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Carbon pricing distracts as COP28 kicks off

Shift Storm newsletter—November 2023 edition

December 21, 2023

8-minute read

The following is a re-print of the November 2023 edition of Shift Storm, the CCPA's monthly newsletter which focuses on the intersection of work and climate change. Click here to subscribe to Shift Storm and get the latest updates straight to your inbox.

Are you tired of hearing about carbon pricing yet?

The Liberals’ signature climate policy is a case study in bad politics and worse communications that has dogged Canada’s climate discourse for years.

It’s not that carbon pricing is a bad policy. Economists love it for a reason. The problem, as I argued in an op-ed for Canada’s National Observer this month, is that the costs are highly visible and the benefits are not. How many Canadians realize that most households are getting back more in carbon pricing rebates than they pay at the pump or on their heating bills? On the other hand, how many can point to a green investment made in their community in response to the pricing signal alone?

Cynical politicians have seized on the upfront costs and indirect benefits to make carbon pricing into a political football that far outweighs its significance as a policy. That unending pitched battle has served to suck all the oxygen out of a climate discourse that desperately needs to focus on the bigger picture.

And as the annual UN climate conference kicks off in Dubai today, it is precisely the moment to zoom out and assess how we’re faring in the broader fight against “planetary catastrophe,” as my colleague Bruce Campbell puts it in his COP28 primer over on the CCPA blog.

My own COP wishlist includes something akin to a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty, which would establish an international framework for the wind-down of oil and gas supply. As we discuss in this month’s newsletter, however, the climate ambitions of most countries are far more modest, especially when it comes to fossil fuels.

Expect a full COP debrief in next month’s newsletter, but in the meantime we’ve got another big haul of research to get through this month as many organizations around the world try to get their reports out in advance of COP season. Let’s get into it!

Storm surge: this month’s key reads

Audit finds Canadian climate progress lagging

It isn’t exactly news to anyone who’s been paying attention, but the latest reports of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development reiterate that Canada is not on track to meet its 2030 emission reduction target.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but it’s worth highlighting that Canada’s most recent emission reduction plan fails to include timelines or deadlines for more than half of its proposed measures. Moreover, only five per cent of the proposals in the plan are associated with any specific emissions reductions. And why bother? There are no consequences if the government fails to meet its legislated targets. The Net-Zero Act merely requires the government to produce a report explaining how it will do better next time.

I’m glad the commissioner was critical of the government’s emissions models, which rely on overly optimistic assumptions about program implementation and the viability of technologies like carbon capture and storage. A more reasonable model would downplay speculative fossil fuel lifelines and rely more on proven approaches to emissions reductions, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency.

World gears up for COP28 amid insufficient climate progress…

Unfortunately, it’s not only Canada that’s not moving fast enough to mitigate the climate crisis.

In its pre-COP synthesis report on nationally determined contributions (NDCs), the UNFCCC finds that even if all countries meet their stated climate targets, which most are not on track to do, the world will only reduce global emissions by five per cent below 2019 levels by 2030. That number needs to be closer to 43 per cent to keep the 1.5 degree target within reach or 27 per cent to keep the 2°C target within reach. The world is on track to use up its entire remaining global carbon budget by the 2030s.

The latest Emissions Gap Report from the UN Environment Programme similarly concludes that current targets, if met, still put the planet on track for about 3°C of warming by 2100. Canada is called out in particular for having one of the largest gaps—a 27 per cent shortfall—between stated targets and current policies. UNEP applauds the proliferation of net-zero pledges but emphasizes that it has low confidence in their success based on current policies.

And yet another annual report banging the drum of insufficient climate progress comes from the U.S.-based World Resources Institute and its partners in the latest State of Climate Action report. The project tracks 42 different indicators of global climate progress, ranging from energy efficiency to reforestation to transit infrastructure and beyond. Unfortunately, only a single one of those 42 indicators (global electric vehicle sales) is currently on track.

…and foot-dragging on oil production

The latest edition of the Stockholm Environment Institute’s Production Gap Report highlights one of the biggest sticking points for global emissions: the incongruity between stated climate targets and planned policies for coal, oil and gas production worldwide. The report calls out Canada in particular alongside Brazil, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the U.S.—an unsavory club—for driving near-term fossil fuel production growth. The authors also call out Canada for some of the largest increases in fossil fuel production subsidies over the past few years.

The report does highlight productive Canadian leadership on phasing out coal, but the bottom line is that a large share of the Canadian oil and gas slated for extraction in the coming decades must be kept in the ground to keep the world’s climate goals alive. Overall, world governments are currently planning to produce twice as many fossil fuels as we can afford to burn.

In a similar vein, a new report from the International Energy Agency, The Oil and Gas Industry in Net Zero Transitions, concludes that the oil and gas industry must slash emissions by 60 per cent by 2030 and nearly 100 per cent by 2040 for the world to successfully decarbonize by mid-century, which means no new projects and the premature phase-out of many existing ones.

