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I design and apply computer models that assess the effectiveness of climate policies. My research contributions have been internationally recognized, leading to selection by the Royal Society of Canada, Global Energy Assessment, China Council, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and a distinguished professorship. I also sit on editorial boards of several academic journals.
Many academics avoid public engagement. The deliberate untruths in public debate are difficult to handle when your profession values honesty about evidence and a willingness to change one’s mind. And while academics are not angels, ad hominem attacks are rare.
But 30 years ago, scientists showed that climate change is an existential threat requiring aggressive greenhouse gas-reducing policies, and I felt a duty to engage, knowing my expertise could help climate-concerned citizens identify the most climate-sincere politicians. Sadly, humanity has mostly spun its wheels because climate-insincere politicians have promised ambitious greenhouse gas (GHG) targets and wonderful outcomes, like clean electricity and transportation, without implementing the compulsory policies essential for decarbonizing our societies.
The key policies are a mix of carbon pricing, regulations, and government expenditures. Of these, pricing and regulations will always be most important because climate policy needs to influence decisions made by households about their car and furnace and firms about buildings, production processes and goods transport. Government directly controls only a small part of our national emissions, and even large government subsidies to households and firms are repeatedly shown by leading researchers to have but a small effect.
Much of my engagement on climate is international, including testifying before the U.S. Congress against the Keystone XL pipeline, touring European capitals with prominent U.S. climate scientist James Hansen to lobby country leaders for a ban on imports of high-emission oil, and reporting directly to former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao with early climate policies for China. But I am also very active domestically, including providing expert evidence before the National Energy Board on behalf of opponents of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. I give free climate policy advice to any Canadian political party that asks, and I produce independent, non-partisan assessments of climate policy platforms proffered by federal and provincial political parties to help climate-concerned Canadians.
In 2001, I co-authored the book The Cost of Climate Policy, which predicted former prime minister Jean Chretien’s government would not achieve its 2010 Kyoto target unless it immediately added carbon pricing and regulations to its massive government spending. Events proved us right. In 2007, I co-authored the book Hot Air, which made a similar prediction about the ineffective policies of Stephen Harper’s government and his 2020 GHG promise. Again, events proved us right. And last year, I published The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success: Overcoming Myths That Hinder Progress, my most comprehensive effort to help climate-concerned citizens be more effective in their personal lives and especially in their political participation.
What do I and my IPCC colleagues tell these citizens? Above all, don’t be tricked by ambitious targets with vague policy statements. Climate-insincere politicians learned early that naive voters would reward them for promising dramatic GHG reductions in a short time, which they subsequently never achieved once in office. This has been a deception by politicians across the political spectrum — Conservatives, Liberals, and the NDP. (Greens often make extremely ambitious promises but have no chance of governing. When Greens participate in government, as occurs sometimes in Europe, their promises are less ambitious.)
To make matters worse, newly elected governments become paralyzed by their ambitious promises. They quickly realize they can’t achieve them without great economic and political costs, so they don’t really try. (Instead, they launch endless stakeholder policy processes as a delaying tactic.) Ironically, voters who focus on targets inadvertently reward climate-insincere politicians and thus bear some responsibility for our climate crisis.
Detecting political climate sincerity requires a bit more from climate-concerned citizens, as I explained in my recent assessment of party climate platforms in Policy Options. A higher target is desirable, but only if linked to effective policies that independent experts agree will achieve the target, combined with an independent appraisal of the costs associated with shifting to more expensive equipment, buildings, transport, and factories. Effective policies can include government spending on infrastructure, innovation, and support to ensure a just transition, but absolutely must include regulations and carbon prices as only these can truly influence most GHG-determining decisions in our society.
Overall, the climate sincerity of a party’s platform is determined by a combination of: (1) its target, (2) its reliance on effective policies, (3) clarity on the intensity and application of those policies in each period (carbon price, regulation level, amount of government spending), (4) independent modelling verifying policies at these levels will achieve the target, (5) if not, independent modelling to find policy stringencies that will achieve the target, and finally (6) independent modelling that estimates the cost of the target and selected policies.
Opinion: Government directly controls only a small part of our national emissions, and even large government subsidies to households and firms are repeatedly shown by leading researchers to have but a small effect, writes Mark Jaccard. #ClimateCrisis
Not surprisingly, my assessments over the decades have irritated climate-insincere politicians and their supporters. In this election, my ranking (out of 10) of the climate sincerity of the federal parties — which put the Liberals at 8, the Conservatives at 5, the Greens at 4, and the NDP at 2 — caused a reaction.
Seth Klein, the brother-in-law of NDP candidate Avi Lewis, last week published an article in this forum with the subheading “Why you should take Mark Jaccard’s platform ratings with a hunk of salt.” Sadly, his pro-NDP critique is off the mark, and I appreciate this opportunity to address his arguments to the same readership.
Klein claims the climate policy models used by us IPCC experts can only assess the effectiveness of carbon pricing and regulations, ruling out other policy options. This is incorrect. He doesn’t lay out those options, but I think he prefers a plethora of new Crown corporations that government directs to make zero-emission cars, trucks, houses, and industrial plants in a “green new deal” in concert with higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy to provide government funds for a “just transition.” If one political party clearly presents this type of platform in detail, we can model it. But the NDP has not done that for this election.
