The year-long preparations and lead-up by non-governmental organizations and activists to the UN COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this autumn many times reverberated as despairing voices in the night reaching out to have others join in to take on governments and corporations. In fact, guarded optimism was expressed. By the last day of the summit, November 13, the myriad voices could still be heard by everyone except G20 governments and their hundreds of entrenched fossil-fuel lobbyists. Towards the end of the conference some delegates walked out onto the streets to protest with youth and other individuals against the intransigence of rich nations that saw only their immediate political advantages, often broadcasts for oil and coal lobbyists, ultimately resulting in governments’ outright and belligerent refusal to join a global fight to save our climate. After all, this was not, as promised, the most inclusive climate summit, but quite the opposite: it was a meeting of wealthy men that kept out world youth as well as those who suffer most from climate breakdown. Many declared it a flop.
Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s new minister of Environment and Climate Change, speaking soon after the conference ended, concluded that Canada had shown the world how serious it was in confronting the myriad climate challenges. He said, “When Canada, with one of the four largest oil and gas reserves in the world, committed to cap emissions from the oil and gas sector at current levels, that got attention.” So far this and other ‘commitments’ have dissolved into aspirations, not resolutions.
The last 15 years of precipitously rising fossil-fuel use in Canada and the federal government’s self-imposed benediction to continue driving more pipelines to completion through First Nation territories make that aspiration sound particularly hollow, just as Canada’s previous nationally determined contributions, as they were called at the Paris summit, never came to fruition. Can we actually believe that Guilbeault, a past Greenpeace campaigner, will have the clout to turn federal policy away from enabling gas and oil multinationals? A letter signed by a number of Bishop’s University students asking Guilbeault to outline what he intends to do about the climate crisis has gone unanswered, as have letters to Justin Trudeau and our local MP Marie-Claude Bibeau, all submitted on Climate Action Day in early November.
A recent article by Barry Saxifrage in the National Observer entitled “Electrify everything? Canada cranks fossil burning instead” puts into perspective the grotesque failure of our federal government’s inaction in ending fossil-fuel production in Canada.
Saxifrage takes information from National Resource Canada’s Energy Use Data Handbook, which covers 2000 to 2018, and a remarkable set of graphs emerges. For example, from 2005 to 2018 fossil-fuel energy use grew at a rate 10 times that of electrical power. And while fossil-fuel energy use increased from 70% of total energy consumption in 2005 to 74% in 2018, in the same period electrical energy use diminished from 22% to 20%. This is happening while this government pledges cohesive action to draw down carbon in Canada. Thankfully wood is being used less for energy, but that is not because there is a policy to do so.
If our provincial and federal governments were truly dedicated to lowering climate pollution, we’d be moving much faster in the transportation sector, which accounts for the largest percentage of Canada’s carbon emissions. In 2018 an amazing 99.8% of transportation energy came from fossil fuels. Although governments are now offering incentives to buy electric cars, not enough has been done to speed the critical transition to those types of vehicle. If in Norway, which is also an oil producer, 50% of all car sales are electric, what’s stopping us here? Instead of Trudeau’s administration financing a disastrous pipeline forged with violence against youth activists, Indigenous peoples and old-growth forests, perhaps it could see through its destructive pro-oil smog to the urgent need for an increase in electric vehicle charging station infrastructure across Canada. Forget also about high percentages of electricity use in industry or agriculture: only when we examine residential and commercial energy does electricity crawl in the 40% range of providing zero-emission electricity.
With a little more helping hand from governments and Canada’s present zero-emission hydro, solar, wind and nuclear energies, which supply 83% of our electricity needs, production of electricity need not ever come from oil or gas. Of course, Québec’s hydro-electricity output is now even higher than that. Saxifrage quite rightly states, “Cleaning up our electricity has been Canada’s only real climate success so far. Now we need to get to work on the first part of the climate task as well—powering our economy and lives with our Canadian-made electricity instead of fossil fuels…because electricity carries all our climate-safe energy.”
Let’s not look only to large government agencies to turn the tide and transition to an “electrify everything” way of life. Local municipalities can do so much more. The word is conclusively out that air pollution is a major source of harm for communities. Why not ban all those disgusting drive-throughs in our towns and cities? Although there are financial incentives to dispose of oil furnaces and replace them with electric ones, governments can prohibit new houses from having them in the first place. At the moment only 25% of space and water heaters are powered by electricity. The installation of heat exchangers can also be promoted and encouraged.
Our fossil-fuel love fest has reached the very edge of the cliff of climate breakdown. Canada tragically distinguishes itself as the G7 nation with the worst climate pollution record. While other countries have lived up to their climate pledges of cutting emissions by 1% below 1990 levels, Canada remains the undisputed profligate nation. We haven’t kept our promise: from Mulroney to Trudeau those reduction targets have not been met.
What happened to robust Canadian 2030 targets, and where are our ambitions grounded? So far oil and gas subsidies have sidelined all our ambitions and, as we all know, long-range targets have been consistently abandoned by successive governments, including the present one. Grounded, did I say? How about keeping oil and gas in the ground and not burning it with disastrous consequences?
This inability to put down national shields of myopic self-interest leads us to the last days of 2021. More than ever humanity desperately and steadfastly must confront its 30-year failure to prevent climate catastrophe. Resolutions, not mere Paris summit aspirations, are called for now. New year resolutions to protect and nurture our planetary health ask each of us to do much more for future generations. Resolutions are not only made by individuals: governments and industry must also act resolutely in favour of global climate action. The time for an Earth constitution that protects all life must be given supremacy over all national ones.