How to engage the public on climate change?

GHG2014 S4 cover imageFor years most politicians didn’t want to touch the climate change issue. Perhaps they saw it as a political loser, or they were afraid to scare people. And, of course, talking about climate change would mean they’d be expected to actually do something about it. Now, as people start to see the impacts of climate change on their daily lives to a greater degree, the public is realizing that action is necessary. This provides an entry point for governments to step up and provide both direction and leadership to the public on this issue. I see transparent communications with the public as an essential component of good leadership. Governments should honestly advise the public about the risks they face, and the responsibilities they will bear, in a changing climate.

Other provinces are already doing this. Newfoundland launched a public communications campaign called Turn Back the Tide in 2012. The government plainly lays out what the climate change impacts will be for the province and what individuals, businesses and others can do. British Columbia has partnered with municipalities to create a climate action toolkit to help communities implement climate action. Quebec has linked the issue of climate to health and created a web hub for information. Other provinces and territories, such as Nova Scotia, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, have specific government websites dedicated to climate change.

In other countries, politicians are increasingly making public statements about the need to act on climate change. Since his landmark speech in June 2013, President Barack Obama has engaged in an ongoing public communications campaign on climate change – including tweets and speeches – alongside making important climate policy announcements.

However, governments can also face backlash when communicating about the risks of climate change to the public. The UK government spent £6 million on climate change television ads in 2009 which received many complaints, including those that doubted the validity of climate change science and others who felt that the advertising campaign was sparking fear. As a result, the UK government was investigated and cleared by the independent communications regulator. The head of the climate and energy department at the time said that he didn’t regret doing the ads and felt that the government had a duty to inform the public about the risks of climate change.

By contrast, Ontario has been relatively timid about communicating with the public about climate change; however, that seems to be changing with the new majority government. I encourage senior members of the government to open up a two-way dialogue on climate change with the people of Ontario. Warn them of the risks; yes, but also engage with them about climate change in the context of the things that matter to them: their homes, their families, their jobs and their communities. People need to see themselves in the climate conversation, and how it relates to their daily lives. When the risks (and opportunities) become personalized, people will clearly see the need for action on climate – at both the individual and collective levels.

Perceptions of COP20 – UN Conference on Climate Change

I have just returned from the COP20 meeting in Lima, Peru and I thought it might be valuable to offer a few comments and perceptions. This event is, of course, the 20th annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which Canada ratified in 1992. The Kyoto Protocol flowed from this process and came into force in 2005, though the first commitment period expired in 2012. (Canada ratified Kyoto in 2002, and then withdrew in 2011).

The main purpose of COP20 was to lay the groundwork for COP21 in Paris in December 2015. Hopefully in Paris we will see the nations of the world come to an agreement on a plan to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions that will come into force in 2020, and will also address how adaptation to the ongoing climate change will proceed, and how much money the developed nations will commit to the global process.

The tasks in Lima included drafting up the elements of a negotiating text which will be the basis of discussion over the next year leading to Paris. There was also the job of rustling up $10 billion in commitments to the Green Climate Fund as an initial good faith gesture. The parties exceeded the $10 billion target, so that was good news. And while the parties did end up with an agreement on the negotiating text, most commentators agree that the substance of the text was very weak and non-committal. Expectations were low for this process and I suppose it was this low bar that was met.

The problem with this process, which has been evident in previous COPs, is that the broad range of national interests includes those nations who are reluctant – or even hostile – to achieving a mandatory international agreement. So in seeking a consensus document they have to deal with parties who are constantly trying to water down or undermine substantive clauses. For example, the agreement asks countries to submit their emission reduction targets (“intended nationally determined contributions” [.pdf]) in the first quarter of 2015 if they are “ready to do so.” This is hardly a definitive commitment.

This milquetoast language was not well received by most of the other groups observing the proceedings. Youth groups especially called for more decisive action and demonstrated frustration with the progress. The President of ICLEI commanded “it is time to be bold, ambitious and inclusive.” Al Gore exhorted, “we must change, we can change and we will change!” The frustration in the rank and file was palpable.

