Josephine V. Yam

Is Canada Ready for the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference?

At the 2015 Canadian Association of Environmental Law Societies Conference held at the University of Calgary last week, I presented a brief overview of global, Canadian and provincial developments in carbon pricing and greenhouse gas reduction policies.  One of the questions I sought to address was whether Canada can be expected to have a strong, ambitious national carbon pricing policy in time for the Paris climate change conference in December 2015.

Indeed, the Paris climate conference has been touted as the "world’s last best chance to reach an agreement on cutting carbon emissions."  As successor to the Kyoto Protocol, the international climate change treaty that emerges from Paris will consolidate all the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) of more than 190 developed and developing countries.  The INDCs are countries’ plans that articulate their greenhouse gas (GHGs) reduction targets and how these will be achieved, including the possible use of market-based mechanisms such as emissions trading and carbon taxes.

“Ambitious but achievable” are adjectives that the 
Guardian used to describe the upcoming Paris international climate treaty. Why? Last November 2014 in China, U.S. President. Barack Obama & China President Xi Jinping forged a historic deal that their countries, the two largest emitters in the world, would commit to significantly reduce their GHGs. For the U.S., Obama committed to cutting its GHGs between 26% and 28% by 2025 over the 2005 baseline period. For China, Xi Jinping committed to peaking its GHG emissions by 2030. China is also poised to officially launch a national emissions trading market in 2016. Not to be outdone, the European Union, which has the largest emissions trading scheme in the world with 30 countries participating, also committed to cutting its GHGs by 40% by the year 2030 using a 1990 baseline. Interestingly, even Pope Francis is scheduled to issue an encyclical this year to encourage his 1.2 billion Catholic followers to take action on climate change because it is a moral responsibility.

With bold, significant steps by the U.S., China and the European Union, the question arises: Will Canada follow suit and forge ahead with a strong, ambitious national climate policy in time for the Paris climate conference?  To address this question, it may be helpful to recall Canada’s historical record on the climate file.

In 1997, Canada made a binding commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce its GHGs by 6% below 1990 levels by 2012. In 2011, Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol because it had already emitted 30% more above its Kyoto obligation.  If Canada fulfilled its Kyoto obligation, the government claimed that it would cost Canada $14 billion or about $1,600 for every Canadian family.

Because the federal government knew that Canada would fail in its 2012 Kyoto obligation, as early as 2009, it committed the country to a non-binding commitment to reduce its GHGs by 17% below 2005 levels under the Copenhagen Accord.  As of 2014, however, Canada has already missed its Copenhagen target by 122 megatonnes of CO2e.

Given Canada’s dismal record of keeping its climate reduction obligations, it appears that Canada is not poised to emerge with a strong, ambitious national carbon pricing policy at the Paris climate conference. This conclusion is buttressed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper who 
avowed: “It’s not that we don’t seek to deal with climate change, but we seek to deal with it in a way that will protect and enhance our ability to create jobs and growth, not destroy jobs and growth.”

To fill in this void on federal climate policy, several provinces have gone ahead and established their own carbon pricing schemes. Alberta has its emissions intensity trading scheme, being the first jurisdiction to legislate on reducing GHGs in North America. British Columbia has a revenue-neutral carbon tax scheme, which has won praise from the OECD and the World Bank. Quebec has a cap-and-trade scheme which is linked with California’s scheme through the Western Climate Initiative. Ontario has cut its emissions by 6% below 1990 levels and will soon be implementing either a cap-and-trade scheme or a carbon tax this year.

But there is still time for Canada to act. It should seize this rare opportunity to repair its poor climate change reputation by joining the 
74 national governments that the World Bank has reported as supporting a strong carbon price. In doing so, Canada can manifest its climate leadership in time for the Paris climate conference. However, this can only happen if the Canadian government can muster within itself the strong political will and courage to do so.

By 2023, a Changed World in Energy

“When it comes to energy, the rule of the game is to expect the unexpected,” observed energy historian Daniel Yergin in the New York Times article, “By 2023, a Changed World in Energy”.

Yergin noted: “So much effort is going into research, development and innovation all across the energy spectrum, 10 years from now we may well see the next game changer.”

Writer Clifford Krauss recalls that, in 2003, American natural gas fields were thought to be depleting rapidly such that expensive terminals for natural gas importation, not exportation, were being built. U.S. oil production was likewise declining at rapid rates.

