Mark Jaccard wants us all to just get along
In late January, 2020, a group of renewable energy enthusiasts congregated in Whitehorse, Yukon to discuss the future of Yukon’s energy system. Amongst them were regulators, financers, utilities, and builders. Also among them was Dr. Mark Jaccard, a leading researcher into green energy policy, who organizers brought in to deliver the keynote. I happen to be a graduate of Dr. Jaccard’s research group at Simon Fraser University, so his keynote address contained messages and language I’ve heard many times. However, there was some new messaging in that talk that perhaps surprised many audience members, including me. “A carbon tax is not necessary,” was one of the messages that Dr. Jaccard delivered. Being an economist who specializes in efficient policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Mark Jaccard favours not one option, but any option that can get the job done at the lowest cost. He’s been irked in recent years at the arguing and disagreement amongst green energy enthusiasts and climate change activists, who see their way as the only way to curb climate change. This type of arguing, the “all-or-nothing” mentality, separates those who otherwise share a common goal, and impedes progress. This, as Dr. Jaccard puts it, is something the fossil fuel industry loves. It also makes it extremely difficult for well-intentioned politicians to do the right thing. A new tax is typically political suicide. The fact that our federal government introduced one and still won the most recent election is surprising, although perhaps it’s less surprising that they failed to win a majority. Flexible regulations, Dr. Jaccard pointed out, work just as well as a carbon tax, and often better, but they do cost the taxpayer slightly more to implement and enforce. California, the jurisdiction leading in emissions reductions, has done so through regulations, namely a renewable portfolio standard and a zero-emission vehicle mandate. Scandinavia and British Columbia have similar regulations. Since transportation is the leading source of GHG emissions in those jurisdictions, it makes sense to focus policy in that area. Transportation is also the leading cause of GHGs in northern Canada, and represents a third of emissions Canada-wide.
But why should Canada, and in particular the north, care about reducing its emissions at all? After all, developing countries are driving the growth in GHGs globally. Developed countries, or those who are part of the OECD, have had relatively stable or declining emissions for the past few years, whereas India’s population growth is the fastest in the world, along with its GHGs. And China alone accounts for more than a quarter of the globe’s anthropogenic GHGs. Fossil fuels remain the cheapest high-quality energy source that we have, and for countries with low GDPs and fast-growing populations with immediate needs, this is significant. Coal remains the fuel of choice in most developing countries, however air pollution is also becoming an ever-increasing problem in countries with high population densities. And this, Dr. Jaccard explains, is what is actually motivating those countries to think about renewable energy. Government leader’s kids, grandkids, and parents all live in these societies and breathe the polluted air, and it is impacting their health. It is these self-serving concerns that is driving countries like China to invest in renewable energy, not climate change. So there’s one piece of good news in terms of transitioning our global energy economy. As for why the north should care at all and be part of this transition? It’s all about money. The more developed countries transition to renewable energy, the cheaper those options – wind, solar, geothermal – will become. Classic economic theory explains that, as supply increases, prices decrease. Therefore, Canada adopting renewable energy systems in our part of the world will eventually make those options competitive with fossil fuels in developing countries. But this won’t happen without government policy that supports the transition to renewable energy. And this is where either a carbon tax or regulation comes in, perhaps alongside subsidies to make the transition less painful. The other recommendation that Dr. Jaccard makes is to put a carbon tax on imported goods. This will encourage countries such as China to reduce their emissions in the production of any good that enters Canada.
As we have seen in the past, voluntary global agreements, such as Kyoto, or the more recent Paris agreement, just don’t work. It is binding government policy that drives real change, and this involves electing “climate sincere” politicians. Canada has finally elected its first climate-sincere government, according to Jaccard, and this is evident because the government is enacting binding policies that apply to both industry and the public, with real GHG reduction targets. Perhaps the targets are not aggressive enough for many who want “real action” on climate change, but that is no reason to kick this government to the curb and vote in someone new. Each time we change governments, it costs the taxpayer millions of dollars, and typically the work the last government started gets scrapped and we have to start all over. Voting out a government is extremely inefficient, especially one that’s doing far more for climate change than any government we’ve ever seen in this country. And this is where the arguing between green energy enthusiasts and climate activists becomes the downfall of the movement. As Dr. Jaccard puts it, many people concerned about climate change harbour wishful thinking biases that hinder the implementation of effective compulsory policies. Examples of these thinking biases include: the belief that carbon pricing is essential, the belief that energy efficiency investments usually save money, the belief that renewables are outcompeting fossil fuels, and the belief that fossil fuels are winning only because of subsidies. Or, they harbour stubborn absolutist ideals like we should stop eating meat, or stop having children. While eating less meat and slowing population growth will indeed help curb climate change, those with similar goals, but different ideas about how to get there, need to work together on solutions, instead of fighting amongst themselves about the “how.” Moreover, criticizing politicians who are actually doing something, especially something politically risky such as implementing a carbon tax, further hinders progress.
So, Mark Jaccard’s message for those concerned about the environment, clean air, and the future of humanity? Stop alienating each other, stop vilifying each other, and quit with the public finger-pointing. Learn to focus on the main objective, and let the details stay in the weeds, for now. And this, in this writer’s opinion, is something that almost everyone who cares about social justice and ethical progress can learn from.