Given the climate emergency, can Canadians overcome the political obstacles to dramatically reducing our dependence on fossil fuels? by Dianne Saxe

As an environmental lawyer and the former environmental commissioner of Ontario, I have spent 45 years at Canada’s battlefront between the economy, the environment, and law and government. These decades of difficult work produced hard-won, important victories that many people now take for granted. Because of civil society protests, government regulation and business innovation: urban and indoor air is cleaner; the ozone layer is recovering; acid rain, lead and mercury pollution are way down; the pesticides in food are less toxic to people. 

But the task Canadians have now is enormously more urgent and more difficult. The climate emergency and the devastation of ecosystems put the very future of human civilization at stake, largely because the lavish use of fossil fuels is destroying the natural systems on which all human lives depend.

“We have reached a point where the best-case outcome is widespread death and suffering by the end of this century, and the worst-case puts humanity on the brink of extinction,” says a 2019 report from the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

Canada is a major user, producer and exporter of fossil fuels. These fuels have helped make us prosperous, with a high quality of life that no one wants to give up, although they have done so only by ignoring the mounting cost to the natural world. The economic and technological tools that could effectively move Canada toward a low carbon economy would do so largely by increasing the cost of fossil fuels, but raising the cost of fossil fuels has often led to political backlash. This fall’s election is again polarized over a very modest step in the right direction, putting a small price on fuel, even though 90 percent of the money goes directly back to households.

Given that Canada’s largest emitting provinces have recently elected parties that reject almost all effective actions to reduce climate pollution, it is hard to be optimistic about Canadians rising to this challenge. But the consequences of failure are so dreadful that I feel obliged to keep speaking up. Perhaps it will help to break the challenge down into 10 key building blocks, which together address most of the questions people ask me. They range from a reminder that no one will do this work for us Canadians, to why we need to make fossil fuels cost more in order to make real change. But these 10 guiding principles can serve to steer us in the right direction of what we need to accept and what we need to do:

  1. Physics doesn’t compromise.
  2. We can’t count on magic. 
  3. No one will do it for us.
  4. We have lots to gain.
  5. Fossil fuels must cost more.
  6. For necessary demand, the cleanest supply.
  7. The green transformation must be big and fast
  8. Can’t do without indigenous reconciliation.
  9. Strive for climate justice. 
  10. Real facts, honest conversations.

1.     Physics does not compromise.

The climate crisis is not a normal political negotiation between different interests, where solutions come from compromise. The climate crisis is a collision between human beings and physics. Physics, like gravity, doesn’t compromise. 

Governments that treat the climate crisis as a “balance” between the economy and the environment are doomed to fail. Instead, our prosperity depends on respecting the limits of the natural systems on which our lives depend. They cannot keep absorbing our greenhouse gases (and other wastes). We’re already so close to the edge of disaster that every extra tonne worsens our chances against an overwhelming health, economic and environmental threat.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown us how close that edge is. For a world that is “only” 1.5° hotter, i.e. tough but mostly manageable, rich countries like Canada must cut emissions at least 45 percent by 2030, and emit zero net greenhouse gases by 2050. For a world that is “only” 2° hotter, i.e. less stable and safe than today with significant food and economic damage, rich countries must cut emissions at least 25 percent by 2030, and reach net zero by 2070.

This scale of reductions can only come from slashing the fossil fuels we burn, starting right now. We won’t get there if we burn all the fossil fuels that we have already found, much less keep exploring for more. We won’t get there if we keep investing in new ways to supply, or burn, fossil fuels. We won’t get there by improving carbon intensity while allowing totals to grow. We will only get there if we burn less fossil fuel every year than the year before.

2.     We cannot count on magic. 

It would be lovely if technology (and planting trees) would magically allow us to continue our current lifestyles without much effort or expense. I think we’d all vote for that; in fact, we’ve been betting the planet on it. But it is not a real option.

Technology and innovation do play a huge role. Solar and wind power, batteries, electric vehicles, LEDs, all make the transition to a greener economy easier, faster, and better for public health. There is enormous scope and financial opportunity for improvements in all areas of human activity, from agriculture to water to conservation and clean energy, and perhaps carbon capture and storage. Once we launch an all-out effort, innovators will likely find greener ways to meet human needs. And planting trees can take some carbon back out of the atmosphere over time, if the resulting forests can survive heat, drought, pests and fire.