Now, ten years later, the U.S. is well on its way to become energy independent, thanks in no small part to new drilling technology that has made its oil and natural gas fields much more productive. In fact, in its latest World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that the U.S. will overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world's top oil producer by 2017. This will have massive geopolitical consequences, as the U.S. will no longer depend on undemocratic regimes like Venezuela or Nigeria for obtaining its oil supply.

So what will the energy world look like in 2023? It will be a different energy world where there will be widespread adoption of electric cars, solar panels by business and households and trains and trucks guzzling on natural gas. It will be a world where renewable energy sources will become dominant, accounting "for 32 percent of the overall growth in electricity generation through 2040.”

According to the IEA, the emerging market economies, like China, will still be reliant on fossil fuels through 2035. Yet, it reports that China’s new government has committed to investing more than $70 billion a year in clean energy projects, in recognition of the imperative sustainability path that it must undertake to quench its still growing energy appetite.

“Much of the future of energy will depend on government policy, of course,” noted Krauss. And indeed, a clean energy world will only be possible if governments around the globe arm themselves with the solid political will and foresight to bravely implement policies that support sustainable growth that is so crucial in this carbon-constrained decade.

Sustainable Development: Intersection of Economy & Environment

It is crucial that you get the attention of the "people who hold the purse strings", namely Finance Ministers, if you want countries to strategically move towards sustainable development, said Rachel Kyte, World Bank VP for Sustainable Development, In her blog "Why Finance Ministers Care About Climate Change & Sustainable Development",

She said that climate change was front and centre of discussions among the world's Finance Ministers at their annual World Bank/IMF Spring Meeting in Washington this weekend. Climate change "isn’t just an environmental challenge, it’s a fundamental threat to economic development and the fight against poverty... If the world does not take bold action now, a disastrously warming planet threatens to put prosperity out of reach for millions and roll back decades of development."

Fortunately, there has been great progress around the world in the fight against climate change. For example, an increasing number of countries have or are in the process of establishing their carbon markets to link with each other and put a price on carbon. This market-based approach will effectively help drive greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) down and spur clean energy investments. Through the Partnership for Market Readiness (PMR) established by the World Bank, countries around the world explore innovative and cost-efficient ways to drive down GHGs while building financial flows.

Indeed, it is crucial to have had that discussion among the Finance Ministers, to discuss with them that the fight against climate change is a win-win proposition for both their countries' valuable environments and value-based economies.

U.S., China Forge Historic Deal on Climate Change

"Groundbreaking" is the appropriate word to describe the United States - China deal recently forged to jointly combat climate change. Being the world’s two biggest economies and greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters, their monumental “call to action” to reduce GHGs will be undertaken "by advancing cooperation on technology, research, conservation, and alternative and renewable energy."

The National Post article reported that this deal was reached during U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to China this weekend. Kerry is known to be a staunch advocate for advancing U.S. policies on GHG reduction and climate change.

The U.S.-China joint statement forcefully enunciated that both countries “consider that the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding climate change constitutes a compelling call to action crucial to having a global impact on climate change.” Moreover, they recognize that an “urgent need to intensify global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions… is more critical than ever” and believe that “such action is crucial both to contain climate change and to set the kind of powerful example that can inspire the world.”

Noted Alden Meyer, representative for the Union of Concerned Scientist in the United States: By “pledging to set the kind of powerful example that can inspire the world," both countries "raise expectations" that they "will move more forcefully to confront the threat of climate change."

Yet, as we all know, the devil will surely be in the details. So we wait in anticipation as the U.S. and China discuss the details of this historic deal in an upcoming Strategic and Economic Dialogue meeting later this July.

5 Steps for Business-friendly Climate Agenda

Eric Pooley provides five steps that President Obama should take to address climate change in his second term. In his Harvard Business Review article, “A Business-Friendly Climate Agenda for Obama's Second Term”, Pooley outlines how the president can fulfill his promise to ensure that America "isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet". He emphasizes that the following 5 steps can only be successful with the active support and participation of private industry.

1. Feed the conversation. President Obama can start by simply by talking about the issue and helping Americans see the relationship between emissions, climate change and extreme weather. This conversation is crucial as it engages the voices from private industry, including insurance companies, pension funds, banks and small business. To be politically viable, climate solutions must be economically sustainable.