But at Lima there was also a much more positive development. Led by Ontario, Quebec and California, there was a strong push to establish a sub-national collaboration on climate change among provinces, states and even large municipalities. In contrast to the national negotiations, this group is a collaboration of the willing. Those that oppose need not be part of it. As such, the initiative has a strongly positive tone which resonated with sub-national jurisdictions on several continents, as well as civil society, the environmental sector and even some business groups.

The sub-national initiative was quickly recognised as another channel to achieve progress on GHG emission reductions that by-passed the frustrating UNFCCC process. It is early yet, but Ontario has already offered to host a Climate Summit of the Americas in July 2015, which could, if successful, result in a completely different international narrative developing on climate change in 2015.

The international situation with respect to taking action on the existential problem of climate change is, to say the least, uncertain. It is not the time for optimism but it may be the time for some hope.

If you’d like to hear more, I’ll be hosting a live chat today at 2 p.m. To participate, you can sign up here, or you can tweet your question using the hashtag #ECOLive.

The ECO is Off to Lima

¡Hola! ¿Que tal?

It happens every December: the annual United Nations climate change conference. In previous years you may have noticed a flurry of media stories on climate right before the holidays. The first meeting was in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, where the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an international treaty, was first opened for signature. The treaty entered into force in 1994; as of 2014, 196 countries are party to the treaty. Its aim is to stabilize global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to avoid dangerous climatic changes. The parties to the treaty have met every year since 1995, which is known as the “Conference of the Parties” or COP.

The most famous recent COP was perhaps in 2009 in Copenhagen, when U.S. President Obama made a last ditch plea for an agreement – known as the Copenhagen Accord. (Both the U.S. and Canada agreed to reduce their GHG emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. The U.S. is on track to meet this commitment; by its own admission, Canada will not). Many people have become skeptical of this annual conference, due to the lack of tangible outcomes even as climate change continues to worsen.  But hard work gets done behind the scenes.

This year, the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP 20) is taking place in Lima, Peru from December 1-12 [.pdf]. Many countries send delegations, which are made up of a mix of government officials, business people, parliamentarians and others. This year I have decided to attend as part of the International Institute for Sustainable Development delegation, for several reasons:

  • The global context for climate change policy has changed profoundly in recent months. The U.S. and China recently signed an agreement where both countries agreed to limit GHG emissions. The European Union also recently strengthened its climate change reduction targets. The COP 20 conference in Lima is the first step towards what many policy makers and political leaders hope will be an ambitious global climate agreement inked at COP 21 in Paris in December 2015. In Lima, many jurisdictions will be positioning themselves to negotiate in the lead-up to next year’s Paris conference.
  • Ontario has a renewed focus on climate change – one clear sign is that it has renamed its environment ministry the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. It is working on updating its climate change mitigation and adaptation plans, and hopes to re-position Ontario as a climate change leader by Paris 2015. As a result, it is sending its own delegation to Lima this year, including Glen Murray, the Minister, as well as the Deputy Minister, and other key staff. My formal mandate requires me to report on Ontario’s progress on climate change.
  • While an agreement is unlikely to be reached in Lima, it is important for Ontario to have a presence. Behind the scenes, essential conversations take place that help to test policy concepts, spur ideas and partnerships and share lessons learned. Key connections are made and strategic relationships are built. Ontario cannot solve the climate crisis alone and partnerships with neighbouring jurisdictions, both in Canada and North America more broadly, are vital. All the key people will be assembled in Lima. Ontario has recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the province of Quebec to collaborate on climate change and energy policy, demonstrating its desire to take a cooperative approach.

I am attending for two purposes: to both witness and participate in the sub-national conversations first-hand; and to inform my discussions with, and recommendations for, the Ontario government on climate change. Watch this space as well as my personal Twitter account and the ECO’s Climate and Energy Twitter account for updates and news from Peru in December.

¡Hasta Luego!

Pricing Carbon … A Taxing Issue!

