Monday, May 21, 2007

A climate policy lesson, courtesy of Monty Python

Every once in a while, a story or news item reminds me of the classic Monty Python skit “Four Yorkshiremen” in which Eric Idle et al one-upped each other with increasingly absurd tales of their tough upbringings.

“House! You were lucky to live in a house! We used to live in one room, all twenty-six of us, no furniture, 'alf the floor was missing, and we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of falling. “

Eh, you were lucky to have a room! We used to have to live in the corridor!

Oh, we used to dream of livin' in a corridor! Would ha' been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank on a rubbish tip. We got woke up every morning by having a load of rotting fish dumped all over us!“

Usually, it takes an exaggerated tales of climatic hardship, the old I-remember-when, to conjure up memories of John Cleese intoning “Well, when I say it was a house it was only a hole in the ground covered by a tarpaulin, but it was a house to us”.

You know those conversations. Ah, kids today have it easy. When I was young, we battled – 30 C temperatures and mountains of snow every day on the walk to school (granted, my parents grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, it is entirely possibly some of those stories are true).

Last week, however, it was Presidential Candidate Bill Richardson’s climate and energy plan that reminded me of Cleese and the gang. Richardson’s plan is easily the most aggressive of all the candidates, thus far. Following a cue from Al Gore, he calls for a 90% reduction in GHG emissions by the year 2050 (and 80% by 2040).

Not 50% below 1990 levels, as may be proposed, er, and rejected by guess who, at the G8 summit. Not 60%, like the British plan. Not even 80%, a la those nutty West Coasters California and British Columbia.

Ninety percent.

I applaud the effort. I applaud the recognition that we must aggressively reduce GHG emissions to avoid the dangerous long-term implications of climate change. What follows is not a criticism of Richardson, persay, but of the current, er, climate of climate policy in the US. As I wrote last year, I fear that in an effort to attract the green, and I mean the environment AND the almighty dollar, vote, politics is descending into Python-dom. What’s next? “As a show of dedication to the cause, I pledge not to exhale CO2 during this campaign”?

First off, the specific 90% pledge, well-intentioned or not, is I suspect a bit of showmanship. The baseline for most emissions projections, for international policy, is usually 1990. The older 50-60% reduction targets, and often the 80% targets, are based on the 1990 baseline. The 90%? The baseline, presumably, is today. In that case, the total emissions reduction (for the US) is similar to an 80% reduction from 1990 levels.

Regardless, the candidates engaged in a bout of climatic chest-bumping would be wise to learn a lesson from Canada. Yes, we need national targets. But as Canada’s haphazard Kyoto promise has clearly demonstrated, a target is not enough, nor is an implementation plan full of lofty goals. Former PM Chretien pledged to a 6% reduction target under Kyoto, rather than the 0-3% agreed to with the provinces, purely to match the US (and, yes, to use a British-ism, Canada was snookered). Not only was no serious plan for meeting that, or the lesser target, the one-up-man-ship alienated the provinces and seeded the ongoing discord.

A pledge to aggressively reduce greenhouse gases should not be made lightly, in the heat of a campaign. And a pledge to aggressively reduce greenhouse gases cannot be one of a hundred campaign promises. It goes to the root of energy, of transportation, of agriculture, of industry. If it is to work, if it is to happen, it must be a central organizing theme of the government, it must underlie all policies and programs.

The actual target is important -- I’ve been hammering the Canadian government on this point for three years. We Canucks like to gripe about how Canada is ignored by the US. This is one time that Americans could really learn from Canada - Canada's mistake. If one hopes to actually reach, or even approach, an aggressive target, be it a 60% reduction, or a 90% reduction, that target can’t be a part of the policy package, it can't start only as a way to win votes. The target has to lead off off every speech, every policy declaration, every conversation the candidates have.

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