2. Reduce climate accelerants. President Obama can take immediate steps to reduce potent greenhouse gases other than carbon, such as methane and fluorinated gases used in refrigerants and industrial applications. Although carbon is most ubiquitous, these substances are "climate accelerants", which means that they accelerate global warming the same way gasoline fuels a fire.

3. Start a clean energy race. President Obama can reduce subsidies for fossil fuels, continue tax credits for renewable energy while increasing R&D funding. Congress should pass national clean energy standards, which would require states to get more energy from renewables. Obama should also encourage private capital to invest in low-carbon energy by removing barriers to investments in efficiency and renewables.

4. Use the Clean Air Act. President Obama should use the Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, under authority confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA. This means vigorously defending the clean-air rules that his administration has already put in place, including the historic higher fuel economy standards for new cars and trucks and restrictions on the emission of mercury and other toxic air pollution for power plants. His administration should also set CO2 emission standards for new and existing power plants through flexible and economically efficient approaches.

5. Put a price on carbon. President Obama should heed the call of economists from across the political spectrum that believe that the most economically efficient way to cut carbon pollution is by imposing a price via a carbon tax or through cap and trade. Either would be a powerful incentive to produce cleaner power and could be accompanied by lower taxes on labor or capital, easing the impact on working families and business. As the U.S. moves toward a fiscal cliff, there is slew of discussions in Washington about raising revenue through a carbon fee. It could be in the form of a carbon tax starting at $20 per metric ton and rising at 6% a year that could raise $154 billion by 2021.

A Case for Clean Subsidies

In his Harvard Business Review article entitled “The Case for Clean Subsidies”, James Bacchus argues that the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) should be amended to create an exemption for green energy. These type of exemptions are not new. Many years ago, exemptions that helped achieve ”new environmental requirements” were agreed upon during the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations for subsidies. Unfortunately, these exemptions expired in 2000.

Due to the proliferation of governmental subsidies for clean energy worldwide, Bacchus notes that international trade disputes over green energy have been noticeably accelerating at the WTO. This is because these type of subsidies “distort trade by lowering costs for local manufacturers, thus reducing access to local markets for foreign companies and giving local manufacturers an unfair advantage in exporting to other markets.”

Yet, because fossil fuels are so much cheaper than renewable energy and and because greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fossil fuels are accelerating climate change, market forces cannot be relied upon to determine the world’s future energy use. Verily, there is far more at stake than a simple price tag.

While imposing a carbon tax that puts a price on carbon could be effective, such initiative could be politically unworkable. Thus, he proposes that “the only practical political alternative for producing renewable energy competitively seems to be subsidies” because they “ease the necessary shift to low-carbon economies”. However, these subsidies cannot succeed so long as the WTO rules make them illegal under international law. Consequently, amending the WTO rules to make an exemption for green subsidies appears imperative in order to successfully address climate change.

Energy and Climate Change in Obama's To-Do List

In the New York Times article, “A To-Do List for the Next For Years”, Carol Browner proposes the need for President Barack Obama to finally execute on a climate change agenda. Ms. Browner was former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy from 2009 to 2011 and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1993 to 2001.

“Energy and climate change, two issues that deeply divide the country, stand out as major pieces of unfinished business for the Obama administration,” she notes. Nevertheless, she points out that President Obama has unequivocally stated that “even for those who don’t believe climate change is real, the benefits of clean energy -- cleaner air, energy independence, American jobs and enhanced global competitiveness -- are just too important to ignore.”

How then can President Obama execute on a climate change agenda? By using his executive authority and by leverage existing energy laws.

The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the EPA’s authority to limit greenhouse gases that endanger public health. Browner recalls that during his first term as president, Obama used an energy bill signed by George W. Bush to reach an agreement on cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars. Car manufacturers had business certainty, consumers saved money at the pump and the environment became cleaner. She notes that President Obama can use this existing authority to work with the electric utilities to reduce carbon pollution and secure greater energy efficiency while providing business certainty.

Ms. Browner also recommends that given the abundance of natural gas, the Obama administration must ensure that “fracking” is done in accordance with strong public health standards. Also, instead of 20 to 30 different state regulations that are imposed on fracking businesses, the Obama administration should just develop one set of national requirements based on the best available science and technology while leaving the oversight and enforcement up to the states.

