Canada is big, cold and empty (relatively speaking) with a large resource base below ground. Thermodynamically the news about our per-capita greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint was never going to be good. We are in fact one of the highest per capita GHG emitters in the world. Fortunately due to population size and other factors including efforts to manage our emissions we contribute about 1.6% of the global total of GHG emissions so our overall impact as a country based on our direct emissions is low when compared to top emitters.
These facts for me beg the question if I had a dollar to spend on Canada’s response to climate change how would I spend it? Would it make sense to invest in significantly lowering our domestic emissions given the thermodynamic chips stacked against us? What would lowering our GHG emissions by roughly 40% to 1% of the global total achieve? Would the outcome on total GHG concentrations be worth the upheaval to the Canadian economy and way of life required to achieve it? Would Canada be significantly less susceptible to the effects of a changing climate as a result? The answer to these questions is more nuanced than yes or no. What I believe is clear is that the focus of our climate change mitigation efforts should lie outside our own borders – in the impact we have in the international arena. I also believe that our approach to science and technology is a key enabler to realising these impacts.
I am proud of our government’s diplomatic efforts at COP21. It would be difficult however to influence the global community to shoulder the responsibility and difficulty of tackling global climate change without bearing some of that responsibility and any associated difficulties domestically. So, even though it may only be a fraction of a percentage in absolute impact the reduction of our own GHG footprint earns us a seat at the table and increased credibility in negotiations with other countries that have a much bigger global GHG influence. Finding ways to leverage science and technology in key sectors domestically can enable us to better manage the infrastructure and economic changes that will be necessary for this.
But there is an even bigger opportunity for Canadian science and technology here. It is the ability to enable other countries, particularly developing countries to achieve increased levels of economic development with technologies that are more sustainable than the ones used by developed countries to get to where they are. No one can deny the right of citizens of developing countries to the same comforts, securities and economic opportunity that are enjoyed in developed nations and that are currently within their reach using old, high emitting technologies. Canada is in a position through an enviable innovation ecosystem to offer better options to the world for doing everything from generating electricity to treating wastewater. As an advisory board member of the World Intellectual Property Organisation’s WIPO GREEN Program, a program designed to facilitate the transfer of green IP in its many forms from where it is generated to where it is needed globally I know the mechanisms and appetite exist for this. Our cleantech sector is already highly export oriented. Increasing alignment between and among our climate change, trade and development policies will enable us to have a climate change impact much bigger than actions to address our domestic emissions could.
So how much of that dollar have I spent? Whatever the proportions are there is no denying that Canadians benefit directly from every wise investment in climate change adaptation. Here is another area where the federal government will be investing heavily and where Canada has demonstrated scientific leadership: in the development of the PIEVC protocol made possible through a collaboration between Natural Resources Canada and Engineers Canada. The protocol enables a systematic review of historical climate information and projects the nature, severity and probability of future climate changes and events and establishes the adaptive capacity of an individual infrastructure to the threats of those changes and events.
So finally how would I spend my dollar? I’m an optimist by nature so would spend most of my dollar on mitigating climate change (we can still do it!) and the remainder on adapting to the changes we cannot avoid. Our scientific and technological advances got us to where we are and will need to be a critical part of the process to getting us to where we need to be.