Canada must prepare both for a low-carbon world and for one in which the international community spurns climate action; otherwise, it will suffer job losses and social disruption, according to a new federally funded institute.
The Canadian Institute for Climate Choices opened its doors Tuesday, and marked the occasion by releasing an 80-page report examining the consequences of climate actions that Canada might take under different global pollution scenarios.
No one knows how quickly the world is going to cut carbon pollution, CEO Kathy Bardswick said in an interview, and Canada must make decisions that account for the uncertainty, rather than be paralyzed by it.
In either a high-carbon or low-carbon future, “there’s a substantial impact on the country,” Bardswick said. “What we’re trying to say is, ‘Yes, we agree there’s uncertainty, and we agree that these scenarios can play out quite differently, and the implications can be quite dramatic. But that doesn’t mean that we wait and see — we’ve got to be able to plan within that context.’”
The institute is operating on funding from the Trudeau government to the tune of $20 million over five years. There is an annual financial accountability process where spending is reviewed to see whether it aligns with stated outcomes.
But the government does not tell it what to research: the directors and expert panels decide the agenda, strategic plan and content and sign off on its priorities.
Don't get caught in 'continual cycle' of recovery
Drawing on extensive economic and scientific research, the report sketches out two broad scenarios, with two possible outcomes in each one.
In the first scenario, a massive economic metamorphosis has occurred. Nations around the world cut their pollution severely over the next 10 years, reaching the Paris Agreement goal. Global demand for fossil fuels has plummeted, and proven reserves are left in the ground. A majority of electricity comes from renewables like solar, wind and bioenergy, while nuclear capacity triples and heavy industry is largely decarbonized.
If Canada chooses to approach this world by sticking with the current economy, which is largely integrated with emissions-intensive exports like oil and gas, and the financial sector that holds over $50 billion worth of loans to the sector, then the global transition, “coupled with inadequate preparation domestically, creates large-scale disruption and job loss in Canada.”
The oilpatch is wallopped, leading to knock-on effects in construction, retail, real estate and the financial sector. Other Canadian sectors like gasoline vehicle manufacturing are caught off guard. The risk of “widespread social disruption” increases as social assistance programs are put under pressure. Governments see shrinking budgets that impact health and education spending.
In the other scenario, carbon pollution continues to be pumped into the air unchecked, and the world fails to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goal, leading to runaway climate change: collapse of ecosystems, accelerating global heating, coastlines that sink underwater, relentless extreme weather and mass societal unrest.
Canada must be prepared for that world, too, the report says, or it will become “caught in a continual cycle of impact and recovery.” People will be injured or killed, or suffer poor air quality and contaminated water, as insurance skyrockets and companies lay off workers. Food and water shortages drive war, conflict and humanitarian disasters, which reach Canada’s shores.
Even if parts of Canada try to capitalize on a high-carbon world (through longer growing seasons for example), the report concludes that “any benefits in a high-emissions scenario are likely temporary and short-lived.”
“Fewer deaths due to extreme cold are offset by more deaths from extreme heat. Savings in heating bills are offset by increased use of air-conditioners in the summer. Longer seasons for growing crops are offset by an increase in heatwaves, droughts, and flooding,” the report says.
‘Rigorous peer review process’ in place
When the new institute was first revealed in April 2019, originally named the Pan-Canadian Expert Collaboration, it was dismissed in comments to National Observer by the conservative Ford government in Ontario as a gathering of "elite economists” in ivory towers.
A staffer formerly in Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s office also asserted without evidence that the institute was not independent, but instead staffed with “puppets.” The Ontario government was engaged at the time in a fierce battle over the federal carbon pricing regime being imposed in the province, as a result of Ford’s decision to abandon the prior cap-and-trade system.
Bardswick said the institute is set up to follow a “rigorous peer review process” that will require “not only leveraging the expertise in our staff contingent, but also taking our work and sending it to external peer reviewers, so we have another independent set of eyes looking at the rigour of the research.”
Tuesday’s report was written by senior research associate Jonathan Arnold, vice-president of research Dale Beugin and clean growth director Rachel Samson, with support from six others inside and outside the institute.
It underwent an external peer review from 13 experts, such as Blair Feltmate, the head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo and Francis Zwiers, director of the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium at the University of Victoria.
The launch of the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices comes seven years after the demise of a previous non-partisan research organization focused on climate, the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. That group was created by the former Mulroney government in 1988, but later defunded by the former Harper government in 2012. The foreign affairs minister at the time, John Baird, suggested taxpayers shouldn’t pay for pro-carbon tax reports.
The new institute’s 11-member board of directors includes Sandra Odendahl, a vice president at Scotiabank; former Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers president Dave Collyer and former clerk of the Privy Council, Mel Cappe, while there are 37 expert panel members including former TD Bank chief economist Don Drummond and Global Adaptation Commission co-director Christina Chan.
Bardswick said the institute has been forging connections with all levels of government — municipal, provincial, territorial and First Nations — so that it’s not just a federal exercise.
“The real next step is going to be based on this outreach and engagement process that will drive those priorities,” she said.