Appeasing Climate Bureaucrats by Regulating Plant Food: Carbon dioxide regulations useless and dangerous

Commentary, Climate, Tom Harris

The annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change must be intimidating events for Canadian environment ministers. Year after year they are expected to present Canada’s “green credentials” to a world increasingly critical of our coming violation of the Kyoto Protocol, the most important agreement to come out of 16 years of COP meetings.

In the fall of 2010 the Harper government tried to appease Canada’s international eco-critics by pledging $400 million to fulfill our Copenhagen Accord“commitments”. We had no legal obligation to do this but it gave then environment minister John Baird something to boast about at the Cancun COP summit in December.

This year environment minister Peter Kent will have something even more expensive, and even less useful, to brag about—carbon dioxide (CO2) regulations on coal-fired electricity generation.

Every school child knows what CO2 is. We breathe it out and plants breathe it in. It is odourless, invisible and an essential reactant in photosynthesis on which all life depends. Increases in atmospheric CO2levels have enhanced agricultural productivity across the world, allowing crops to grow in areas that are otherwise too dry.

Yet, for the past six years, the Canadian government has included CO2in their “List of Toxic Substances” in Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA).

Environment Canada tells us that CEPA is “aimed at preventing pollution and protecting the environment and human health.” So, what is CO2doing on CEPA’s toxins and pollutants list that includes PCBs, mercury, asbestos, lead and sulfur dioxide?

The CEPA list Web page gives the startling answer: “This substance is not classified as toxic but remains managed under Schedule 1 of CEPA… in order to enable the Government the use of a variety of preventive or control actions.”

During their last days as Canada’s Official Opposition in late 2005, the Conservatives fought bitterly against this obvious abuse of process. Even several key Liberals, including Alan Tonks, MP, then chairman of the Commons Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, said they were uncomfortable using an anti-pollution law to regulate CO2.

Testifying before the committee, University of Guelph Professor of Economics Ross McKitrick said, “That proposal…runs the risk of bringing CEPA itself into disrepute by enshrining something obviously untrue into it.…I can't imagine it was ever in the minds of the people who wrote that section that it would be used to cover anything like carbon dioxide.”

Nevertheless, as one of their last acts in power, the Martin government added CO2 to the list of toxins covered by CEPA.

You would expect that the new Harper Conservative government would have quickly removed CO2 from CEPA. Even a minority government can add or remove substances from Schedule 1 of CEPA simply by a decision of the Cabinet.

Instead, they left CO2 in CEPA like a time bomb ready to prop up future regulations.

Fast forward to 2011. The Conservatives have a majority government. The opposition is in disarray. Canadians are less interested in the environment than they have been in decades. Will the Conservative government finally remove CO2 from CEPA?

Not a chance. Instead they are now using CEPA as the statutory authority to create new CO2 regulations.

First it was CO2 rules on new cars and light trucks. Then there were Regulations for Renewable Fuel Content in Gasoline. Then it was heavy-duty vehicle CO2 emissions control. “Next, we’ll address ways to get a number of heavy industries to reduce their emissions,” Minister Kent told the Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources on October 4.

Currently open for public comment until October 26 is the Government’s new “Reduction of Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Coal-Fired Generation of Electricity Regulations”,“to phase out the use of dirty coal to generate electricity in Canada”, Kent explained to the Senate committee. Power companies fear that these rules will reduce the reliability of the electricity system while increasing costs in regions that depend largely on coal-fired power (e.g., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia). The long term effect of CO2/coal regulations will be to remove coal-fired electricity as an affordable option in the future. This is a huge risk if the main alternative to coal, natural gas, turns out to less abundant, or more expensive to extract, than is currently assumed, or if activists succeed in stopping hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’).

Besides its flawed legal foundation, the CO2/coal station regulations are riddled with serious mistakes and misrepresentations. It starts:

“Greenhouse gases (GHGs) are primary contributors to climate change.”

That is speculation on the government’s part, with several competing theories now appearing far more probable.

The second sentence in the regs is terrible:

“The most significant sources of GHG emissions are anthropogenic, mostly as a result of combustion of fossil fuels.”

Dr. Howard Hayden, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Connecticut responds, “This is either incredibly ignorant or an out-and-out lie. Combustion of fossil fuels is responsible for about 3.5% of all CO2 emissions. Is that their idea of "mostly"?”

Minister Kent implies that the new CO2/coal regulations are largely about pollution reduction and clean air, saying in his speech on August 19 that the proposed rules“will—literally—let all Canadians breathe easier. Our Government understands Canadians' concerns around the quality of the air we breathe.”

But the government’s own analysis, as laid out in the proposed regulations, show that there will be negligible, in fact immeasurable, “air quality improvements experienced by typical residents” of Canada by 2030. Specifically, fine particulate matter pollution is forecast to drop by 0.21% and ground level ozone by 0.09% for the country as a whole.

So, why bring up clean air benefits at all?

“The Government does not seem to feel that they can sell this as a greenhouse gas policy because it just would not have much traction with people”, said McKitrick. “They seem to feel that they have to say it is also a clean air and anti-smog regulation.”

The forecast pollution reduction, according to government modelling, yields health benefits from reduced smog exposure of $1.4 billion. This is highly speculative and ignores the fact that, below certain levels, pollution often has no impact on health whatsoever. Regardless, practically all of the regulations’ $1.5 billion net present value—the gap between the benefits and the cost—is accounted for by these alleged health benefits.

The largest supposed benefit of the new rules is “the avoided social cost of carbon” (SCC). Rated at having a value of $4.3 billion, these are the costs the Government asserts will be avoided by reducing Canada’s CO2 emissions by the amount prescribed under the regulations. But, since Canada’s CO2 emissions have essentially no impact on climate, SCC is effectively zero. Therefore the new rules are pointless and the regulations simply a net cost to taxpayers.

McKitrick does not believe that the Government’s demonstrations of net benefits of the regulations are meaningful anyways. “It looks like the way Enron used to report profits”, said McKitrick. “They always had just barely a positive number and it turns out there is always some weird assumption necessary to get to a small positive number.”

The Harper government should remove CO2from the list of toxins regulated under CEPA. Doing this would immediately nullify all CO2 regulations that use CEPA as the statutory authority.

President Obama’s recent rejection of Environmental Protection Agency ozone rules suggests that the US will not be as aggressive on CO2 reductions as originally feared. Since Canada’s environmental policy is largely driven by a need to be consistent with the Americans, our Government must immediately stop creating new greenhouse gas regulations at least until the situation in the US is clearer. Otherwise, we will be stuck with economically damaging CO2rules that are scientifically unfounded, and probably politically unnecessary as well.

In his testimony before the Senate Committee Kent supported the fantasy that humanity could limit the Earth’s temperature rise to “meet the two degree target set out in the Cancun Agreement”, adding, “In the case of climate change, our goal remains to have a new international regime that includes all major emitters and which will take concrete actions to limit global warming.”

Instead of such unrealistic pronouncements, Minister Kent needs to tell the truth at the UN COP meeting in December—carbon dioxide is not pollution and an unbiased assessment of the science indicates that the climatic impact of our greenhouse gas emissions is simply unknown.

Consequently, Canada should not commit to CO2and other greenhouse gas reductions at all. Instead we should focus on helping vulnerable peoples prepare for extreme weather events and adapt to variations in climate, whatever the cause, while working to reduce real air, land and water pollution where it is a problem.

Such a message, simple and honest though it is, will not be received well by the world’s vast climate change bureaucracy. But Canada can no longer afford to waste billions simply to appease irrational campaigners at international climate conferences.