Most economists agree that a carbon tax is the best policy instrument to reduce emissions. It is relatively quick and simple to implement, easy to explain to the public and seems to work (i.e., actually achieves emission reductions). And it could raise a fair amount of money. The Ontario government stated very clearly in 2013 that a carbon tax wasn’t on the table (.pdf), but let’s imagine that it is.

We can only speculate on the design of a carbon tax in Ontario, but let’s make a few assumptions in order to estimate the magnitude of the revenues that could be raised. If Ontario’s hypothetical carbon tax was set at the same level as that of British Columbia ($30/tCO2e – tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent), and covered the same companies that now report their annual greenhouse gas emissions to the province (facilities that emit more than 25,000 tCO2e), then the tax would conceivably raise about $1.5 billion per year.

That’s a lot of money. There are many ways the carbon tax revenues could be used, depending on the priorities of the government. There are trade-offs between the various ways to use the revenue – some are more popular with the public than others; some are more economically efficient, and so on. Not everyone will agree on the best way to spend this large sum of money, but how the government chooses to use the revenue matters.

In British Columbia, an early adopter in North America of a carbon tax, the tax was made revenue neutral in order to gain approval from the public. Revenue neutrality means that all revenues from the tax are returned to individuals and businesses through reductions in other taxes, i.e., the money does not go into general government revenues to fund other programs or reduce deficits. People get used to the personal and corporate tax cuts, making it more challenging for future politicians to eliminate. And, it puts that money right back into the economy where it belongs.

Research has shown that public support for a carbon tax hinges on how the revenue is used. In one American poll, the public supported a carbon tax most when the revenues would be used to fund renewable energy.

Other revenue use options include: investing in or subsidizing technological solutions that reduce emissions (e.g. public transit, building insulation, energy efficient appliances, and low-emission vehicles); investing in adapting to climate change; issuing lump sum rebates to lower-income households (who would be most adversely affected by the carbon tax); or reducing the deficit. As in B.C., corporate and personal tax rates could be reduced, although Ontario’s corporate tax rate is already competitive with other provinces (.pdf). Other taxes could be targeted, including taxes on capital investment (corporate taxes or personal income rates on interest, dividends, or capital gains) or consumption. The economic effects of various carbon tax revenue use options has been modelled, at least in the United States, with the most economically beneficial option being reducing other taxes. Of course how the revenue is used has political ramifications, so the most economically efficient use is not always the one chosen.

I support a price on carbon, as I have previously noted, and would like to see Ontario implement some sort of carbon pricing soon. A carbon tax should be back on the table as a viable option. The revenues would provide a boost to the economy, and engage the public on climate change.


Climate Data: For Baselines, Trend Lines and the Bottom Line

data imageToday I want to zero in on the urgent need for made-in-Ontario climate projections. How can we prepare for climate change and make long-term decisions – how high to build a bridge, for example, or where to site a water treatment plant – if we don’t have reliable data and information?

Decisions on infrastructure span far into the future and have major social and economic consequences. Without trustworthy climate projections customized for Ontario’s local scales, we are handicapped, and left in the dark about the vulnerability of our assets.

In Ontario, some municipal governments and other organizations are using current climate data – such as rainfall intensity, duration and frequency curves – as well as projections to inform infrastructure design and other planning decisions. However, adaptation planning in Ontario is still in its infancy.

GHG2014 cover image thumbOntario lacks easily accessible, downscaled climate data and projections to use in preparing for the “new climate normal,” which I described in my 2014 greenhouse gas progress report.

Unlike Ontario, some leading jurisdictions understand the importance of scientifically sound, readily available and understandable information about future climate and weather conditions. They also see the business opportunity.

The United States is becoming a climate data leader, and it’s worth looking at what it’s doing as an example of best practice. The U.S. government is investing millions of dollars into climate data and modelling to ensure that federal agencies can support communities to prepare for climate change. This Climate Data Initiative is bringing together the private and public sectors to develop tools that help communities and companies prepare for climate change. The U.S. government is actively obtaining a variety of commitments from the private sector to support the initiative.