I want to draw attention to the IEA’s conclusion that the energy transition cannot be driven by demand-side changes alone, as the oil industry likes to argue, and must instead be grounded in supply-side policies. Notably, the IEA calls out “excessive expectations” for expensive and unproven carbon capture technologies that many countries, including Canada, are counting on to prolong the productive timeline of fossil fuel projects.

Research radar: the latest developments in work and climate

Indigenous groups offer pathways to a just transition. Sacred Earth Solar, Indigenous Climate Action and other partners have published a remarkably comprehensive Just Transition Guide that’s well worth a read. The report is equal parts historical, technical and aspirational as it lays out a just transition approach for Canada that would not only protect workers, but also advance reconciliation in a meaningful way on a number of fronts, including food sovereignty and cultural revitalization.

Federal “mini-budget” a climate flop. The federal government’s fall economic statement (FES) marked a troubling turn toward austerity, as I lamented in another op-ed this month. The spring budget generally matters a lot more than the FES from a climate spending perspective, but this was still a missed opportunity to lay the groundwork for more ambitious climate programs.

Alberta oil workers can be readily retrained for solar careers. A very practical study published in the journal Carbon Neutrality, “Retraining investment for Alberta’s oil and gas workers for green jobs in the solar industry,” explores in detail the steps necessary to prepare oil and gas workers for new jobs in solar. The authors estimate that all current workers could be retrained for less than $300 million, which is very reasonable given the number of workers in question. The study also suggests that the salaries between the two industries are comparable, though I’m more skeptical on that point.

U.S. auto workers ambivalent about green transition. A long feature story in the New Yorker, “Will the U.A.W. Strike Turn the Rust Belt Green?,” dives into the history and politics of the United Auto Workers and their latest conflict with U.S. automakers over electric vehicles. It’s an interesting and complicated story of workers who care about the environment but feel like they’ve been betrayed, over and over again, by politicians and employers.

A little planning goes a long way toward ensuring a just transition for workers. An article in the journal Nature Climate Change, “Distributional labour challenges and opportunities for decarbonizing the US power system,” models the impact of decarbonization on U.S. workers on a state-by-state basis. While some states are in a better position to decarbonize than others, the paper makes the important point that the labour impacts of climate policies are not foregone conclusions. Proactive and intentional social programs can make the difference between just and unjust transitions in every circumstance.

A just transition for the global auto industry requires more than electric powertrains. Back in July, I highlighted a paper investigating the tensions between unions and the global electric vehicle industry that was only available in German. I’m pleased to report that the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation has now made The Transformation of the Global Automotive Industry available in English. The report draws a number of important conclusions, including the fact that, despite their desirability over internal combustion engine vehicles, electric vehicles “cannot be a central element of a socio-ecological transport transition.” We need better solutions for transportation than just putting more cars on the road.

Unions must align climate advocacy with green industrial relations. The UK-based Institute of Employment Rights and the Centre for Climate Crime and Climate Justice published Working for Climate Justice, which argues that labour unions, especially in the UK, have failed to make climate action a sufficient priority. Specifically, the paper notes that while many unions have made climate a point of political advocacy, they have not aligned it with their collective bargaining and member education practices.

Misinformation driving contestation in Bulgaria’s coal transition. An article in the Green European Journal, “Source of Division,” documents the efforts of Bulgarian workers and unions to resist what they view as an EU-imposed effort to destroy the country’s coal-dominated economy. It’s an unfortunate story of self-serving politics and misinformation. The majority of Bulgarians support the transition to cleaner energy, so there is still hope that the country will overcome the present moment.

Long-term, incremental transitions are built from smaller, transformative shifts. A special feature published in the journal PNAS takes on sustainable transitions from a number of different angles. James Meadowcroft and Daniel Rosenbloom’s contribution, “Governing the net-zero transition: Strategy, policy, and politics,” offers a valuable theoretical and historical take on transitions. Instead of getting lost talking about a “green transition” in the abstract, they argue, we should be focused on all of the smaller but interrelated regional and sectoral transitions that need to happen along the way.

How can we take fossil fuels out of the food system? A pair of reports published by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, a philanthropic coalition, tackle the issue of fossil fuels in the food system. The discussion paper, Toward Fossil-Free Food, explains how coal, oil and gas are used in everything from fertilizer to equipment to transportation and storage. The companion briefing paper, Power Shift, includes a set of modest recommendations for incrementally decarbonizing the global food system.

Global rich are burning through the world’s carbon budget. A widely-circulated report by Oxfam International, Climate Equality, finds that the richest one per cent globally produce as many greenhouse gas emissions as the poorest 66 per cent put together. It’s a stunning illustration of global inequality and a call for transformative action. I saw a few folks framing these results as an indictment of Canada’s super-rich, but it’s worth noting that most Canadians are much closer to the top than to the bottom of that global emissions distribution.

Militaries should pay for their emissions. A fascinating study from the British NGO Common Wealth, Less War, Less Warming, documents not only the substantial direct emissions of the U.S. and UK militaries but also their historical role in securing and enforcing the global fossil fuel economy. The paper argues that, given their outsized contributions to climate change, these militaries should wind down operations and pay reparations to countries in the Global South of at least $111 billion USD.

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