.

The rejection of the pipeline is good news for many reasons.

By rejecting pipelines, the jurisdictions around Alberta can slow the development of the oil sands and reduce the total quantity of fossil fuels that will be burned. These pipelines are also a major investment in an inappropriate technology. Canada needs to be working on developing a decarbonized economy, not encouraging unlimited growth in the unsustainable business of extracting fuels from the oil sands.

President Obama will probably lose a few votes over this decision, particularly from people who think oil is still the future of energy and who do not care about climate change. At the same time, I am sure he will gain some votes too for finally doing the right thing on this. The choice offered to us by the oil sands is to either profit today in a way that harms future generations or to leave the oil in the ground and invest in safer sources of energy.

Climate the issue of the century?

Strong words from The Economist’s Democracy in America blog:

A HUNDRED years from now, looking back, the only question that will appear important about the historical moment in which we now live is the question of whether or not we did anything to arrest climate change. Everything else—the financial crisis, the life or death of the euro, authoritarianism or democracy in China and Russia, the Great Stagnation or the innovation renaissance, democratisation and/or political Islam in the Arab world, Newt or Mitt or another four years of Barack—all this will fade into insignificance beside the question of whether we managed to do anything about human industrial civilisation changing the climate of Planet Earth. It’s extremely hard to focus on this, because environmentalism goes in and out of political fashion depending on the economy, war, and so forth. But from the perspective of our great-grandchildren, the only thing that’s going to seem important is whether we burned all the fossil fuel on the planet and sent global temperatures up by at least 4 degrees Celsius in the next century, or whether we took collective action, shifted our energy sources, and held the global temperature rise to 2 degrees or less.

Joseph Romm has made a similar point before.

The blog post goes on to say:

Maybe a hundred years down the line, nobody will look back at climate change as the most important issue of the early 21st century, because the damage will have been done, and the idea that it might have been prevented will seem absurd. Maybe the idea that Mali and Burkina Faso were once inhabited countries rather than empty deserts will seem queer, and the immiseration of huge numbers of stateless refugees thronging against the borders of the rich northern countries will be taken for granted. The absence of the polar ice cap and the submersion of Venice will have been normalised; nobody will think of these as live issues, no one will spend their time reproaching their forefathers, there’ll be no moral dimension at all. We will have wrecked the planet, but our great-grandchildren won’t care much, because they’ll have been born into a planet already wrecked.

The question of how climate change will be viewed in retrospect is a tricky one. There are things about it that will be unknowable. If we do end up mitigating strongly, we will never know for sure if things would have been OK without all that action. Similarly, if we ignore the problem and things become terrible, we will never know for sure whether we could have succeeded in stopping it.

Objection: problems with Kyoto

Every time there is a Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), people who want Canada to continue to do little or nothing about climate change bring up the flaws of the Kyoto Protocol as an argument against action.

This argument is flawed. The problems with Kyoto make it more important to develop an effective global agreement now, and that requires countries like Canada to lead the way in reducing their domestic greenhouse gas pollution.

The UNFCCC and Kyoto

To explain briefly, the 1992 UNFCCC is a framework convention that sets out the world’s general objective when it comes to climate change: preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was the first major attempt to make concrete progress toward that objective. Some (rich) states got emission reduction targets which they agreed to meet by 2012. Other (poorer) states did not have targets, but there were systems established to encourage them to reduce emissions as well, partly through financial help from richer countries directed through institutions like the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

Kyoto was an experiment in coordinated global action on climate change, and many things have gone wrong with it. The United States never joined the agreement. Some countries (like Canada) have ignored the targets they agreed to and are now producing much more pollution than they were meant to at this point. Countries like India and China, which had no targets, have seen their emissions grow rapidly. There have been problems with the CDM, such as dubious transactions involving HFC-23. Kyoto also ignores the major issue of pollution that is effectively ’embedded’ in imports.

Whole books could be (and have been) written about the flaws of Kyoto. That being said, it is wrong to see those flaws and conclude that it is no problem for Canada to ignore its Kyoto obligations, or for the UNFCCC process to fall apart. The fact of the matter is that dealing with climate change requires global action. Countries like Canada have become rich on the basis of burning fossil fuels, and currently produce an excessively high level of greenhouse gas emissions per person. It makes sense that countries like Canada lead the way on emissions reduction – a general policy known as contraction and convergence.

The challenge of climate change

If the world continues on the path of carbon-intensive economic activity, we are setting ourselves up to dramatically transform the planet’s climate by the end of this century, with severe consequences for people all over the world. Preventing dangerous or catastrophic climate change requires limiting how much greenhouse gas pollution gets added to the atmosphere; that, in turn, requires that the world abandon fossil fuels and move on to zero-carbon forms of energy. Achieving that transition will be challenging and costly, but so is our continued dependence on fossil fuels. Instead of spending billions developing deepwater oil fields off the coast of Brazil, fracking shale gas in North America, or exploiting Canada’s oil sands, we could be investing our money and effort on the transition to a renewably-based zero-carbon economy of the sort described by David MacKay.