At the same time, President Obama sees the business advantage for American companies to develop new climate data products and services for both domestic and export markets. The uptake of these products and services by American companies will help ensure continued U.S. economic competitiveness in the face of a changing climate. These climate applications will be “made in America,” meaning that American companies such as Microsoft and IBM will be able to export their climate data expertise. To accelerate progress, the White House is convening private and public sector leaders around focused themes, such as food security, to develop and leverage climate data to ensure American resilience and economic competitiveness.

I find the array of accessible U.S. governmental and non-governmental websites dedicated to providing accurate local climate data, projections, maps and tools truly impressive, even at this early stage. The main U.S. government climate data web portal consolidates much of the available information into a one-stop shop. Other American websites are dedicated to providing information about current drought conditions, managing agricultural risks, assessing the cost-effectiveness of low-impact development, tropical storm maps and links to many more tools and data sets. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center manages six Regional Climate Centers. Its Regional Integrated Sciences & Assessments team supports public and private end users to understand and deploy climate data. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration provides a variety of climate datasets and images. The U.S. is also investing in creating 3-D maps that will assist in flood risk management and other climate impacts.

By contrast, the Canadian government has no initiative of comparable scale and scope. Ontario has made some modest investments in climate change modelling. One of the modellers funded by the province has a dedicated website for Ontario climate projections. The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority  has created a real-time flood monitoring website. While these initiatives are a good start, there is clearly a large gap between the needs of climate data users (such as companies, insurers, municipalities and other organizations) and what is available. Some of these organizations can afford to hire consultants when faced with a lack of publicly-funded, scientifically-sound and properly interpreted climate data, but many cannot. I believe the provincial government has a responsibility to ensure that consistent, high-quality climate data are widely accessible in a user-friendly format. Our neighbour Quebec has created an organization, called OURANOS, to fulfill this exact function. In Ontario, the Ontario Climate Consortium is attempting to fill this gap, but without significant government financial support.

Accurate and reliable climate information is a prerequisite for adapting to climate change. Provincial stakeholders need this vital climate information to adapt Ontario’s economy and infrastructure to the changes we know are coming. Now is the time for leadership from the provincial government on this important issue.


The Unforgiving Truth About Unburnable Carbon

GHG2014 cover image thumbIn a recent blog highlighting the findings in my 2014 Annual Greenhouse Gas Progress Report, I stressed that the science of climate change is unequivocal: humans are changing the global climate through deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels. Since the rise of the industrial revolution in the mid-1800s, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has increased by over 40 per cent – from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 401 ppm today.  This blanket of greenhouse gases traps radiant heat, which has already resulted in a nearly 1°C rise in atmospheric temperatures since pre-industrial times. While 1°C may not seem like a big deal, it is: the global average temperature difference between today and the last ice age 12,000 years ago was only 4°C.

The Need for a Planetary Carbon Diet

In 2009 the global community adopted a goal [.pdf] to limit global warming to 2°C compared to pre-industrial temperatures to avoid “dangerous … interference with the climate system”. We are already about half-way to this threshold. Consequently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released calculations regarding a global carbon budget [.pdf] – a carbon diet if you will – that must be adhered to going forward. To have a reasonable chance of staying within a 2°C increase, the IPCC cautions that the global economy only has about 1,000 Gigatonnes (billion tonnes or Gt) of CO2 remaining for future use (see diagram). At the current worldwide rate of CO2 release (36 Gt CO2 /yr), this global budget will be exhausted in about 28 years; sooner if emerging economies like India and China don’t stem their rising carbon appetites.

Carbon budget

The Fossil Fuel Industry Wants to Feed Us More

The situation becomes even bleaker when one realizes the considerable disparity between the budget – what can be emitted while staying within the 2°C threshold – and what the global fossil fuel companies publicize are their proven reserves of fossil fuels. The 2012 World Energy Outlook published by the authoritative and independent International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that the remaining global reserves of all fossil fuels in the ground (coal, oil and natural gas) would emit 2,900 Gt CO2 if burned.  If the IPCC’s 1,000 Gt CO2 scenario is the diet that the global economy must stick with to avoid ecological catastrophe, then about two-thirds of these fossil reserves must stay in the ground – they are unburnable carbon.