Indeed, by executing on a strong climate change agenda in the next 4 years, President Obama can ensure that the U.S. moves steadily and unconditionally towards a sustainable, clean energy future.

Norway Sets One of World’s Highest Carbon Tax Rates

The International Herald Tribune recently reported that Norway is set to almost double its CO2 tax rate for offshore oil and gas production beginning in January 2013. Indeed, the Norwegian government is setting one of the highest carbon tax rates in the world by increasing the CO2 tax rate from 210 Norwegian Krone (about €28) to 410 Krone (about €55) per ton of CO2. A substantial part of the newly generated tax revenue will go into the government’s investments in clean energy, the environment and public transportation.

Many have lauded Norway’s sharp increase in carbon taxes for energy producers as exemplary. “The higher the tax, the more aggressive a signal the government is going to send about the need to lower carbon emissions,” said Janet Milne, a director of the Vermont Law School’s Environmental Tax Policy Institute. “You have to get fairly high carbon tax rates in order to get a significant long-term change in behavior,” she said.

“The EU prefers a system that taxes more of what we burn and less of what we earn. If we want to consume less energy, we need a smarter way of taxing,” said Isaac Valero-Ladron, the EU Spokesman for Climate Action.

According to the Australian Climate Commission, by 2013, 33 countries and 18 states and provinces (referred to as "sub-national jurisdictions") will have some sort of levy associated with the emission of CO2.

Designing Carbon Pricing: Questions that Policymakers Should Address

In its 2012 publication entitled "Fiscal Policy to Mitigate Climate Change: A Guide for Policymakers", the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stated that revenue-raising carbon pricing is the instrument that effectively addresses climate change. It noted that carbon pricing can either be in the form of carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems with allowance auctions. What is crucial is that it is well-designed in terms of comprehensively covering emissions.

Thus, in designing carbon pricing legislation, the IMF suggested that policymakers give due consideration to the following questions:
  • How strong is the case for carbon pricing instruments over regulatory approaches (e.g., standards for energy efficiency or mandates for renewables)? How do carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems compare? What might be some promising alternatives if “ideal” pricing instruments are not viable initially?
  • How is a carbon pricing system best designed in terms of covering emissions sources, using revenues, overcoming implementation obstacles (e.g., by dealing with competitiveness and distributional concerns), and possibly combining them with other instruments (e.g., technology policies)? How might pricing policies be coordinated across different countries?
  • How should policymakers think about the appropriate level of emissions pricing?
  • How important is inclusion of the forest sector in carbon pricing schemes? How feasible is this in practice?
  • What should be the priorities for developing economies in terms of fiscal reforms to reduce emissions?
  • From the perspective of raising funds from developed economies to fund climate projects in developing economies, what are the most promising fiscal instruments? How should they be designed?
  • What lessons can be drawn from experience with emissions pricing programs, like the European Emissions Trading System (ETS) or the various carbon tax programs to date?

The IMF argued that the choice between carbon taxes and emissions trading systems is generally less crucial than implementing one of them and getting the design details right. What is important is that carbon pricing must comprehensively cover emissions and avoid wasting its revenue potential by granting free allowance allocations in cap-and-trade systems or allocating revenues for unimportant policy outcomes.

EU Inclusion of Airline Emissions triggers International Law Dispute

The brewing international controversy of airline emissions being included in the EU ETS highlights one of the risks of the EU unilaterally imposing a carbon market on its member countries while China, US and other major economies do not have their own carbon markets, as reported in the New York Times.

The Law

The European initiative, which was effective on January 1, 2012, involves folding aviation into the six-year-old emissions trading system, in which polluters can buy and sell a limited quantity of permits, each representing a ton of carbon dioxide. The law requires airlines to account for their emissions for the entirety of any flight that takes off from — or lands at — any airport in the EU bloc. While airlines landing or taking off in Europe are included in the EU ETS beginning January 1, 2012, they do not have to start paying anything until April 2013.

The goal of this European initiative is to speed up the adoption of greener technologies at a time when air traffic, which represents about 3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, is growing much faster than gains in efficiency.

