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Science and politics find uneasy mix at IPCC

  • Written by  Matt Maynard
  • Published in Cities
Edmonton, Alberta played host to the recent IPCC Cities and Climate Change Conference Edmonton, Alberta played host to the recent IPCC Cities and Climate Change Conference
08 Mar
IPCC Cities and Climate Change Conference: Alberta host dresses non-renewable foundations with green decorations

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change met in Edmonton, Alberta 5-7 March to discuss how world cities can mitigate, adapt and build resilience for climate change. Highlighting the urgency of the problem, host Mayor Don Iveson, explained that ‘while account(ing) for only two per cent of the global land mass, cities consume two-thirds of the world’s energy and are responsible for 70 per cent of global CO2 emissions.’

If world nations hope to meet the Paris Agreement, limiting warming to 1.5ºC, the role of cities will be vital. The IPCC is the trusted UN organisation for providing ‘policy neutral’ science at a local to global scale. It is respected for its robust analysis of latest research, and for rising above the polarised arenas of climate change action and politics.

Edmonton, Alberta was an interesting choice for the conference. In 2015 the oil rich province was responsible for 38 per cent of Canada’s CO2 equivalent emissions. However, Iveson was pivotal in bringing the Cities Conference to Edmonton. He finished his welcome by demonstrating his long-standing commitment to climate change action, producing his COP13 name badge from the 2007 IPCC meeting in Indonesia. With perhaps a nod to Canada’s southern neighbour, the mayor talked about the need ‘to transcend populism with science and solutions.’

For this year’s conference, nine academic papers had been especially commissioned. Indigenous leaders had been invited to open the conference and in his address, Grand Chief Dr Wilton Littlechild floated the question: ‘Is it possible to have sustainable development and the protection of Mother Earth, at the same time.’ Expectation was high. Yet not everyone was there to talk science.

Mayor Don IvesonEdmonton mayor, Don Iveson, played a key role in bringing the conference to the Canadian city (Image: Art Babych)

Climate doublethink

It took just 22 minutes on Monday before the deep irony of Alberta’s climate words and actions were played out. Contravening IPCC rules about political statements, Alberta’s Deputy Premier Sarah Hoffman concluded her stage time by advocating the stalled Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain oil pipeline that will export 890,000 barrels per day to the Canadian Pacific coast. Scientists who had gathered to present robust climate science, were suddenly caught in a politician’s rally-cry for non-renewables.

Provincial level climate change action is not without its merits in Alberta. Hoffman was at pains to lay out the pieces of Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan. Carbon levies, pricing and caps are being rolled out. Coal-generated electricity is being phased out, methane emissions are being reduced and municipal buildings are being fitted with solar panels. According to Hoffman, 150,000 households have also registered for a residential energy-saving programme, whilst the carbon intensity of transportation is being decreased with projects such as the Green Line in Calgary. Policies all impressive in isolation.

The dark yin ‘complement’ to Alberta’s suite of climate policies, was saved to last in Hoffman’s speech. ‘An effective response to climate change relies on a strong economy,’ began Hoffman’s ambush, playing to general consensus. Then in a bizarre conflation of reasoning, involving appeasing climate denialists with economic growth, Hoffman blamed the Province’s land-lock for low energy export prices, concluding ‘we must build a Canadian pipeline… to ensure we can sell our energy products to world markets.’ Miss a beat, and you’d think the deputy premier was proposing piping solar panels to the Pacific.

Sarah HoffmanAlberta’s Deputy Premier Sarah Hoffman (Image: Connor Mah)

Albertan Oil Lock-in

The IPCC’s special focus on cities stems in large-part from the need to address future urbanisation trends in the global south. On the final conference day, panelist Professor Christopher Kennedy from University of Victoria in BC, predicted ‘global energy use will double by 2050, based on urbanisation as a driving factor.’ By 2050, the UN estimates there will be an extra 2.8 billion people on the planet. The ‘consumption paradigm’ identified by Sheela Patel (Chair of Shack/Slum Dwellers International) whereby ‘the poor in all our cities, aspire for the same consumption practices (of today’s) elite,’ will drive energy demands even higher.