But we’ve left it too late to just wait for someone, somewhere, to invent something to make it all easy. Inventions like that are rare, take time, and always have costs of their own. We have to slash our emissions now with what we already know how to do. 

3.     No one will do it for us.

“States, politicians, and corporations have consistently used bad economic arguments to stall climate action… that it would alter markets, threaten economic growth, harm citizens’ way of life, and kill jobs. This is … cynical and short-sighted.” — 2019 UN report

These arguments amount to either a refusal to believe the physics (“we don’t have to reduce;” “there is no rush”) or a claim that someone else will do it for us. No one else can, and no one else will.

It’s comforting to tell ourselves that our emissions are too small to matter, but Canada is one of the world’s 10 top climate polluters, and a highly visible one at that. The more fossil fuels that we burn today, the more expensive, disruptive and unmanageable climate damage will become. It is cynical, short-sighted and selfish to leave these mounting costs until “later”, i.e. to our kids. If we do, we will have earned their contempt.

Nor will poor countries, who have done much less than we have to create the climate crisis, do the heavy lifting for us. Instead, they will be looking to us for compensation, as they struggle with massive climate damage. And hundreds of millions may try to escape fire, flood, thirst and famine by migrating here. Wouldn’t you?

4.     We have lots to gain.

Yes, cutting climate pollution now is an enormous challenge for democratic politicians. Many people may not “want” to do what the climate crisis demands: to pay much more for energy, to use much less of it, to put longer-term, communal benefit first. But physics doesn’t care what we want. 

Putting the economy first got us into the current mess, and putting the economy first won’t get us out of it. But Canadians have a lot to gain from reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, on top of the climate imperative. 

“Climate action should not be viewed as an impediment to economic growth but as an impetus for decoupling economic growth from emissions and resource extraction, and a catalyst for a green economic transition, labour rights improvements, and poverty elimination.” — UN report

For example, the health benefits from reducing fossil fuel use are worth twice what they would cost. Air pollution from fossil-fuelled vehicles increases dementia and crime, and endangers the health of children, seniors and those who live or work close to heavy traffic. 

The worldwide market for green, low-carbon goods and services is already exploding and Canada has many strengths to build on. Energy conservation creates green jobs, and allows families, businesses and public institutions to spend less on heat and more on what matters most. Building complete communities instead of sprawling suburbs slashes commutes and saves taxes. 

And the federal carbon price “fee and dividend” approach helps to reduce inequality, by returning 90 percent of the money to all households.

5.     Fossil fuels must cost more.

Reducing climate pollution requires a dramatic reduction in demand for fossil fuels as well as in their supply. Reducing demand is primarily the responsibility of governments and of consumers. Individual choice matters but governments must make good choices practicable. Governments should maximize conservation and low-carbon electrification, design land-use to minimize fossil fuel use, and support investment in innovation and the green economy. 

But actions to reduce demand make little headway when fossil fuels are cheap. Every regulation, policy, subsidy and pipeline that increases the supply of fossil fuels, or reduces their cost, undermines efforts to reduce demand. Both energy conservation and low-carbon technologies have struggled in the face of low oil and gas prices since 2014, and Canadian fossil fuel consumption has risen.

Thus, fossil fuel demand will not drop in free markets until such fuels become much more expensive. We can’t expect the market to make fossil fuels expensive, because higher prices stimulate more supply, which brings the price back down. Since proven fossil fuel reserves are enormously larger than physics will allow us to burn without catastrophe, carbon pricing or regulation will have to keep them in the ground. 

6.     Meet necessary demand with cleanest practical supply.

It is not yet practicable to do some things without fossil fuels, so there will be some market for them for decades, perhaps longer for non-emitting uses of petroleum or with carbon capture and storage. 

That market should be met by the cleanest practical supply, counting transportation, remediation and spills. Conservation, renewable energy and low carbon electricity should be used whenever possible. Thermal coal should be eliminated ASAP. Gas can be cleaner than coal if producers and distributors eliminate leaks of unburned methane, but it’s still a significant fossil fuel that must be mostly phased out by 2050.