The Economics of Unburnable Carbon

Unburnable carbon raises the spectre of portfolio write-downs and stranded assets for fossil fuel-intensive industries, and raises an important financial risk for the industry‘s investors. Within Canada the S&P/TSX Composite Index is one of the most carbon-intensive stock indices in the world.In 2013, the TSX had over 400 companies listed in the oil and gas sector, representing a market capitalization (i.e., the total value or worth of the 400-plus companies) around $400 to $500 billion.

I stressed in my report that the fossil fuel industry and its investors need to re-examine business risk through this new unburnable carbon lens. Several authoritative international organizations, including the IEA, Carbon Tracker, the United Nations [.pdf] and HSBC [.pdf] are warning investors to focus this lens quickly and act accordingly to avoid another kind of catastrophe – an economic one.

Climate Change Science is Certain

Almost 14 years ago, I submitted a special report to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario entitled Climate Change: Is the Science Sound? Concerned about the debate that was ongoing at the time, I felt that – as the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario – it was incumbent upon me to review the scientific evidence and provide Ontario policymakers with my considered opinion as to the strength of the arguments that were being made. I concluded at the time that climate change is occurring and that humans play a key role.

GHG2014 cover image thumbFor anyone who has been paying attention to this issue during the intervening years, it is clear that both the weight of evidence and the certainty of the science are now unequivocal. Enhanced scientific modelling, as well as improved technologies, have allowed scientific organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the World Meteorological Organization, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), to reach the same inescapable conclusion: the climate-warming trends that have been witnessed over the past century are almost certainly due to increases in greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. In my most recent report on the Ontario government’s progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, I discuss key conclusions reached by the IPCC, as well as others, to again present Ontario policymakers with the most up-to-date scientific information possible on Earth’s changing climate.

In our day-to-day lives, we plan what to wear, and whether to bring an umbrella, based on daily weather forecasts. One day may be warmer or rainier than the next and so we make plans according to the weather. Over a much longer time frame, however, trends in weather patterns are assessed to determine what the climate is for a particular area. In other words, the difference between weather and climate is a measure of time; typically more than a 30-year timeframe. While daily changes in the weather are clear and obvious, it is more difficult to discern whether the climate is also changing.  It is only through the long-term tracking and recording of data that climate patterns, and changes associated with those patterns, become evident.

At a global level, it is through this long-term tracking that scientists have determined that global average temperatures are inexorably rising. As shown below, the longer term trend shows a clear increase, particularly when averaged over 10-year time periods. As shown in the lower portion of the diagram, the average temperature of each succeeding decade has been warmer than the one previous. The most recent data indicates that 2013 was slightly warmer than the preceding two years (source). Within the Northern Hemisphere, the last 30 year period is likely to have been the warmest period during the previous 1,400 years (source).

Surface temp anomaly

A key question in climate change discussions is whether or not severe weather events – such as extreme heat alerts – can be attributed to a changing climate. Over the past year, research (.pdf) has revealed that the frequency with which anomalous extreme heat events are occurring has shifted, such that they now occur more often. The graph below illustrates this for the Northern Hemisphere. The far left box shows that historic summer temperature anomalies from 1951-1980 produce a normal distribution – or bell-curve pattern. The far right tail of the curve – in the darker red that is barely visible – shows that extreme heat events occurred only very rarely; only 0.1 per cent of all temperature events during the 30-year period. Over time, however, there has been a shift in the entire distribution curve; in short, extreme hot weather events are now happening much more frequently than they have in the past.

