Rising Tide of Climate Change

Report from the UN Conference on Climate Change in Montreal, 28 November – 9 December 2005

This Conference was hosted by the Government of Canada, which did an excellent job of organizing it, from the standpoint of both official delegates and the many observers such as Shirley Farlinger and I. We attended as part of a group representing the World Council of Churches, which got us into several extra events outside of the Conference premises (the Palais des Congrès). However, my remarks will be confined to those sessions that were accessible by observers at the Palais des Congrès itself. These were sessions at which we heard some officials, but mostly non-governmental speakers. These sessions were both informative and useful, though uneven in quality. A few provided me with important new knowledge or insights.

First, let me review old knowledge that may not be regarded as firm by all readers of this report. The goal of the Kyoto Protocol is for developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to six percent below the 1990 levels by the year 2012. The United States and Canada are by far the worst greenhouse-gas (ghg) emitters, per capita, and together they account for much of the world’s emissions. Canadians represent the world’s most wasteful society, per capita, and the USA is by far the worst in its overall total ghg emissions. Canada has had no effective policy for ghg reductions since the Rio Conference in 1992, right up until late last year, except for some incentives for industry to make its energy usage more efficient. Since the Kyoto Protocol was first signed, no important combination of stick-and-carrot measures had been put in place by any Canadian government, provincial, or federal, that would result in significant reductions of ghg emissions. The result has been an increase in Canadian ghg emissions of 24 percent since 1990, a period over which the population increase has been about 12 percent. In all, Canadians, per person, have annually added 0.9 percent more ghgs into the atmosphere since 1990. The car manufacturers and their customers, the developers of inappropriate new housing estates, and many other factors have contributed to this deplorable state of affairs.

One area of old knowledge is that climate change is raising the ocean level at an accelerating rate, which is bound ultimately to flood low-lying tropical islands and coastal cities, as well as important delta and estuary areas that are currently fertile for food-production or lumber. Another is that the most serious storms (hurricanes) are tending to get worse with global warming. A further known fact is that parts of the permafrost in northern latitudes are already thawing out, releasing methane, a ghg that is many times as effective as carbon dioxide at producing global warming. Another is that the tropical rainforests are being destroyed wantonly, either for new pasture or for quick profits from the sale of valuable lumber.

For me the Montreal Conference brought at least the following new knowledge. First, Canada now has a federal plan that is adequate, in principle, to bring its ghg emissions down to the levels required by Kyoto by 2012. The incentives are, however, too weak, and the disincentives (or punishments) for non-cooperation are mostly absent. It is likely therefore, that Paul Martin’s government’s plan will fail miserably, in that Canada’s ghg emissions will be at about the present level seven years from now, too high by 30 percent to comply with Kyoto. Success in meeting the Kyoto goals is thus thrown back on the populace, in the pious hope that people who have been increasingly burning more fossil fuels since 1990 will somehow reform themselves almost at once. It would seem that the NGOs therefore need to be spurred onto greater activity than ever, lobbying provincial governments for special measures to 1) make people more aware of the needed cooperation with the federal plan, and, 2) add disincentives to current non-cooperation, etc. The first sign of light from the Ontario government was the announcement near the end of 2005 that fast motor lanes will be reserved for vehicles carrying more than one person. It is noteworthy that this may be the first Canadian measure affecting climate change that carries severe penalties for non-cooperation. This measure clearly has other objectives than only climate-change mitigation, but mitigation is one of them.

Second, climate change is already affecting people in poor countries adversely, to a much greater extent than anticipated. Most people in Canada have heard of the thawing of the tundra in the Arctic latitudes, which is already affecting our northern communities; and the plight of polar bears, but the effects of climate change are already much more widespread. Changing rainfall patterns are evident already in many places, for example, in parts of some Central and South American countries as well as sub-Saharan African nations. Thus every unnecessary kilogram of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere is doing real harm to many people. Someone asked the question, “why isn’t warming an advantage?” A partial answer is some localities may benefit from global warming, but on balance climate change will increase the areas of deserts and dust bowls and will cause flooding by the oceans. The warming is happening so fast that the equilibrium of natural species is being upset. We might, for example in Canada, be able to grow trees much further north than we could 50 years ago, but the changes are much faster than nature can adapt to them.

Third, the requirements and hopes of the Kyoto processes don’t go nearly far enough in the matter of tropical rainforest preservation. The rainforests, in fact all forests, are important for the sequestration of carbon dioxide. The Amazonian forest has been described as the lungs of the Earth, because of the oxygen it produces. However, forests are also vital for supplying forest products into the long term. Because the increasing human population creates a growing demand for wood products, the preservation of forests is absolutely vital to civilization. This factor is as important, maybe even more important than that of carbon dioxide sequestration — for me an essential new insight. One could even go further and argue that the Kyoto Conferences are not the best place to discuss preservation of the forests. Such discussion was nevertheless an important part of the Montreal Conference and negotiators met with some success. It must be noted that the larger tropical rainforests are declining, and the governments of the affected countries are in principle willing to cooperate under the Kyoto Protocol and have agreed to slow down the rate of forest destruction. However, they do not necessarily have control over what will happen. In Indonesia, for example, responsibility for the forests is local, and these local or regional authorities cannot police what happens adequately, nor would they likely be able to prevent overcutting. Most forest fires in Indonesia are set by people, whereas in Canada’s boreal forest they are nearly all set by lightning. Maintaining a strict international forest conservation regime thus requires strong central governments with adequate local agents who can enforce compliance with Kyoto. These constraints would apply to any other forest-preservation agreement.

A shocking aspect of the sessions I attended was the almost total absence of discussion or even mention of population, which is a directly proportional factor for greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore intimately affects climate change. Two speakers in one of the sessions I attended (one from China and the other from India) had taken the trouble to plot population in the same graphs that they projected greenhouse gas emissions in their country to the end of this century. It was clear, however, that neither of these speakers had considered any of the other factors that also impact population and are impacted by population. Their models thus failed to encompass most factors that modelers must include, so that the results lacked credibility. Population and the way in which it is aggravating other world problems seem to be subjects nobody wishes to touch; but they are nevertheless very important. Of the populous countries only China has a population policy that makes sense in today’s world, in the context not only of climate change but of much else.

On 7 December, the speeches of various dignitaries were displayed on closed-circuit television to the non-governmental participants. Prime Minister Paul Martin, on this occasion, made much of Canada’s participation in the Kyoto process (in contrast to the United States’ non-participation), but his bravado concealed the fact that Canada is the world’s worst offender in its actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The United States is doing much more than Canada, though they are doing it outside the Kyoto process. Both the Canadian and US governments are concentrating on the techno-fix aspects of mitigation, which are important, but they are greatly underplaying the human side of the problem. If there is a solution to the world’s predicament in climate change, science and technology alone will not provide it. The human race must learn to walk more gently on Earth. In this sense, both the Canadian and US approaches are inadequate.