The NDP has made vague statements about government spending but offered few details. Nonetheless, we studied its written plan and statements by its party leader in search of specific policies we could model and assess. Even with our generous assumptions about the effect of the ambitious spending the NDP promises, our policy simulation only achieved a 15 per cent GHG reduction by 2030. To achieve the NDP’s 50 per cent target, we were forced to include additional policies, so we simulated the lowest cost policies for achieving sectoral carbon budgets. However, even with this favourable interpretation, the NDP’s ambitious target resulted in a 6.5 per cent reduction in GDP in 2030. As IPCC policy experts know, rapid decarbonization is very costly, which may explain why the NDP opted not to have an independent assessment of its target and plan, unlike the Liberals and Conservatives.
Klein also argues our rating system for sincerity doesn’t reward ambition in that “the more likely a party’s policies are to meet its own target, the more ‘climate sincere’ Jaccard finds the plan to be.” This is not true. As I explain above, target ambition is only one dimension, and Klein’s claim is refuted by the ratings. Liberals and Conservatives both have policies that achieve their targets, but Liberals get almost double the rating. Why? Liberals have a higher target at 40 per cent and a far better policy record since 2015 at provincial and federal levels.
Klein says my assessment fails to explain why “the Liberals consistently promise to do things in an election ... and then fail to follow through.” I can’t explain what is not true. My IPCC colleagues would agree the most climate-sincere governments in Canada have been provincial Liberals (Ontario in 2000s, Quebec in 2000s, B.C. in 2000s), provincial NDP (Alberta 2010s, now in B.C.) and since 2015, the federal Liberals. Policies put forward by these governments have contributed to declining GHG emissions for most of Canada (e.g., Quebec and Ontario) or have reduced GHG emission growth (Alberta, B.C.).
Klein claims my ratings are biased towards “market-based solutions,” thus ignoring policies like the carbon budget approach in the U.K., “which has been far more successful than Canada’s at actually reducing GHGs.” This misinterprets GHG reduction in the U.K. Carbon budgets don’t reduce GHG emissions. They are an allocation of national targets among sectors of the economy, which compel politicians to implement the usual climate policies.
Climate policy experts agree emissions in the U.K. over the last two decades have fallen primarily because of market-based policies (like the industrial cap-and-trade system and the carbon levy), market-oriented regulations (like the renewable electricity obligation), some prescriptive regulations (like building codes and vehicle emission standards), and modest government spending. As my IPCC colleagues note, the U.K. approach is almost identical to that of Canada’s Liberal government since 2015. If he could put aside his partisan bias, Klein would admit that in praising the U.K.’s approach to climate policy, he is also praising Trudeau’s.
In any case, Klein later reverses himself and brags the NDP will sustain the Liberals’ carbon pricing and “close industry loopholes” to “impose tougher carbon pricing” on industry. (This sure sounds like a market-based solution to me.) While the NDP plan is vague, this can only mean subjecting all industry emissions to the carbon tax (offset allowances are too small to have much effect). Indeed, NDP campaigners from the party leader to Lewis maintain they differ from the Liberals because they will force industry to pay for all emissions.
As I explained in my analysis in Policy Options, with this NDP policy, industries like steel, cement, aluminum, bulk chemicals, fertilizer, pulp and paper, and supporting industries will reduce output as their production costs rise and they are outcompeted by industries from countries with weaker climate policies. Economic collapse certainly reduces GHG emissions, as well as union jobs and government tax revenue for funding a just transition.
But Klein and the federal NDP don’t want to talk about this inconvenient truth. Nor about the fact that social democratic governments in Scandinavia and NDP governments in Alberta and now B.C. have not made industry pay for all emissions. Why? Once in power, they must face economic realities and protect union jobs. They know carbon tariffs are extremely difficult for one country to implement, which is why none have yet.
Finally, Klein is irked that I costed the NDP’s GHG promise and climate policies. In an emergency, he claims, we should ignore costs. Again, this is delusional and, quite frankly, yet more evidence of climate insincerity. If virtually all Canadian households with natural gas furnaces are going to rip these out and replace them with electric heat pumps, they want to know the comparative purchase, installation, and operating cost. And if government helps with a subsidy, they want to know if such support truly comes only from the wealthy and industry, or if an increase in their taxes and energy cost of living is also required.
In my book, The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success, I warned climate-concerned citizens that many people would hitch their agenda to the climate crisis, arguing their pet goal for society is essential. Klein’s agenda is to dramatically increase the role of government in the same way we did in the Second World War to address an emergency. He is unhappy because I don’t completely share his view. Presumably, he is also unhappy with at least 75 per cent of his fellow Canadians because for decade after decade, they vote for political parties that don’t espouse his agenda, and there is no sign of this changing.
Thankfully, we don’t have to wait until a majority of Canadians adopt Klein’s ideology to substantially reduce GHG emissions. Of course, no government can reverse in just five years the fossil fuel growth aggressively promoted during the Harper decade. (Scandinavians introduced carbon pricing in 1990 and experts only detected an effect 10 years later.) But Justin Trudeau has turned the tide. The same models I used to correctly predict that Chretien and Harper would widely miss their targets show Trudeau will likely hit his.
In the recent leaders’ debate, both Jagmeet Singh and Erin O’Toole claimed Trudeau has not hit his targets. This is incorrect. The only target Trudeau has ever had is for 2030, and he is on track to achieve it according to the best assessment tools we have.
For once, we have a climate-sincere federal government. This is not something easily achieved, and it can be easily lost — especially if voters do not think and act strategically to avoid placing an insincere government in power. Climate-concerned citizens have a big responsibility. They cannot afford to indulge themselves with deliberate delusions that keep us floundering. This crisis is too urgent.
Mark Jaccard is a distinguished professor and director of the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University.