Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Review of "Two decades of failed climate change policy" by Mark Jaccard

First, I want to apologize because while I heard the second half of the lecture, I couldn't take notes as my battery died half way through (actually, exactly half way through). So, the notes you're going to read are pretty much only from the first half. Since Mark is an academic (and so am I), I think I would be making him a disservice if I wrote what I recall. The rest of my notes are pretty verbatim (I type really really fast) so I think I captured what he said.

Second, my overall assessment. I think Mark's lecture was excellent. I know that a lot of people are going to complain about certain points that he made, or about his particular viewpoints on a number of issues (for example, on why he opposes Gateway). And quite honestly, I do disagree with some of his points as well (particularly in regards to carbon offsets). But the truth is, he really made it easy for a general audience to understand the rather conceptually complex theory behind environmental policy instruments. I think that there is a place for academics like Mark who are able to connect to general audiences and explain these concepts to them in an easy and accessible way. I know three other experts in the field of climate change in Canada who have the same ability, although they are based at UBC (not SFU).

He first started by explaining four broad categories of environmental policy tools to reduce GHG emissions from fossil fuels, based on four methods of reduction:
  • Energy efficiency
  • Switch to renewable energy sources or nuclear energy
  • Pollution control (carbon sequestration)
  • Catch-all
In Mark's words, politicians don't do the above. Consumers, households and industry do it. So, governments only have policy tools to lead us to change actions. The four categories of policies he suggested are:
  • Information programs
  • Subsidies
  • Regulation
  • Financial charges
Mark made a point that I found interesting - he is NOT an advocate of a carbon tax, as often portrayed in the media, but he said he was an advocate of compulsory policy because research has shown him that's the way to do it. That's not surprising to hear (that his research is often misinterpreted and portrayed in the wrong way on the media - that's happened to a number of other researchers - just ask Robert Putnam and his latest research on social capital, diverse communities and 'hunkering')

Mark also made a point that all previous policies that had been implemented in Canada had failed to meet the target. According to Jaccard, energy efficiency is more costly than we think (what he called the second inconvenient truth), but that doesn't mean that we ought not to do it, we still should do it.

While I have a smattering of other notes, I think that the best I can do is to just give you what were his main points. He suggests that non-compulsory policies (like subsidies, information programs, etc.) are NOT a substitute for compulsory policies.

I was a little surprised (and taken aback) that he apparently doesn't advocate or even like the idea of offsets (as noted below)
With apologies to people who have worked very hard to establish offsets emissions. It can give us a sense that “we don’t need to put in the compulsory policy”. An offset is a subsidy from an individual to another individual. Still has the same problems with subsidy – we have to try to make sure that the money will indeed make people behave differently – how can you be sure of that?
I do like the idea of offsets because (a) at least they're at least a first step in reducing emissions and (b) there are systems that can be third-party audited. But then again, each one of us is entitled to our own opinion.

Overall, I liked his delivery style, and it was an interesting lecture. I think that what VTACC is doing is rather important (educating people on climate change issues). I also think that they can't stop with three lectures and they need to keep this going. You'd be surprised. I got to the Canadian Memorial Church to see a room pretty much full with people who wanted to learn more about climate change. I don't think that VTACC should stop, they should continue the lecture series (and bring lots of other perspectives, even within the academic realm).

VTACC will make his PowerPoint slides available freely on their website (he didn't want us to 'read the slides' so he only showed one or two throughout the conference). If you want to learn more about what Dr. Mark Jaccard does, you can look here.

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