New UN report confirms climate change, but will Canada act?

So far, little has been done

(Photo: Steven Kazlowski/Get Stock)

(Photo: Steven Kazlowski/Get Stock)

It comes out only once every six years, and it’s the most authoritative document on climate science out there. But when the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change lands on Sept. 27, it’s unlikely to change Canada’s wait-and-see approach to emissions control.

Even before its release, AR5 has given the various interest groups in the climate debate an excuse to burrow deeper into their positions. Leaks of its contents confirm that the planet is warming as a result of human activity, though not quite as fast as previously thought.

“We haven’t really changed our understanding in the last few years. We’ve become more and more confident,” says Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria, lead author of a chapter in the report and now a Green Party MLA in B.C.

Unfortunately, that greater scientific certainty will do little to foster political consensus on appropriate action. Since the last IPCC report came out in 2007, the global economic collapse, along with Stephane Dion’s ill-fated “Green Shift,” hobbled the chances of Canada-wide climate law. Even more modest efforts like the Western Climate Initiative have stalled. Just California and Quebec are moving forward with what was meant to be a continental carbon market.

It was only the U.S, government’s decision to tie approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to the question of whether it would “significantly exacerbate” carbon pollution that prompted Prime Minister Stephen Harper to make a proposal to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the energy sector. But it could be too late; Keystone has become the defining climate-change question facing the Obama administration. The IPCC report ensures the pressure from the Democrat’s left flank will not abate.

The only significant Canadian policy move in the past six years has been B.C.’s imposition of a carbon tax in 2008. While the federal Conservatives have claimed that such a tax would be a job killer, B.C.’s experience hasn’t borne that out. From 2008 to 2011, the levy—which was matched by cuts to other taxes—reduced petroleum consumption by 16.4% compared to the rest of Canada, while not affecting economic growth, according to a report by Canada 2020’s Diana Carney. “It is from the B.C. experience that we should be able to learn the most. The 2009 election there showed that pricing carbon can be feasible politically,” she wrote.

Even big oil companies favour a national carbon levy over the industry-by-industry, province-by-province approach taken to date. But as Weaver notes, the Tories will only act to quell criticism abroad. Whether AR5 returns climate change to the top of the global political agenda remains to be seen.