Why Canada Is the Way it Is

The Canadian government has decided that their meager 20% emission cut from 2006 levels by 2020 (equivalent to 3% cut from the standard base year of 1990) is tenuous – it all depends on what the US decides to do. (Why even bother having a separate Canadian government if they’re just going to follow all US decisions?)

Wondering why they’re still wasting time? This is why (courtesy of the  Globe and Mail):

Luckily, Canada now has its hands tied, as Obama just announced a target that’s slightly stronger – a 28% cut from 2005 levels by 2020, up from the previous target of 17%.

Funny how these things work out, isn’t it?

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15 thoughts on “Why Canada Is the Way it Is

  1. The selection of base years is interesting. 2006 for the US is a bit of a local maximum, so a 28% cut from 2005 is just a 27% cut from 2006. While if Canada had used 2005, they could have claimed a 22% cut, so they left a little bit on the table.

    It makes sense for Canada and other countries to wait for movement from the US. Why should Canada absorb the cost when it represents 1.8% of global emissions, according to CDIAC. A 20 percent reduction by Canada represents .36% of the global amount in 2008, so would have no environmental impact. It is only useful if it happens in tandem with a big dog, the US or China.

    The focus on 2020 targets is silly either way. The small reductions being recommended are unlikely to be met in 10 years, and will have little impact on temperature. Bill Gates had it right, that any effort to meet a small target is effort taken away from meeting the big 2050 targets.

    [If everyone waits for everyone else to start cutting emissions, nothing will get done. Canada is waiting for the US. The US is waiting for China. China is waiting for the US. It’s a deadlock. -Kate]

  2. The focus on 2020 targets is silly either way. The small reductions being recommended are unlikely to be met in 10 years, and will have little impact on temperature. Bill Gates had it right, that any effort to meet a small target is effort taken away from meeting the big 2050 targets.

    No idea what you’re talking about here.

    It’s simple, really – if you plot emissions over time, you’ll wind up with a curve. The area under that curve is the total carbon emitted over the time in question by the source you’re plotting. That, physically, is all that matters as far as climate’s concerned. Emissions levels do not matter physically – it’s sort of like continuing to spend when you’re already in debt; any level of spending above zero isn’t helping.

    Now, consider how this relates to policy. We need to stabilize the total atmospheric concentration at some level in order to avoid the impacts of climate change – and since emissions are currently growing, we aren’t on target to stabilize at any level. Therefore, logically, emissions reductions must happen. Notice that stabilization at any concentration greater than our current concentration (387.27ppm, according to the widget on the side) logically implies, eventually, hitting zero emissions. (If Hansen’s right, that 350ppm is the “safe” value, then any value above zero for current emissions is a problem, and ideally the value should drop below zero. But that complicates the illustration here.)

    Having established that a reduction in emissions reaching 0 must occur, we have a choice – how steep that drop in the emissions curve is going to be. The longer we wait, the steeper the curve will have to be – i.e. if we wait until 449 with a 450 target, we have to drop to 0 total emissions practically overnight. While this policy does mean more time at the status quo, it has several problems: The steeper the drop in emissions is, the more it will cost, the more draconian it will be (and thus the harder it’ll be to enact politically), and the narrower the margin of error becomes (if we overestimate the “safe” target, then we may enter a danger zone that we could have avoided with earlier reductions).

    Conversely, starting now, we could implement a short-term reduction target. Doing this makes a dramatic difference over time, simply because the part of the curve you’ve reduced isn’t contributing to the problem for the remaining time. The small change is cumulative, and thus makes a bigger impact the sooner it’s implemented. (This is especially true if the small change has other impacts, as they frequently do in energy issues. Think of energy as infrastructure if that helps.)

    By the way, none of this is very hard to work out. All you need is knowledge of derivatives (here, the steepness of the curve at any point) and integrals (the area under the curve), which is taught in high-school calculus or first-year university math. It’s just a simple min-max problem to find out that a small goal NOW has a much bigger impact over time than a large goal later. (This was part of the logic behind the 10:10 campaign in the UK.)

    And yet you seem to think it’s silly and taking the eyes off of longer-term goals. This only makes sense if you only consider emissions instead of cumulative emissions / concentration. Would you consider an accountant who told a debt-ridden man that continuing to spend beyond his income is fine, so long as he’s spending less than he used to (but more than he earns)?

    [Yay integrals! -Kate]

  3. Your math makes sense, if all of the changes are incremental. If the end goal was a 20% reduction in emissions, sure, every little bit helps, start sooner rather than later. Instead, the end result is something like an 80% cut, and perhaps even more from business as usual scenarios estimates of future emissions.
    To achieve that you need a big change, and the small changes themselves are costly in money and effort.

    >Would you consider an accountant who told a debt-ridden man that continuing to spend beyond his income is fine, so long as he’s spending less than he used to (but more than he earns)?

    Exactly why the small targets are silly. Say you have major bills coming due. Buying a more energy-efficient light bulb to save money long term won’t help you meet those bills.

