Climate action will stimulate economy and jobs

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Just before the world met in Cancun for climate talks, Conservatives in the Senate -- abetted by the prime minister -- deprived Canadians of legislation that would address the pressing problem of global climate change and also usher in a prosperous clean energy economy.

When pressed why the Conservative Senate called the premature vote on the Climate Change Accountability Act on Nov. 16th, Prime Minister Stephen Harper retorted that it would have thrown "hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people out of work."

In reality, if passed into law, the act would have made polluters accountable for their emissions, leaving it up to the government to choose the best mechanism -- such as a carbon fee with revenue returned to citizens -- to effectively reach those emissions targets while stimulating economic diversification and job development.

It would have also required the government to get serious about climate change and the transition to a sustainable economy.

It's not as if we have a lot of time left. This summer we saw extreme weather-related disasters ranging from a record heat wave in Russia with forest fires responsible for thousands of deaths to the massive flooding in Pakistan that affected 20 million people.

While we can't blame global climate change for any specific weather event, these calamities follow a pattern of greater extremes predicted by scientists amid rising world temperatures. These extreme weather events will become more frequent and severe unless we wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

Canadians, too, are feeling the impact of these climate changes. The pine beetle has decimated 25 per cent of B.C.'s forest and is projected to make its way eastward because it hasn't been cold enough over the past two decades to keep their population under control. This is affecting the livelihoods of thousands of British Columbians. The prairies, already experiencing water shortages, will likely continue to do so as a result of evaporation and melting glaciers. And let's not forget the arctic ice, which is shrinking faster than previously thought and already affecting northern communities.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government continues to subsidize fossil fuel multinationals to the tune of $1.4 billion per year. In a recent report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, this subsidy has a negligible impact on employment in Canada. The federal government also cancelled the popular EcoENERGY program in 2009, which offered rebates to homeowners who completed energy audits and retrofits to improve the energy efficiency of their aging homes. This program helped stimulate local work.

Tired of waiting for Ottawa to lead, B.C. and Ontario have legislated carbon fee and dividend and feed-in-tariff respectively.

Carbon fee and dividend puts a direct fee on carbon-based fuels at the source, providing a market signal to invest in clean energy technology. It returns the fee's revenue to households in the form of monthly payments or reduced payroll taxes.

In B.C., carbon fee and dividend reduced taxes by about $230 million in 2008 and 2009, while prompting institutions such as UBC to invest in ground source heat pumps, high efficiency windows, and other energy efficiency retrofits.

The Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) guarantees both grid access and stable prices to those investing in renewable energy. Only a year old, Ontario's FIT program has generated more than 23,000 applications and has encouraged manufacturers to set up shop in Ontario, creating jobs and employing electricians and engineers.

These provinces have something to look forward to. Germany, the birthplace of the FIT program, also shifted their tax sourcing from income to energy between 1999 and 2003. By 2006, the Germans controlled 70 per cent of the global market for wind-energy technology. They also had a 30 per cent share of the solar photovoltaic market. These industries now employ 250,000 Germans.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to at least 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 is no doubt a great challenge. Rising to this challenge does not mean stopping the economy as the prime minister suggests. Such a challenge offers great opportunities for economic diversification that will generate much-needed jobs.

What's required is great leadership and vision. When global representatives met in Cancun for the climate conference in early December, Canada presented the world with neither.

Cheryl McNanama is a volunteer with Citizens Climate Lobby Canada.

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