Taking the carbon budget seriously

Good climate policy is incompatible with expanding fossil fuel extraction

The budget Canadians need to be talking about
Photo: Chatham House

Imagine for a moment a world where environmental crises are given the attention that they require. Imagine a country that actually prioritizes environmental sustainability and social justice as prerequisites to a healthy economy. Imagine that our annual fiscal budget update was accompanied by an update on our national carbon budget — the cap on CO2 emissions that we must adhere to in order to meet our international commitment to the Paris climate agreement.

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Imagine, further, that this carbon budget was taken seriously enough that overspending our emissions budget resulted in a national carbon deficit, leading to an accumulating debt that would need to be repaid. Imagine that this debt was in fact paid back via generous fiscal spending to improve the well-being and resilience of vulnerable and marginalized communities, both within our country and abroad.

If you are having trouble imagining this as a possibility, try harder. Because this is exactly how seriously we need to take the climate challenge.

The climate conversation needs to shift completely. We are still speaking about “sustainability” as if economic growth is the only thing we really need to sustain. We forget (or ignore) the fact that economic growth is predicated on social and ecological foundations, which are currently being critically eroded. True sustainability requires that social justice and the environment be placed on equal footing with our economy.

We cannot continue to grow our oil and gas industry — the single largest national contributor to greenhouse gas emissions — and decrease these same greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to meet our climate targets.

There are some promising signs that we are starting to move in the right direction. Both our prime minister and the minister of environment and climate change acknowledge that a healthy economy depends on a healthy environment. Trudeau has declared that “climate change is an immediate and significant threat to our communities and our economy.”

Climate change is not a problem that can be solved through incremental steps.

And yet Trudeau and the federal government continue to insist that expanding fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure can go hand-in-hand with climate policy. These goals are not compatible. We cannot continue to grow our oil and gas industry — the single largest national contributor to greenhouse gas emissions — and decrease these same greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to meet our climate targets. Any economic gains from growth in the oil and gas industry will only be made by overdrawing our carbon budget and increasing our carbon debt.

Safeguarding our economy means protecting our climate. That means that balancing our carbon budget should be seen as a prerequisite to balancing our fiscal budget. A climate test to evaluate individual projects against remaining emissions would be a big step forward. Decisions to proceed with infrastructure projects need to be evaluated first on whether they are compatible with our climate targets and the needs of vulnerable communities, and only then on their potential contribution to economic growth.

Climate change is not a problem that can be solved through incremental steps. The impacts and damages of climate change have the potential to touch every facet of human society; similarly, every strategic decision made by our governments needs to be made against an understanding that ecological and social well-being is fundamental to economic progress. Evaluating progress on our staying within our carbon budget, and not just our fiscal budget, would be a good start.

Daniel Horen Greenford is a PhD student and Damon Matthews is a professor and Concordia Research Chair in Climate Science and Sustainability, Geography, Planning and Environment at Concordia University.

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