At the Paris climate change conference near the end of 2015, newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau informed the world that Canada is back and here to help. Canada, he said, is ready to once again take on an international leadership role. To many, those were welcome words. But no one said it was going to be easy. How do we go about meeting our international climate change commitments while ensuring prosperity and inclusivity at home?

In a word: balance.

“It’s all about balance,” opined a representative Globe and Mail editorial. “Canada’s economy, and especially those of some provinces, will always be heavily reliant on resources. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is right to insist that the way forward in the climate-change era is along a path where environmental concerns, native issues and future resource development walk together in an overt fashion.”

Canada’s newly minted minister of the environment and climate change, Catherine McKenna, enthusiastically endorsed the Globe’s pronouncement, tweeting, “Excellent editorial in globeandmail about the way forward in climate-change era. #environment #resources #aboriginal.”

Outlining their vision of an effective cap-and-trade regime, economists Paul Boothe and Christopher Ragan put the issue this way: “Political leaders should aim to balance the need to get significant emissions reductions with the costs of adapting the economy to a new, lower-carbon future.”

Writing for the CBC, political scientist Duane Bratt recently described the Alberta NDP’s about-face on the province’s oil and gas sector royalty review as Premier Rachel Notley’s “come to Jesus moment.” Lauding the government’s decision to break a cornerstone campaign promise, Bratt offered that “government requires balancing and judgment, not dogma.”

Who can argue with that? Balance is the new national mantra. It’s a profoundly reassuring story whose meaning is that we don’t have to choose. We can get our resources to market in a sustainable manner. We can reduce our GHG emissions and meet our international commitments while we enthusiastically build new oil pipelines. We can consult with Indigenous peoples on a nation-to-nation basis without ever obtaining their consent.

Balance – with its close cousin, process – is the new national religion.

It’s also a myth.

Let’s begin with the federal government’s recently released interim regulations for oil pipeline projects.

The new regulations stipulate that the government’s oil pipeline decisions will be based on science and traditional Indigenous knowledge; the views of the public, including affected communities and Indigenous peoples; and the direct and upstream GHG emissions that can be linked to pipelines.

All of which sounds like a decidedly balanced and trustworthy process. Listen to Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr and you’re likely to hear him say – repeatedly – that the government must “rebuild the public’s trust while maintaining certainty for industry and ensuring a thorough process that is fair, transparent and responsible.”

The trouble with this mantra, however, is that it cannot be reconciled with the science of climate change mitigation. While science can be fun, it doesn’t countenance political compromise and convenience. The overwhelming majority of an oil pipeline’s GHG emissions are downstream emissions. An approval process that considers the direct (i.e., construction) and upstream (i.e., processing) GHG emissions of oil pipelines while arbitrarily turning a blind eye to its downstream (i.e., combustion) emissions is neither a balanced nor a trustworthy process because it’s irreconcilable with the science of climate change mitigation.

The science of climate change mitigation has two incredibly hard things to teach us. Call them the rock and the hard place.

First, the hard place: peer-reviewed climate change science demonstrates that in order to have a better-than-even chance of keeping global warming to 2°C above preindustrial levels, at least 85 percent of Alberta’s remaining ultimately recoverable oil sands bitumen must remain in the ground. In one model, the percentage rises to 99 percent.

No oil pipeline that will expand the extraction of Alberta’s unconventional oil sands can pass a scientifically valid climate test because any increase in unconventional oil production is incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2°C, let alone the 1.5°C that Canada championed in Paris as part of the “ambition coalition.” This is the scientific standard that must be applied to the Energy East pipeline proposal if the government’s assessment is to be trusted by Canadians and the world.

An environmental assessment that arbitrarily excludes downstream GHG emissions effectively exports not only Alberta’s bitumen crude oil but also its ultimate emissions.

Such a policy breaks not only our promise to base natural resource development decisions on science but also Canada’s promise to the world to take on a new leadership role on climate change. Article 4.4 of the Paris climate change agreement stipulates that developed countries like Canada should “continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets.” Allowing an oil pipeline to proceed on the grounds that the bulk of its emissions will arise downstream, beyond Canada’s borders, would violate both the letter and the spirit of this historic agreement that Canada did so much to broker.

Now, as if that weren’t hard enough, consider the rock of climate change science.

Absent the political will to immediately begin the transition away from fossil fuels extraction, our only hope is to develop new technologies capable of removing GHGs from the atmosphere, or what are called “negative emission technologies” (NETs).

Potential NETs include carbon capture and sequestration (CCS, which the U.K. recently defunded, calling it “too expensive”), direct air capture of carbon, enhanced weathering of minerals, afforestation and reforestation, fixing atmospheric carbon in biomass and soils, biologically and/or chemically altering the ocean, and storing carbon in soils.

A recent peer-reviewed assessment of NETs warned that “there is no NET (or combination of NETs) currently available that could be implemented to meet the <2 degrees Celsius target without significant impact on either land, energy, water, nutrient, albedo or cost, and so ‘plan A’ must be to immediately and aggressively reduce GHG emissions.”

The assessment’s conclusion is stark: “A failure of NETs to deliver expected mitigation in the future, due to any combination of biophysical and economic limits examined here, leaves us with no ‘plan B.”

So much for a balanced, trustworthy climate test for oil pipelines. What about the consultation of Indigenous peoples with respect to natural resource development?

Here too the mantra of balance and process is likely to mislead. The as-yet-unreleased findings of a recent inquiry into the Alberta government’s Lower Athabasca Regional Plan are a damning case in point. According to the inquiry, the government’s attempt to balance the competing interests at play in the oil sands have failed to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights, lands and health. The inquiry’s conclusion supports the Mikisew Cree’s complaint that industry interests have been given priority over their constitutional rights.

Another analysis, of both legal and scientific factors, argues that Canada could become an international leader in climate governance by honouring its treaty commitments to Indigenous peoples, but only if policy-makers first recognize that they must respect the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples principle of free, prior and informed consent, which the federal government has committed to implementing. But this also means that policy-makers must respect the right of Indigenous peoples to say no to resource extraction on their traditional territories.

Stories matter. The stories we tell ourselves about our economy, our environment and our obligations to each other determine how we frame problems and imagine their possible solutions.

The stories we tell are all the more important, no matter how comforting they may be, if they’re not true.

Balance and process are just such stories: hopeful, yes, but ultimately false and misleading.

Consider one last example. In a recent speech delivered on the eve of the March First Ministers’ Meeting on developing a pan-Canadian climate strategy, Prime Minister Trudeau argued, “The choice between pipelines and wind turbines is a false one. We need both to reach our goals.”

Make no mistake, the mantra of balance and process is sincere enough. All signs point to a federal government genuinely committed to doing right by all Canadians. But the story that it’s telling itself and Canadians is destined to deliver not balance, not trust, but a devastating deficit to future generations. The longer we postpone the necessarily painful but nonetheless inevitable transition to a low-carbon economy, the higher the costs will be to our children and grandchildren, who will have no choice but to reckon with the carnage wrought by our short-term political compromises. We need to heed that cautionary tale and the science behind it.

But what we need most of all is a new story, one that candidly accounts for the trade-offs between the inherently conflicting objectives of expanding fossil fuels extraction, encouraging economic innovation, promoting environmental protection and achieving social justice. A Canada known not for its resources but for its resourcefulness is a story worth telling, and trusting.

This article is part of the After Paris: Next Steps on Climate Change special feature.

Jason MacLean
Jason MacLean is an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Law, specializing in environmental law, climate change and energy policy, and sustainability.

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