N Hemisphere Land Summer Temp Anomalies

Along with rising temperatures, other indicators clearly demonstrate that not only is the climate changing, it is doing so at an accelerated rate. For instance, the average rate at which glaciers and ice sheets are melting has increased in recent years (source). While each of these findings reveals the changes that have occurred in the past, the IPCC also provided projections that should truly give reason to pause and consider what may lie ahead for the future.

Ontario’s policy decisions matter and they can have an influence on our future. I am therefore calling upon the provincial government to show leadership and to make decisions that will help the province move toward a low-carbon economy. The costs of inaction are profound and, in my view, the benefits of taking action are compelling. It is now time for leadership on climate change.

Insuring our Future Against Extreme Weather

In my just-released Annual Greenhouse Gas Progress Report, I note that wild weather –such as ice storms and floods – has increasingly captured the attention of Ontarians.  The province has always experienced periodic heavy downpours and ice storms but, thanks to climate change, the magnitude and frequency of these extreme weather events is increasing. This trend is the new normal.

This message hit home in 2013 when regions as diverse as Toronto, Sault Ste. Marie and Muskoka were struck by damaging storms. On July 8, for example, Toronto experienced a torrential rainstorm. Parts of the city were overwhelmed with up to 126 millimetres of rain in about two hours, more than the previous daily rainfall record of 121.4 millimetres, which was set by Hurricane Hazel in 1954. The subway system and airport were shut down, people were stranded for hours and residents had to wade through streets that had been transformed into rivers.  Similarly, Sault Ste. Marie and Muskoka experienced severe floods the same year. Over the past ten years, citizens in Wawa, Thunder Bay,  HamiltonPeterborough  and other communities across the province have also experienced wet basements, flooded streets and evacuations, sometimes multiple times over.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates that storms that used to occur every 40 years on average can now be expected to occur every six years. Extreme weather is here to stay and will only get worse. Municipalities are on the front lines in terms of dealing with the associated challenges and struggle to manage such repeated disasters – operationally, environmentally and financially.

Many municipalities lack the technical knowledge and financial capacity to adequately adapt to a changing climate. Flooding can come from rivers and lakes overflowing their banks, but in many cases urban flooding is caused by inadequate stormwater infrastructure that cannot handle the intense downpours that are now being witnessed across the province. Some municipalities are attempting to prepare for extreme weather through tools such as green infrastructure or paying for investments by imposing stormwater rates; however, without direction from a higher level of government, communities are working in isolation.

Municipalities have asked the province for help [.pdf] to adapt to a changing and volatile climate, and provincial leadership is clearly needed. However, in my latest GHG Report, I conclude that “on stormwater management and climate change, Ontario ministries have unfortunately not yet stepped up to their responsibilities.”

Municipalities and conservation authorities are not the only ones affected by extreme weather – the insurance industry has noticed these trends as well. While fire was once the main cause of property insurance claims in Canada, the Insurance Bureau of Canada reports that water and wind damage from severe weather has now become the leading loss. For example, insured property damage from the 2013 Toronto flood was pegged at $940 million. As such, it’s expected that insurance rates will go up and some types of liabilities, such as wet basements, will cease to be covered. There have even been headlines warning of uninsurable homes, raising a major question mark when it comes to obtaining or renewing a mortgage.

The insurance industry’s growing concerns about climate risk will also have broader implications for Ontario. As I said at the release of my report, “The insurance/reinsurance industry has been warning us for years that losses due to flooding must be stemmed or it will be impossible to write insurance. Our financial system cannot function without insured risk.” (Watch the video of my remarks) If Ontario does not step up to the plate and provide leadership to municipalities and residents in climate change adaptation, we risk increased, and possibly unmanageable, costs for damage to infrastructure and properties when extreme weather inevitably occurs again.

I believe it is urgent that the provincial government fulfills its responsibilities to help Ontario prepare for the stormwater and flooding impacts of a changing climate. Our province has drifted into troubled waters and without quick action our communities will not be able to weather the coming storms.

