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Canada v. Australia on Climate Science

20 June, 2013

This week is a good time to think about climate science, and especially how governments listen to, and act on, the recommendations of climate experts.  It’s a good time to think about climate experts here in Canada, because one year ago the Canadian government got rid of the main expert agency responsible for advising it on environmental issues, including climate change.  And in Australia the Climate Change Commission, a similar expert government advisory body, issued a major report that highlights that tackling climate change means leaving 80% of fossil fuel reserves in the ground.  Two different countries, and two very different attitudes towards climate science. 

In Canada

A year ago Canada’s Parliament passed Bill C38, the omnibus budget bill, which (among many other things):

  • cut funding to the National Roundtable on Environment and Economy (NRTEE) and
  • repealed the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act, which had required the NRTEE to report on Canada’s progress towards meeting its climate change goals. 

Government Ministers cited the NRTEE’s recommendations related to climate change and carbon pricing (which the Ministers insisted on characterizing as a carbon tax) as being a key factor in abolishing the NRTEE. 

The NRTEE had issued a series of very important reports looking at the impact of climate change on Canada – information that is crucial to understanding how and why Canada should act.  Check out their archived website and especially their publications page to get a sense of the range of advice and expertise that they had provided to successive federal governments.   The NRTEE finally closed their office this past March, and their leaked “farewell report” brings together the perspectives of many of the past and current NRTEE members on the importance of the round table.

Meanwhile in Australia

If Canada’s NRTEE was dismantled for daring to suggest carbon pricing, what would the Canadian government have done with a report like the one issued on Monday (June 17th) by the Australian Climate Change Commission?  The Critical Decade 2013 reviews the climate science and the impacts of climate change on Australia, but also says what few governments have dared to even talk about – that meeting climate change targets requires leaving carbon (aka fossil fuels) in the ground:

Most of the available fossil fuels cannot be burned if we are to stabilise the climate this century.

The burning of fossil fuels represents the most significant contributor to climate change.

  • From today until 2050 we can emit no more than 600 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to have a good chance of staying within the 2°C limit.
  • Based on estimates by the International Energy Agency, emissions from using all the world’s fossil fuel reserves would be around five times this budget. Burning all fossil fuel reserves would lead to unprecendented changes in climate so severe that they will challenge the existence of our society as we know it today.
  • It is clear that most fossil fuels must be left in the ground and cannot be burned.
  • Storing carbon in soils and vegetation is part of the solution but cannot substitute for reducing fossil fuel emissions.

Here’s a video of the press conference launching the report on Monday.  Here’s what report author, Will Steffen, says about this new reality at the press conference:

The back end of the report is really quite significant.  Because for the first time, I think the scientific community has really connected the dots around what all of these means. 

First of all, we’ve provided a lot of input to the judgment that countries around the world, including Australia, have made that we want to limit climate change to a temperature rise of no more than 2C above pre-industrial.  That’s policy… It’s been accepted by most countries around the world.  But so far there’s been a disconnect between that policy target and emissions of CO2.  We’re connecting the dots in this report.  
And it’s quite clear: to meet that policy target there is a limited amount of CO2 that can be emitted.  Scientists normally do this calculation between the year 2000 and about mid-century when we have to have decarbonized the economy. 

And the budget’s a nice number to remember – it’s about a trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide, and that sounds like a lot.  Two implications of that: 

One is that in the first 13 years, since 2000, we’ve consumed about 40% of the budget – far, far too fast.  We’ve only got about 60% left. 

Second, when you put absolute numbers on that what you find is that we can use only 20% of the fossil fuel reserves – the coal, oil and gas that are the ground – to stay within that budget, and keep a manageable climate for our children and grandchildren. That’s the crux of the problem.  … To make these goals compatible, we have to transition to clean energy sources and do it fast. 

The Critical Decade 2013 is accompanied by a fairly upbeat animation – Critical Choices in the Critical Decade – which paints a fairly upbeat picture about our ability to address climate change, while explaining a few key concepts about climate change.  If you have a moment, take a look (I'll embed the video at the bottom of this post). 

Support from the International Energy Agency

The Climate Commission is not the only recent expert report on the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground.  Last November, the International Energy Agency made similar statements in its annual World Energy Outlook, 2012, advising world governments to leave 2/3rds of fossil fuel reserves in the ground.  The IEA’s Chief Economist made similar statements just last week in Bonn:

About two-thirds of all proven reserves of oil, gas and coal will have to be left undeveloped if the world is to achieve the goal of limiting global warming at two degrees Celsius, according to the chief economist at the International Energy Agency.

Addressing participants in the latest round of UN climate talks in Bonn, Fatih Birol said this should be an “eye-opener” for pension funds with significant investments in the energy sector – particularly in coal – as well as for ratings agencies.

He predicted coal would be hardest hit in the “unburnable carbon” scenario, followed by oil and gas. “We cannot afford to burn all the fossil fuels we have. If we did that, it [average global surface temperature] would go higher than four degrees.

Conclusion

If it were still around, would the NRTEE be grappling with the issue of the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground, despite the tension between that reality and the Canadian government’s ambitions for the oil sands? 

We’ll never know.  Since the NRTEE wrote its last report, climate experts have been increasingly pointing to “global warming’s terrifying new math” – the reality that fossil fuel companies have way more oil, gas and coal than we can possibly burn if we want to meet global climate commitments.  Financial advisers are worried about the resulting “carbon bubble” – the inflated value of fossil fuel companies that are banking on their ability to burn large carbon reserves.

But even if the NRTEE is not around to tackle these issues, it’s nice to know that at least one government’s experts are putting this reality squarely before both the public and their government – even if it’s not happening in Canada. 

By Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer

Infographic and video taken from the Australian Climate Commission website.