What about the oil sands? Since we must reduce emissions, the first step is to stop increasing them. Oil sands crude is more expensive and more polluting to produce than most other global crudes, due to the energy and water required to separate bitumen from sediment, and to upgrade it into crude. Oil sands producers are also building up a huge remediation liability.

Some producers now claim that they can produce oil sands crude with a lower environmental and climate footprint than competing sources of crude. If they can prove it, there should be a legitimate though declining market for their products in Canada and abroad.

7.     The green transformation must be big and fast.

It’s too late for incremental change. As pervasive and mainstream as fossil fuels are today, non-fossil energy must be tomorrow. Investment in low-carbon energy and efficiency must overtake fossil investments by 2025. 

For this, governments have essential roles that no one else can play. Transforming our relationship to fossil fuels requires enormously scaled up research, training, innovation, investment and infrastructure. Investors, municipalities and the private sector will jump in only with strong, long-term targets, rules and incentives. Most important are clear, predictable rules that do not change when governments do, including a steadily rising carbon price. As Ron Mock, president and CEO of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, said, speaking at the Canadian Club in 2016:

“It is critically important that the regulatory framework be independent and stable. You can’t invest $2-3 billion into a country only to find that every four years the rules have changed.” 

8.    We can’t make the transition without Indigenous reconciliation.

A big, fast green transformation will, among other things, probably require infrastructure (e.g. electricity transmission lines) on or across the territories of Indigenous peoples. Will Indigenous communities block such infrastructure, or help to build, operate and own it?

Federal and provincial governments and the public must recognize and uphold Indigenous rights to self-determination and collaborate fully with Indigenous people on decisions around placement, ownership,  development, and operation of any infrastructure on Indigenous land.

Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is essential and includes acknowledging that traditional knowledge can contribute to climate and energy solutions. Two-eyed seeing means taking the best of Indigenous and Western knowledge to create a sustainable future.

The interests and rights of Indigenous people can no longer be trampled. A new economic partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments and people can result in benefits for everyone.

9.     We must strive for climate justice.

The climate crisis will affect everyone, but some far more than others. Even within Canada, at least three groups have legitimate claims to climate justice:

  1. Those who suffer the gravest consequences of the climate crisis, such as remote and northern Indigenous communities. Typically, they are among those least responsible for the climate crisis, i.e. who have created the least climate pollution. Yet they suffer the most, e.g. from flooding, fire, erosion, loss of ice roads, and the disappearance or contamination of traditional foods, with neither the resources nor the insurance coverage to recover from environmental disasters. These communities deserve help to prepare for, and recover from, climate-related crises, and to shift away from fossil fuels. 
  2. Those who suffer disproportionately from carbon pricing, i.e. for whom rising energy costs are a particular challenge. It is hard for Canadians to accept paying more for energy. At a minimum, they will need strong evidence that the costs and opportunities of the energy transition are being fairly shared. Governments should help people make ends meet while reducing climate pollution, improving public health and building a sustainable economy, by helping Canadians reduce how much fossil energy they need to keep warm and to get around. Pushing down the price of fossil fuels instead is always the wrong answer. 
  3. Those who have contributed to climate pollution by producing fossil fuels, and who now face loss of their skills, livelihoods, savings and communities. These communities deserve a “just transition,” to help them find a meaningful place in the new economy.

10.  We need real facts and honest conversations.

We need to talk about the climate crisis and we must be impeccably honest with each other. This crisis will be hard enough without lies, such as the misleading carbon price stickers that the Ontario government forces gas stations to post.

The truth is, we are almost out of time. It is already too late for either consumers or producers to continue our current lifestyle unchanged. Only urgent action everywhere can stem the tide of climate disruption, preserve our way of life and turn this challenge into opportunity. Oil, gas and coal must decline, not grow. Consumers and business must pay much more for energy and use less. Everyone must innovate.

Canadians can pull together to meet this challenge. The sooner we act, the easier and less costly it will be. Instead of waiting for catastrophes to frighten us into action, we could seize opportunities to reduce fossil fuel use, to protect ecosystems, to improve public health and to build better lives. There will be adjustments along the way; we must all be willing to make some changes and some sacrifices. But the changes we need seem harder and scarier than they really are. We can still do this, if we act now.

This thought piece was first published by Open Canada.