  4. >If everyone waits for everyone else to start cutting emissions, nothing will get done. Canada is waiting for the US. The US is waiting for China. China is waiting for the US. It’s a deadlock. -Kate]

    The last two, but noone is waiting for Canada. Canada’s movement makes no difference, and it is extremely prudent to be sure a major player acts. What is the point of Canada acting alone, and reducing it’s 1.8% of emissions? Europe has done something similar, though apparently emissions have gone up on top of not getting others to go along.

  5. MikeN:

    Your math makes sense, if all of the changes are incremental. If the end goal was a 20% reduction in emissions, sure, every little bit helps, start sooner rather than later. Instead, the end result is something like an 80% cut, and perhaps even more from business as usual scenarios estimates of future emissions.
    To achieve that you need a big change, and the small changes themselves are costly in money and effort.

    Let me get this straight.

    Small change + Small change = Small change soon (i.e. 20% from 1990 by, say, 2020)
    But Small change + Small change + … + Small change =/= Big change over longer periods of time (i.e. 80% from 1990 by, say, 2050).

    I’ve got a Zeno of Elea holding for you on line two.

    Exactly why the small targets are silly. Say you have major bills coming due. Buying a more energy-efficient light bulb to save money long term won’t help you meet those bills.

    Did the shift into analogy mode throw you off or something? You aren’t addressing the argument I brought up in the first half of my reply, focusing only on the small aspect I used to illustrate the point in money terms.

    Let’s continue the debtor example, this time with details. Bill has $5000 in debt. He’s got an entry-level job that doesn’t pay all that well, and his income (after all required expenses but before voluntary ones is $300/month. However, he still spends $500 per month on assorted unnecessary expenses. In order to stabilize his debt, he needs to get that down to $300, and in order to start reducing his debt he needs to get it down below $300. Let’s say his goal is to get rid of his debt within 5 years.

    Come December five years later (that is, after 59 months; he’s got 1 month left to reach his goals), his debt will be $16800 and his income is still $300/month pre-voluntary expenditures. Meeting his goal is impossible unless he suddenly generates a lot of income very quickly (i.e. selling everything he owns or taking out another loan).

    My claim was that the accountant who tells him it’s fine to reduce to $400 is doing him a disservice. Placed in the context of my earlier argument, that is all Bill would do for the entire 5 years, changing his final debt to $10900 that December. This is all your original statement argued against – any small change being silly. However, notice that the final debt is reduced by 35% even in this case?

    Let’s consider an even more “small-change focused” plan – instead of the one-time 20% reduction in spending, let’s go with just a 5% reduction, but repeated every month. I’m also not talking about 5% of the original reduction in spending, but 5% of the previous month.

    Under this model, his debt is completely eliminated in 48 months – a full year ahead of his goals. In fact, he could reach his goal of being debt-free in five years after less than two years of reductions. (Specifically, he can stop further reductions after 23 months and still be debt-free in under 5 years.) At just 5% every month, it’s never sudden nor terribly painful. (The biggest change is at the beginning, and it’s just $25. Maybe he buys one less book that month. By the end of two years, the change is just eight dollars from the previous month, and then it’s permanently fixed with no new changes in lifestyle for the remaining three years.)

    Now, to consider the impact of larger cuts to reach the five-year-debt-free level. You argue for no small changes now but big changes later. Let’s assume that Bill waits two years before making any changes to his lifestyle whatsoever. In order to get out of debt at the end of year 5, he’d need to make a whopping seventy-five percent monthly reduction. He needs to shave $375 off of his budget immediately when he starts reducing his expenses. To make matters worse, by choosing this plan at the start of the five years, he knows he’ll need to make those sharp cuts after two years – and since that’ll hurt a lot, he’s got a lot of incentive to give up or weaken the plan. However, if he weakens it at all, he won’t make his goal of being debt-free in five years.

    Now consider a third scenario – identical to the second, but with a single smallish cut right at the start (the same size as the 5% scenario – Bill shaves 5%, or $25, from his monthly expenditures at the start, then doesn’t change at all for two years, then begins serious cuts). Under this scenario, he can still meet his five-year-debt-free goal, but with only a forty percent cut per month. That’s right, a single small change at the start led to dramatically smoother transitions later down the road, even under an otherwise status-quo buildup.

    You’ll note the first one maps (roughly) on the policy system that’s been suggested by the “greenies”, while the second is closest to what policymakers (and apparently yourself!) currently call for (except it actually goes further since its aim is carbon concentration reduction). The third scenario merely illustrates the importance of small cuts early on, which was my point in the earlier note. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is a direct refutation of your claim that small changes now don’t matter and distract us from the final goal.

    By the way, these scenarios also have the critical assumption that Bill has five years to get out of debt, and that there’s no serious risk in doing that (i.e. he has little to no incentive to get out of debt sooner than 5 years). Sadly, we don’t have that luxury in climate change. The longer we wait, the greater the risk of crossing a tipping point. Therefore, the sooner we get out of “carbon debt”, the better.

    The sad part? Any idiot with ten minutes and Excel can do what I just did. No calculus involved this time. And yet apparently the difference between scenario 2 and scenario 3 is too subtle for you to grasp.

    Europe has done something similar, though apparently emissions have gone up on top of not getting others to go along.