By flaunting its well-funded green policies in Canada, while simultaneously pumping oil to developing Pacific nations to prop up their carbon intensive development, Alberta is far from the ‘climate leader’ proffered by Hoffman. And that’s before you even begin on the emissions story.

Canada’s commitments to meeting the Paris Agreement are currently rated as ‘highly insufficient.’ Alberta alone is responsible for 274.1 billion kg of Canada’s total 721.8 billion kg of CO2eq emissions per year. Hoffman claims that those 150,000 houses registered for energy saving measures will cut 20,000,000kg/CO2 from Alberta’s quota. The Green Line in Calgary ‘will reduce CO2 emissions by 30,000 tonnes (30,000,000kg/CO2) every year,’ – according to the Calgary Herald, ‘the equivalent of 6,000 vehicles.’

Geographical calculates that the Trans Mountain pipeline when running at the new 890,000 barrel per day capacity will alone represent 62 per cent of Alberta’s carbon emissions based on 2015 levels. The 139.7 billion kg/CO2 of associated emissions per year (at 430kg/CO2 per barrel) is the equivalent capacity, by Calgary Herald’s own measure, of putting 28 million cars on the road. The Albertan oil flowing through the pipes to the Pacific will then represent 19.35 per cent of the nation’s total emissions. Dark yin eclipses all yang.

When asked to justify the Deputy Premier’s claim that ‘Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan, makes our Canadian climate response plan (to the Paris Agreement) possible,’ Sarah Hoffman’s office initially agreed, but then was unavailable once presented with numbers by Geographical. Trans Mountain did reply, stating its contributions to total Canadian emissions from capital carbon associated with construction will be ‘about one per cent.’ It’s worth remembering that production-based carbon accounting means it is accountable for emissions associated with its product, even when combusted overseas.

Alternative, lower carbon emission development pathways do exist for Canada. Research by thesolutionsproject.org (flagged by Bill Nye in a debate over Trans Mountain with President Trudeau on Monday) suggests a strategy whereby Canada can move onto a 100 per cent renewable energy mix pathway by 2050. There is currently no data for future operations to be phased out on the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline.

Hoesung LeeDr Hoesung Lee brought attention to the lack of knowledge that still exists among the wider public surrounding climate science (Image: UNclimatechange)

IPCC Battles On

The conference itself featured three days of reflective, and at times impassioned discussion involving a wealth of climate change mitigation, adaption and resilience strategies for cities.

Aromar Revi, from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, made use of the Talanoa story-telling strategy for tackling climate change (as popularised by host nation Fiji at COP23). ‘Climate and sustainable development agenda are fundamentally a question of cultural and behavioural change,’ Revi concluded at the end of his tale, drawing the conference’s attention to the need to address consumption as a key driver of rampant emissions.

Professor Mark Pelling, from King’s College London had a message about the difficulty of accessing climate resilient knowledge in the cities of the global south, explaining that ‘90 per cent of cities can’t afford this.’ Dr Shuaib Lwasa from Makerere University Uganda followed this up placing the responsibility for cites’ climate vulnerability at the door of authorities who are failing to plan for future urban growth, creating ‘highly inefficient spatial forms.’

Equally important was raising awareness of research that is still lacking. IPCC Chair, Dr Hoesung Lee, drew the conference’s attention to how ‘major gaps in the scientific literate,’ still exist at the global scale. Summary of further investigation into topics of cities’ systems, governance and behavioural science was provided by C40 Cities North America Regional Director and conference moderator David Miller.

The mood of urgent action being required and for IPCC scientists to perhaps have closer relationships with governance was best captured at the conference close by Dr Priya Kurian, from the University of Waikato. ‘Many cities are walking the talk,’ said the professor, ‘some cities need to start running.’

Some, like the entire province of Alberta, need to have a serious think about whether it has been moving forward at all.

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