Consequences of the Law

Airlines will have to buy 15 percent of their emissions certificates at auction. Carbon emissions from planes will initially be capped at 97 percent of the 2004-2006 levels. The emissions rules apply from the moment an aircraft begins to taxi from the gate, either en route to or from a European airport, and they cover emissions for the flight from start to finish — not just the portion that occurs in European airspace.

Why the EU went ahead with the Law

Governments and airlines have been in negotiations for more than a decade over the creation of a global cap-and-trade system under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a U.N. agency that handles global aviation matters. The organization’s 190 member countries passed a resolution in 2010 committing the group to devising a market-based solution, though without a fixed timetable. Impatient with the pace of those talks, the European Commission moved ahead with its own plan, which was passed two years ago with the support of national governments and the European Parliament.

Airline Industry Raise Vehement Objections

Some 26 countries, including China, Russia and the United Countries, formally showed their dissatisfaction with the European system — a move that heralds a possible commencement of a formal dispute procedure at the ICAO. They have questioned whether this EU directive is invalid. Their arguments include the following:

1) Why the requirements apply to emissions from the entire flight, not just the portion that occurs within EU airspace?

2) In applying its environmental legislation to aviation activities in third countries' airspace and over the high seas, the E.U. has violated fundamental and well-established principles of customary international law.

3) The EU's actions infringe on the notion that each nation has sovereignty over its territory, a universally recognized principle of international law

4) By acting unilaterally, the European Union also breached international obligations that require such matters to be resolved by consensus under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a U.N. agency that handles global aviation matters.

China's Reaction

China announced that its carriers would be forbidden to pay any charges under the European emissions system without Beijing’s permission. It also threatened retaliation, such as impounding European aircraft, if the EU punishes Chinese airlines for not complying with its emissions trading scheme. In fact, this dispute halted China's purchase of Airbus planes worth up to $14 billion. However, during Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Beijing last August, China signed an agreement with Germany for 50 Airbus planes worth over $4 billion.

U.S. Reaction

The U.S. Senate recently passed a bill that would protect U.S. airlines from paying for their carbon emissions on European flights. Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill said that “Americans shouldn’t be forced to pay a European tax when flying in U.S. airspace.” The U.S. bill increases pressure on the ICAO to formulate a global alternative to the EU law.

EU Response to China and the other countries

The EU posits that the ETS is not a charge or a tax but a cap-and-trade system. Its defense includes the following claims:

1) The purpose of our legislation is to reduce emissions, not make money.

2) Including aviation in the ETS is "fully consistent with international law" because the EU is not seeking to extend its authority outside of its airspace.

3) However, given the complaints of China and other countries, the EU could suspend parts of a new law requiring airlines to account for their greenhouse gas emissions if countries were to make clear progress this year toward establishing a global emissions control system

The EU Commission said that the EU would only repeal or amend the law if there was an international deal to tackle emissions from planes, which account for less than 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

U.S. Adopts Stricter Fuel Efficiency Standards

The Obama administration recently issued final rules that would require automakers to nearly double the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks by 2025, reported The New York Times. This new fuel efficiency mandate requires an average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon (mgp) for the 2025 model year. Existing rules for the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) program require an average of about 29 mpg, with gradual increases to 35.5 mpg by 2016.

Obama announced that the stricter fuel standards represent “the single most important step” his administration has ever taken to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The benefits are numerous: reduction in oil consumption by 12 billion barrels; savings of $1.7 trillion in fuel costs; average savings of more than $8,000 a vehicle by 2025; reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2025 through the elimination of six billion tons over the course of the program; and creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs by increasing the demand for new technologies.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney criticized the new fuel efficiency standards as “extreme” as they “would limit the choices when consumers shop for a new car.” Remarked Romney’s camp: “The president tells voters that his regulations will save them thousands of dollars at the pump, but always forgets to mention that the savings will be wiped out by having to pay thousands of dollars more upfront for unproven technology that they may not even want.”

Nevertheless, in a New York Times’ Op-ed article entitled “Cleaner Cars, a Safer Planet”, it was noted that this fuel efficiency mandate is “an important step on America’s path to a lower-carbon and more-secure energy future…. They may also serve as proof that well-tailored government regulation can achieve positive results and that consensus among old enemies — in this case environmentalists and the car companies — is possible even at a time of partisan discord.”

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