What is Canada’s stance on a 1.5 degree C target and what does it have to do with Climate Prosperity?

On Monday evening, I attended the Canadian Delegation’s briefing and had the opportunity to ask Canada’s lead negotiator, Guy Saint-Jacques, the following question:

Since Canada was only an observer and not a signatory to the Ambo Declaration*, what is Canada’s stance on a 1.5 degrees Celsius target? And has Canada done any analysis on what 1.5 degrees means in terms of impacts in Canada?

M. Saint-Jacques responded that Canada is committed to the Copenhagen Accord, which calls for limiting anthropogenic global warming to two degrees Celsius. He seemed to have finished his answer, so I pressed him to answer the second part of my question. He then referred to analysis done by the NRTEE (National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy) in collaboration with Canadian Geographic, which produced a “Degrees of Change” diagram showing projected impacts for various degrees of increased global average temperatures (or, in non-scientific language, global warming).

Given that this was my first time meeting the Canadian delegation and only my second day at COP (and that there were several others waiting with questions to ask), I restrained myself from challenging the validity of using the NRTEE maps and analysis as a demonstration that Canada knows the extent of impacts under 1.5 degrees of anthropogenic warming. Fortunately, I have this blog post to expand on my thoughts.

Specifically, there is a lack of transparency and perhaps a lack of expertise in the process which created the “Degrees of Change” diagram. The data was compiled by non-climate scientists and vetted by government scientists (who can’t talk to the media without their answers being pre-approved). However, the diagram’s scientific conclusions has been called into question. For instance, while the reference to sea ice retreat cites the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the lead author of the relevant section, University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver, says that the NRTEE’s conclusions are “completely wrong”. Going even farther, University of Toronto climate scientist Danny Harvey has called for the diagram to be withdrawn, telling journalist Stephen Leahy “It is full of bad science and utterly downplays the serious impacts of climate change.”

Of course, there are also broader questions that go beyond concerns about accuracy, such as whether a diagram that displays fairly general trends really count as knowing about the impacts under a certain degree. Another broader concern is that this analysis is part of the NRTEE’s Climate Prosperity program, which, according to the website, aims:

to provide insight for Canadians and policy advice to governments on both the economic risks and the economic opportunities for Canada associated with a warming planet. We need to think differently about what this will mean, not just to our economy today, but to a changing economy for the future. Preparing ourselves for the transition to economic success in a low-carbon-emission economy is critical to help maintain our standard of living and ensure jobs for today’s and tomorrow’s generations. Most of all, we need to change how Canadians see and think about climate change – from risk to opportunity, from cost to investment, from today to tomorrow. This is not just about coping with climate change, but prospering through it.”

Climate Prosperity is a relatively new program launched in April 2010. Its first report (entitled Measuring Up: Benchmarking Canada’s Competitiveness in a Low-Carbon World) was launched in September 2010 and more are expected shortly. I don’t have enough time to do justice to a thorough critique of the Climate Prosperity program, but suffice it to say that the approach has been broadly criticised. The message of climate prosperity clearly blindsides crucial considerations of justice, equity, and disproportionate effects both between countries and within Canada.

Now all I have to do is figure out how to put the previous four paragraphs into a 30 second question for tomorrow’s 8am briefing with M. Saint-Jacques.

*The Ambo Declaration was a result of the November 2010 Tarawara Climate Change Conference which called for a 1.5 degree target. This means attempting to limit the increase in global average temperature as compared to preindustrial times (when the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was approximately 270ppm, as compared to approximately 390ppm today) to 1.5 degrees. We have already seen global warming of approximately 0.8 degrees Celsius to date, and have already emitted enough greenhouse gas emissions which initiate enough positive feedback loops in the climate system to commit us to continued warming for some time to come (a positive feedback loop reinforces a trend, e.g. warming melts sea ice, which reduces the albedo (reflectivity) of the Earth’s surface, causing more heat from the sun to be absorbed, which in turn melts more sea ice, and so on). The exact extent of warming is not perfectly known, particularly given concerns about tipping points in the climate system, but scientists agree that drastic and swift emissions reductions are required if we are to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

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