In summary: yes, there are problems with Kyoto. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore climate change. Dealing with the problem requires coordinated international action, and it requires that countries like Canada:

  • (a) take responsibility for the harm they have already caused by altering the climate through fossil fuel use,
  • (b) take the lead in developing a domestic energy system that is compatible with a stable climate, while phasing out fossil fuels, and
  • (c) help the rest of the world to achieve the same transition.

Doing our part in a fair global deal requires a willingness to compensate countries that will suffer from the climate change we have caused, and help them to develop on a safer trajectory than we did.

Our current approach doesn’t even make sense from the perspective of pure economic calculation. At some point in the future, the world as a whole will finally realize just how damaging and dangerous climate change is. When that happens, there will be a collective realization that extracting fossil fuels from shale gas and the oil sands is absolutely the last thing we should be doing. The billions of dollars invested in the technology and the infrastructure used to do that will be wasted when those facilities are forced to close down. On top of that, we will suffer the expense of the additional climate harms that arise because of our delay. Finally, we will need to deploy a zero-carbon energy basis for our economy on a compressed timeline, which is sure to be more expensive than undertaking the task over a longer span of time. It is far more intelligent to build the right thing in the first place than it is to:

  • build the wrong thing (at great expense),
  • suffer the consequences of that choice (at great expense),
  • and then build the right thing in a hurry (at great expense).

There are also major additional benefits associated with an early transition away from fossil fuels: greater geopolitical stability, less air pollution, less water pollution, less destruction of land, etc.

The failure of the Kyoto Protocol to curb the growth in global emissions means we face a bigger problem now than in 1997 and that we have less time to deal with it. The way to do that is to engage constructively with the international community and help drive the emergence of a fair deal, while taking meaningful steps domestically to decarbonize our economy. What we absolutely not do is use the problems with Kyoto as an excuse to continue on a carbon-intensive path of economic development that sacrifices the vital interests of future generations for the short-term profit of those alive and making decisions right now.

The IEA on emission trends

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has released a new report: CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion – 2011 Highlights.

The IEA’s general conclusions:

While the emissions of developing countries (non- Annex I) continued to grow in 2009 (+3.3%), led by Asia and the Middle East, the emissions of developed countries (Annex I) fell sharply (-6.5%), putting them at 6.4% below their 1990 collective level. It should be noted that 2009 emission levels for the group of countries participating in the Kyoto protocol were 14.7% below their 1990 level.

Global CO2 emissions actually decreased by 0.5 Gt CO2 between 2008 and 2009, which represented a decline of 1.5%. However, trends varied greatly: as already noted above, the emissions of Annex I countries decreased, whereas the emissions of non-Annex I countries increased. Due to these diverging trends, the share of total emissions for developing countries increased to 54% (excluding bunkers), after becoming larger than Annex I’s share for the first time since 2008.

These figures suggest that it is important to develop a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol that will be capable of constraining emissions in developing countries. Making that fair and politically possible will probably require both mitigation effort and funding from developed countries.

The imperilled international consensus to act on climate change

Preventing dangerous or runaway climate change requires all major economies to reduce their usage of fossil fuels and therefore their production of greenhouse gas pollution. Some jurisdictions, including the European Union and Japan, have taken the lead in implementing carbon prices and other policies to achieve those outcomes. Other jurisdictions, including Canada and the United States, have done very little about the problem.

The lack of action from some major economies is undermining the prospects for cooperative action. The European Commission and Japan are both considering adopting less ambitious climate goals, given inaction in the United States and elsewhere.

If all states do nothing, the world commits itself to a suicide pact. For basic reasons of fairness, countries that have not yet taken substantial actions must start to do so. This is especially true for prosperous countries like Canada.

Furthermore, taking action now makes good economic sense. When countries and companies continue to make investments that ignore climate change, they are putting billions of dollars into investments that are not compatible with the low-carbon future we need to achieve. At some point, people will realize how serious a problem climate change is, and see the need to build low-carbon infrastructure. Countries that built high-carbon infrastructure first will need to wastefully scrap it, then make the necessary investments for a low-carbon future. It would be far more efficient to get things right the first time.

Another big day, and an appeal to the Canadian ambassador

For the second day in a row, more than 100 people got arrested outside the White House protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.

A group of Canadians also delivered a letter to the Canadian ambassador to the United States, calling on him to stop promoting the oil sands.

That seems a distant prospect. Canada seems determined to dig up and burn as many fossil fuels as possible, no matter how unjust that may be or how much it will worsen climate change.

Hopefully Obama will block this pipeline and help keep that Canadian oil buried. In so doing, he would do a great service to Canada in the long term. Climate change is not in out national interest, and the transition to renewable energy can only e delayed by the expensive and harmful pursuit of the world’s dirtiest oil.