Enough theory - let's see Kyoto in practice

Now that the latest UN report has ended debate on global warming (again), the alarmists must come up with a plan. Yes, I’m skeptical. But despite my own bouts of exasperation, I find all the shouting in public policy tiresome. So I decided to ask civilly what such a plan might look like. And it paid off. No, really. I asked the main Canadian political parties, the Sierra Club of Canada and the David Suzuki Foundation about specific options for tacking Canada’s greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions. The Tories didn’t respond. But everyone else was helpful.

First, they agreed that we do know the main sources of GHGs, thanks to Environment Canada’s 451-page National Inventory Report 1990-2004: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada (www.ec.gc.ca/pdb/ghg/inventory_report/2004_report/2004_report_e.pdf ). It says about half of GHGs come from three big sources (coal-, oil- and gas-fired power stations; the “upstream” extraction of fossil fuels including the tar sands; and heavy industry such as smelting, chemicals and cement), another quarter from transportation, followed in importance by residential and commercial use, agriculture and forestry, then other industry.

Second, I found enough agreement on possible solutions to discern, like it or not, what Canada’s Kyoto plan will look like if there ever is one. Everyone I spoke to except Green party deputy leader Adriane Carr started with a “cap and trade” permit system covering the “big three” emitters listed above (and she did mention caps, but her first step was a moratorium on expanding oil sands and offshore drilling). And in principle “cap and trade” is quite simple.

The government issues permits to current “big three” emitters for their current GHGs. They can’t emit more. And no one else can emit any, in those industries, unless they buy out some of a current emitter’s permits. Moreover, the GHG quota of each permit will shrink year by year until it hits the Kyoto target of six per cent below 1990 levels. The time frame and details varied (David Suzuki Foundation Policy Analyst David Marshall, for instance, insisted on forcing each emitter down to six per cent below their own 1990 levels, as a blanket 30-per-cent cut would penalize conscientious “early actors”). But there was broad agreement on the main idea, including from John Godfrey, chair of the Liberal Caucus Committee on Environmental Sustainability.

That doesn’t mean it will work. I’m not sure how you reassign 1990 emissions from firms or facilities that no longer exist to ones that didn’t back then. Also, if you allow international trading of permits, there’s a real danger of buying phantom reductions, either through legalistic fiddling abroad or outright fraud. And no matter how you slice it, if trying to cut emissions by a third brings economic ruin, our own and other governments will blink, issue new permits, and ruin the whole scheme. Still, it’s clear that if anything happens, it will include a big three cap-and-trade.

A Kyoto plan would also include legally requiring better fuel efficiency for trains, planes and automobiles. Again, details varied, but everyone wanted a 25-to-30-per-cent improvement within 10 years. Mind you, if cars do get way more efficient, people might drive more, not use less gas. But it’s coming all the same.

I also found strong support for stricter energy-efficiency requirements for new homes and office buildings (Ms. Carr also strongly urged subsidies to retrofit older buildings) and for new appliances. Here NDP environment critic Nathan Cullen singled out “vulture appliances” including computers that draw lots of power even in standby mode, while Ms. Carr wanted incandescent light bulbs phased out for ordinary home use. Which Australia just did.

So there’s the basic plan. Expensive? You bet. And only Sierra Club of Canada atmosphere and energy campaigner Emilie Moorhouse mentioned problematic Third World noncompliance. But at least everyone had specific proposals to debate.

Moreover, the last time energy was a big federal issue, with the dreaded NEP, it was hard to get even Conservatives to use the language of economics. This time the NDPer praised “cap-and-trade” because “it will free up the capital to flow to the cheapest solutions that the industry can find. ... a market-oriented approach that actually came out of the U.S. ...” The Suzuki Foundation guy dismissed one scheme as “senseless from a market point of view.” And the Green party wanted “full-cost accounting” for coal-fired electric power. It’s music to my ears.

It doesn’t mean a Kyoto compliance plan will ever emerge, let alone work. But it means we know what it will look like if it does emerge.

Which at least helps us talk rather than shout.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson