Canadians won’t change their lifestyles to reduce GHG emissions, curtailing options to meet Paris climate commitments

A study from Sweden’s Lund University got a lot of play in the Canadian media last week because it proposed four “simple” things consumers can do to become climate change warriors and significantly reduce their individual carbon footprint. But the study also illustrated the difficult choices Canada – as the world’s largest emitter on a per capita basis – faces to meet its Paris Climate Accord commitment to reduce emissions from 730 megatonnes (Mt) of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gasses in 2014 to 523 Mt in 2030.

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Alberta accounted for 38 per cent of national emissions, with Ontario well behind at just 23 per cent despite having three times the population. And Alberta expects the oil sands (which alone constitute almost 10% of Canadian emissions) to grow production by 1.2 million b/d to 1.5 million b/d by 2030.

Clearly, any strategy to significantly reduce Canadian GHG emissions runs squarely through Alberta.

The Lund University study is interesting because it describes the personal lifestyle choices countries like Canada would have to make to dramatically reduce GHG emissions.

There are four of them: eat plants not meat, eschew air travel, live car free, and have fewer children.

“Those of us who want to step forward on climate need to know how our actions can have the greatest possible impact. This research is about helping people make more informed choices,” says lead author Seth Wynes, a PhD student from the University of British Columbia.

“We recognize that these are deeply personal choices. But we can’t ignore the climate effect our lifestyle actually has,” added Kimberly Nicholas, associate professor at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies and study co-author.

Actually, ignoring the climate effect of their lifestyle is precisely how Canadians approach climate change.

A 2016 study by Innovative Research found that Canadians rank climate change as a serious problem until they’re asked to pay more to mitigate climate effects.

Source: Innovative Research.

Pollster Greg Lyle said Canadians simply don’t feel passionate about making personal changes to lower GHG emissions and without passion, consumers won’t change their habits.

“Just over two-thirds of Canadians say that they are concerned about climate change, but only 31 per cent are very concerned. The passion is lacking,” Lyle wrote in the May/June issue of Policy magazine.

He says 59 per cent agree with the statement, “We need to take dramatic action now if we want to stop climate change before it’s too late,” but only 28 per cent strongly agree with it.

“The issue, again, is the degree to which Canadians feel an urgent need for action,” he wrote.

Political affiliation matters.

The federal Liberals’ base supports a national price on carbon, for instance, even with impacts on personal lifestyles. Left-leaning New Democrat and PQ voters are even more supportive, but the parties’ bases are less enthusiastic.

The Conservative base is strongly opposed to a price on carbon. “The issue here is voters who are much less likely to be very concerned about the issue — and are not convinced that action is needed now,” writes Lyle.

The conclusion to be drawn from the Innovative Research poll is that there is no overwhelming desire in Canada to change lifestyle to combat climate change.

After all, if Canadians are this ambivalent about paying a modest carbon tax, imagine how little enthusiasm there would be for giving up their cars, forgoing winter vacations to Mexico and Hawaii, and switching to a diet long on kale and short on meat (kids are another matter, as the number of Canadian live births per female has dropped to 1.6, far beneath the 2.3 need to sustain the population, and appears headed lower still).

The Lund study approach of making voluntary lifestyle choices to combat climate change is clearly off the table for Canadian policymakers.

Which brings us back to the Alberta problem: how to slice roughly 200 MT of emissions in the province that makes up almost 40 per cent of national emissions?

One approach, often suggested by critics in British Columbia, the epicentre of Canadian environmentalism, is curtailing or phasing out the Alberta-dominated oil and gas industry.

But if Canadians won’t voluntarily change their lifestyles at the micro level, are they any more likely to support significant economic pain – such as deep cuts to the national GDP and the loss of many high-paying jobs – caused by public policy at the macro level?

Businesses, employment, and tax revenue in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia depend upon Alberta, especially the oil sands.

This graphic from the Canadian Energy Research Institute estimates the considerable economic impact of Canadian oil and gas activities on other provinces over the next 30 years.

If we assume that Canadian consumers won’t change their lifestyles and Canadian voters won’t support radical climate mitigation policies, then we are left with the strategy being pursued by the national and provincial governments: decarbonize existing energy systems as much as possible (e.g. the Alberta Climate Leadership Plan) while encouraging the development and deployment of clean energy technologies as much as is reasonable and can be afforded.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau argues that approach will help Canada meet its Paris commitments.

What other choices does Canada have? Only tough ones Canadians aren’t willing to make.