If Canada's premiers sign an agreement this week to speed up oil sands pipelines they will be out of step with much of the world, which is now recognizing the need for unprecedented action on climate through a phase-out of fossil fuels. They will be giving a green light to the expansion of dirty, expensive bitumen projects and squandering a moment, perhaps unique, of extraordinary hope and possibility.
While the World Bank, G7, and International Energy Agency have expressed concern about climate, the last few weeks have seen the emergence of developments that are more impressive still.
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In May, Pope Francis issued his Encyclical on Care for Our Common Home, a document remarkable for the depth of its analysis and the radical vision of its solutions. It urges a breathtaking revision of our relationship with nature, one that sees us not as masters but as partners and stewards. Central to the Pope's message is a call for the phased replacement, "without delay", of fossil fuels. While the premiers seem poised to increase the use of this form of energy, the church leader urges rejection of it.
On July 8, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard signed the Under 2 MOU which commits signatories — including Ontario, California and 16 other jurisdictions — to limit the global temperature increase to below 2 C. In practical terms this means reducing GHG emissions by up to 95 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. While the federal government has agreed to decarbonize in 85 years, Ontario and Quebec are planning a near decarbonization in just 35. As part of California's commitment, the state expects to reduce its use of petroleum in cars and trucks by as much as 50 per cent by 2030 — just 15 years from now! These pledges from subnational governments — which, unlike the World Bank, for example, can be voted out of office if their policies prove unpopular — are dizzying in their speed, boldness and courage.
But it's not just religious leaders and progressive politicians who are calling for previously unthinkable policies. It is also world scientists.
On July 10, the UNESCO-organized scientific conference Our Common Future under Climate Change issued a statement suggesting the world needs GHG emission cuts of 40 to 70 per cent below current levels within 35 years. The statement argues that "any upper limit on warming requires carbon dioxide emissions to fall eventually to zero" and urges a phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies. How different this is from the Canadian Energy Strategy expected to be inked this week by the premiers' Council of the Federation.
One can only speculate why the premiers as a whole are embracing pipeline expansion. Surely they know that 85 per cent of Canada's oil must remain in the ground if we're to keep temperature rise below the crucial 2 C threshold. Whatever their motive for oil-sands growth, they are very much at odds with the thrust of world opinion — popular, religious and scientific — at this exhilarating moment in history.