    [Citation needed – EU trading system failed]. Especially in the face of contrary evidence.

    There’s an even smaller-scale counterexample, by the way, and in this case it answers your “what’s the point?” argument as well. From The Guardian:

    Between 1990 and 2006 Sweden cut its carbon emissions by 9%, largely exceeding the target set by the Kyoto Protocol, while enjoying economic growth of 44% in fixed prices.

    Under Kyoto, Sweden was even told it could increase its emissions by 4% given the progress it had already made. But “this was not considered ambitious enough,” explains Emma Lindberg, a climate change expert at the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation.

    “So parliament decided to cut emissions by another 4% [below 1990 levels]. The mindset was ‘we need to do what’s good for the environment because it’s good for Sweden and its economy’.”

    See the original for more details.

    Despite the similar physical climates, though, the political climate is totally different in Canada – Harper strongly represents Alberta, and the graph in the post illustrates Alberta’s goals here. Alberta, the place where the Conservative party actually voted against a very fiscally conservative plan that would have basically allowed the government to run off of interest off of provincial funds (which would have led to massive tax and royalty reductions), simply because it came from a Liberal and required a bit of oil royalties to start it off. Alberta, where, when hundreds of ducks die due to tar sands tailing ponds, the premier’s first response was to point out that wind turbines kill birds too (forgetting that for every 10,000 bird deaths attributable to human activity (other than hunting), less than one is from wind turbines, and that 1000 times as many die from housecats than from wind turbines). Alberta, where… well, look at the frakkin’ graph.

    Still waiting on your Munich Re citation here, by the way.

  6. Again, I think we are arguing past each other.
    Let’s redo the analogy. You have an income of $80,000 and $10,000 in the bank but this is going to drop in two years to $30000 because your job was shipped overseas. Now you need to get your budget under control. You spend the $10,000 to upgrade the energy efficiency of your house, lowering your energy bills by 70%. However, now you are facing less of a budget shortfall, but still a budget shortfall with no money in the bank. You are better off using the money to move to a cheaper place.

    >This is all your original statement argued against – any small change being silly. However, notice that the final debt is reduced by 35% even in this case?

    Yes, if this is considered a useful result, then your point is valid. But the scientists and the models tell us we need a much larger goal, and that this reduction is not close to being enough. This is why I think the focus should be on big changes. Make low carbon energy so cheap that everyone will use it.

  7. The analogy to a debt is the problem. I think the solutions require spending money, you see it as cutting spending.

  8. Well, of course Alberta is ridiculously high. They have all the resources. Watch as Newfoundland’s emissions skyrocket in the near future since they have begun seriously taking on the project of pumping out offshore oil. And although some may feel all warm and fuzzy knowing that Ontario/Quebec have reduced a fair amount, that is only because of the huge industry job losses. Quebec’s pulp and paper industry has headed to the toilet and Ontario’s manufacturing industries have mostly packed up and left.
    And even if Obama does decide to magically pull a 28% cut in emissions from his hat, what will be the cost? 1 trillion? Or more? It doesn’t make fiscal sense to make these drastic cuts.

    [Maybe not in the short term, but look at what reducing emissions vs letting climate change go unabated will mean for the economy (and many other areas of life) in the long term. -Kate]

  9. http://www.thegatesnotes.com/Thinking/article.aspx?ID=47
    Here’s Bill Gates’s comments.

    Conservation and behavior change alone will not get us to the dramatically lower levels of CO2 emissions needed to make a real difference. We also need to focus on developing innovative technologies that produce energy without generating any CO2 emissions at all.

    People often present two timeframes that we should have as goals for CO2 reduction – 30% (off of some baseline) by 2020 and 80% by 2050.

    I believe the key one to achieve is 80% by 2050.

    But we tend to focus on the first one since it is much more concrete. We don’t focus nearly enough on the things that put you on a path to making the 80% goal by 2050. To make the 80% goal by 2050 we are going to have to reduce emissions from transportation and electrical production in participating countries down to near zero.

  10. >Maybe not in the short term, but look at what reducing emissions vs letting climate change go unabated will mean for the economy (and many other areas of life) in the long term. -Kate]

    I think a large and growing economy is more likely to be able to deal with environmental issues. The dirtiest cities tend to be poor. Getting cheap clean energy is more likely in a wealthy economy, and a wealthy economy is more likely to be able to afford clean, expensive energy.

  11. MikeN – you already have one of the wealthiest economies in the world, what are you waiting for? The ‘dirty energy’ is all there in the oil sands but it’s your choice whether you burn it off.

    Eric – read the graph, it shows change in emissions. Alberta is so high because they’re INCREASING emissions

  12. Strictly speaking, those are targets – goals, not actual reductions or change in emissions. See my complaint above.

    I should probably bring up this province’s energy policy, but it’s funnier if I just mention the popular perennial bumper sticker, “Please, God, let there be another oil boom; I promise not to piss it away this time!”. This has been used pretty much every time oil prices have dropped since the 70s (coincidentally, around the same time the Conservatives captured the province. It’s been more or less a one-party system since then.)

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