Keeping up with Monsieur and Madame Jones

With our busy lives these days, we don’t always know exactly what our neighbours are up to. But unconsciously (or consciously) we all compare ourselves to our neighbours– who has the better car or lawn, or nicer house? Similarly, climate policy wonks might wonder, which jurisdictions are moving ahead with the most effective policies? While Ontario has made strides in reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the energy sector by embracing renewable power and phasing out the production of coal-fired electricity, other provinces have pulled far ahead when it comes to using economic instruments to lower emissions from the industrial sector. In Ontario we don’t always hear about the great things happening on the climate file in Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta.

At one point, Ontario seemed to be keeping pace with its leading provincial counterparts. It was a leader within the Western Climate Initiative, and seemed to be charging ahead with its own cap-and-trade program. Now, several years, three discussion papers, and rounds of industry consultations later, the fear of harming our economic competitiveness seems to have stalled program implementation. Contrast that to our next-door neighbour Quebec, which has a functioning cap-and-trade system in place, auctioned its first permits last week and is preparing to link its program early next year with California’s.

British Columbia’s carbon tax has been receiving a lot of favourable attention from economists and policymakers all over North America and globally as an example of good environmental and economic policy. It’s been in place five years, and people are getting used to it. The tax works: personal and corporate income taxes are the lowest in Canada, the economy has grown faster than the rest of Canada’s and emissions have fallen. Alberta’s Specified Gas Emitters Regulation, while not very stringent, has at least put a price on carbon; a huge step forward for a resource-intensive province.

The point is that someone always has to be first, or in financial terms, the first mover. Good policy requires some degree of risk. Ontario has dithered while its neighbours have moved ahead, and they will reap the benefits. We need to reframe climate policy as an economic opportunity: the opportunity to be more efficient, invest in new technology and spur new industries. A price on carbon will help these green industries grow. We need to just look over the fence at what our neighbours are doing.

A Picture can be Worth a Thousand Tonnes

What will it take for us to address the existential challenge of climate change? A lot of brainpower has gone into trying to answer this fundamental question, because setting out the sober facts and pleading for action don’t seem to be doing the job.

We definitely can help people better understand the problem using visual tools. “Data visualization” has arrived on the scene, maybe just in time. There has been an explosion in the use of infographics to illustrate complex concepts, including environmental issues. We have more data at our fingertips than ever before and less time to process it all; combined with the availability of the technological tools to slice and dice the data into more visual formats, the emergence of this trend makes a lot of sense. Even the White House created an infographic  to describe its June 2013 Climate Action Plan [.pdf]. I recently used a great graphic [.pdf] of the carbon footprints in different neighbourhoods in the Greater Toronto Area in my Energy Conservation Progress Report – Vol. 1.

This data visualization trend has been around long enough that we’re starting to see the “next generation” of tools emerge. For climate change, there is one notable organization, Carbon Visuals, trying to get us to “look at carbon differently.” What does CO2 even look like? It’s an odourless, colourless, invisible gas. Not surprisingly, most people have no idea. Carbon Visuals to the rescue!  This image shows the scale of one tonne of CO2 at standard pressure. Each sphere is 10 metres in diameter and one sphere (one tonne) is emitted in New York City every 0.58 seconds!

pic 1

Carbon Visuals has also developed tools to help understand the main causes and scale of carbon emissions in certain jurisdictions, including New York City. Part of that is visualizing the yearly emissions from specific buildings, as this image shows. According to Carbon Visuals, these images have helped them engage with building owners and users.pic 2

Of course good visuals aren’t possible without good data, and the New York case is also an example of the value of government transparency in making available the necessary data to enable development of visual analytical tools.

The environmental community is learning to embrace data visualization.  See for example the recent cost of urban sprawl website by green economy think tank Sustainable Prosperity. Infographics, tables, illustrations and charts are certainly very useful in drawing people’s attention to the most important points, and in helping them better understand and remember complex issues, such as how badly we are failing to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.  But as I’ve said before, we also need greater government transparency about numbers and data. Data visualization depends on access to data.

I hope to see many smart, creative examples of data visualization to help get us moving on climate change, because we are running out of time!