Balancing the Carbon Budget in Trudeau’s Canada

The Prime Minister is (without realizing it) calling for economic transformation; we must heed the call

Trudeau and Obama at APEC.

Recently-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau surprised many when he endorsed the global climate target of 1.5˚ C (or less) of increase in the global mean temperature. He has been showered with accolades by the likes of Equiterre, ForestEthics, Environmental Defense, and other green groups.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May said she was “over the moon” about the new non-binding target, which scientists say would prevent, among other impacts, multi-metre sea level rise that would wipe out small island states, much of the eastern seaboard, and Vancouver’s $25 billion of real estate.

Everyone agrees that the new target is ambitious, and certainly a scientific consensus shows that a 1.5˚ increase is as high as we can go without risking feedback effects that could lead to global ecological collapse—apocalyptic scenarios starting with famine, water shortages and war and extending into the end of human life on earth.

Doing the Math

What does getting to 1.5˚ actually mean for Canada?

Media outlets love to talk about balancing the budget, but so far they are loath to mention the rather more important carbon budget. The carbon budget is the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that the entire planet can afford to emit before exceeding a certain temperature increase.

According to climate scientists, the amount of carbon the whole planet can burn if we want to stay under Trudeau’s laudable target is 400 billion tonnes of CO2... starting in 2011. That means that once we get to 400 billion tonnes, we have to stop completely. That, of course, would be impossible, but it gives you a sense of the urgency.

According to climate studies cited by the Carbon Brief, that means that we globally have about six years of current emissions before we have to choose one: either stop burning fossil fuels completely, or keep inching toward the apocalypse.

Here’s a handy chart with the different options expressed in the number of years it would take to spend the budget at current rates:

So how much can Canada emit to stay consistent with a 1.5˚ goal?

The whole planet had 400 billion tonnes of CO2 left in its budget in 2011. If we divide that by the approximate world population of 7 billion, that leaves around 57 tonnes per person. Multiply that by 35 million Canadians, and that leaves a total carbon budget of 1.9 billion tonnes of CO2 for Canada.

In 2013, Canada emitted 726 million tonnes of CO2. Assuming that number didn’t change drastically between 2011 and 2015, that means Canada spent all of its per capita carbon budget… sometime in the summer of 2014.

In other words, to fulfill our government’s climate goals, we have to completely stop emitting CO2… well over a year ago.

“Never tell me the odds”

If you run the same calculation for the 1 trillion-tonne global carbon budget that would give Earth a 66% chance of staying under +2˚, Canada has about 8 years left.

Now, one can make the case that Canada should have a greater per capita CO2 budget because it’s a colder country. One could also make the case that Canada has benefitted from burning more carbon than most poor countries, and thus should get far less of the future emissions in the name of equity.

As it stands, the refusal of media, corporations and politicians to clearly communicate the basic facts amounts to a suicidal course that also is an implicit endorsement of Canadian exceptionalism. In effect, the unstated argument is that Canada should be able to emit more than anyone else, past, present and future, without giving any justification whatsoever.

The discussion of what our carbon budget is, and how we’re going to stick within it, is urgently needed.

But no matter what exceptions or tweaks one makes to the per capita estimates above, the implications will remain the same. They all point to the immediate and pressing need for a full-scale industrial mobilization along the lines of WWII to:

  • Convert transportation systems to stop using fossil fuels
  • Develop cheap renewable energy technology that can be widely deployed and given away to developing countries
  • Create low-energy, highly-localized food systems
  • Phase out tar sands production in particular and fossil fuel extraction in general
  • Massive incentives for building retrofits and energy-efficiency improvements in every facet of life

The various arguments that Canada (despite being a top per-capita emitter) accounts for a small proportion of total global emissions miss the point. Canada is one of the richest countries in the world, and has a highly-developed education system and industrial infrastructure. How can we expect the burgeoning middle classes of China and India (for example) achieve a low- to no-carbon lifestyle if Canada can’t pull it off?

What are our engineers, scientists and workers doing? Most of our highest-paid brainpower is devoted to developing mining techniques, algorithms for stock market speculation and derivatives trading, pharmaceuticals that will be used by wealthy minority, oil extraction, apps and games, luxury jets, cars and advanced military hardware.

That’s not because smart individuals chose those options from a list; it’s because that’s where the most and highest-paid job openings are for scientists, engineers and genius-level geeks.

Balancing the carbon budget means transforming the economy

What if we had these folks working on solar tech breakthroughs, carbon-reducing farming techniques, mag-lev rail transport and digging geothermal energy systems under cities (to cite a few examples).

That, of course, would mean a radical departure from economic orthodoxy. It would, in effect, mean moving away from letting the market decide what our collective priorities are. Since the market has decided that its main priorities are extending the lives of ever-richer rich people while keeping them entertained, extracting limited natural resources and creating new high-tech ways to blow up things and people, that wouldn’t be such a loss.

Rejecting the market doesn’t necessarily mean making the state bigger. While the state is the only mechanism the can conceivably wrest control from the market, there are ready-and-waiting alternatives to state control of the economy. Deeply incentivizing established cooperative models — which already govern several multi-billion-dollar businesses in Canada, and employ 250 million people worldwide—could be a way to create environmental solutions that also address inequality.

If we take Trudeau’s commitment to implementing the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as seriously as the 1.5˚ limit, it looks like we have a closet revolutionary living at 24 Sussex.

If there’s a different way to keep the world under a 1.5˚ increase without taking many of those steps, Trudeau isn’t telling us what it is. Neither, one should note, are environmental organizations, the NDP, the CBC or the corporate media. That may mean, in the end, that people will need to take matters into their own hands before the government delivers on its good but unintentionally transformational promises.