Climate protectionism is a barrier to international solutions

Emissions are global. Taking an exclusively local view risks progress on humanitarian and environmental goals, writes Josiah Haynes. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo from the Canadian Press. 

Two recent outlooks on the future of global energy and climate initiatives signal the importance of collaboration and openness as economies strive to decarbonize. 

The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says humanity has a seven-year window to limit global average temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius or risk catastrophic consequences. Meanwhile, Spencer Dale, chief economist of the energy giant BP said, “The continuing rise in carbon emissions and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events in recent years highlight more clearly than ever the importance of a decisive shift towards a net-zero future.” 

Regardless of the timeline proposed, there seem to be two competing approaches toward achieving the goal of a low-emissions future, with significant human implications. 

Those demanding an immediate shutdown of fossil fuel industries, irrespective of the consequences, consider an act first, think second strategy to be the only logical course of action in the face of climate change. After all, despite the marked increase in government ambitions, CO2 emissions have increased every year since the Paris Agreement was signed at COP21 in 2015 (bar 2020). 

There’s nothing wrong with ambitious targets, but those targets require a collaborative plan that recognizes global realities and competing values, including human security and economic development. Otherwise, they carry unintended social costs that threaten the efficacy of the commitment to decarbonization. 

Is the goal of reducing local emissions the means to an end or an end in itself? When domestic net-zero targets become ends in themselves, they risk becoming absolutes to which no other considerations apply. Ultimately, the result is often counter-productive to the main goal of effectuating widespread and lasting emissions mitigation through energy systems transformation 

One startling example is the history of a carbon-credit offset program that provided improved, emissions-reducing cookstoves to the Koppal district of India.

In the impoverished district of 1.4 million, 99 percent of households rely on traditional cookstoves in which a pot is placed over three rocks and a fire fueled by dung or wood. Once Western markets learned that improved, more efficient cookstoves in developing countries could be an affordable way to reduce emissions – the annual carbon saved by switching just one stove was said to be equal to five flights from Singapore to New York – NGOs began to distribute the improved devices. 

Not only did the new cookstoves reduce emissions by requiring less fuel, they dramatically improved the health of families in Koppal and reduced domestic labour needs enough to provide new opportunities for girls to go to school. 

A woman uses dung to cook at her village home. Photo from Bloomberg. 

But, upon testing, researchers found that the emissions reductions were less than expected. 

Families using the improved cookstoves didn’t stop using their traditional stoves; they simply used both. While this efficiency unlocked massive improvements in Koppal families’ quality of life, it only reduced biofuel consumption by 15% per household. That, among other reasons, is because families began to cook more frequently. The carbon market considered the modest improvements in emissions reduction a failure and abandoned the program. 

For those involved in the Koppal carbon-credit experiment, reducing emissions was an absolute. The quality-of-life improvement for people in Koppal was secondary, and their well-being – drastically improved by access to a new energy-saving, emission-reducing technology – was considered inconsequential.  

This same story is unfolding around the developing world as a preoccupation with domestic emissions in the West overshadows both global realities and the value of human dignity.

Our World in Data points out that 900 million people in our world still have no access to electricity, and three billion do not have access to clean fuels for cooking. These people live in grinding poverty, far from the reach of fossil fuels, much less emerging hydrogen fuels or renewables. 

In 2020, coal and traditional biomass (dung and wood) comprised 57 percent of India’s primary energy demand. Modern renewables, meanwhile, provided a valuable but inconsequential three percent.

Total primary energy demand in India, 2000-2020. Image from the International Energy Agency and annotated for clarity.

Access to affordable and reliable (albeit polluting) energy creates essential opportunities for young women to go to school, families to conquer energy and food insecurity, and people from all economic backgrounds to enjoy comforts taken for granted in the developed world. 

And yet, from the cloistered denizens of the urbane west come calls for the elimination of 97% of India’s primary energy mix to satisfy the IPCC’s seven-year window. The same could be said of China, the Philippines or much of the world. 

At a time when BC LNG, a low-emissions gas deemed climate-friendly by the European Union, can contribute to displacing coal, oil and traditional biomass around the world, Canadian and provincial governments appear to be creating a regulatory environment that risks stifling the industry’s development.

Canadian governments that withhold low-emissions energy from high-emitting economies appear to have become bent out of shape by their own mental gymnastics. They, like Koppal’s one-time benefactors, have made local emissions reduction an absolute, regardless of the poverty that could otherwise be alleviated – all the while leading to more emissions around the world. 

By accepted definitions, climate change is a global problem, not a local problem. It affects everyone, everywhere. If this is true, it is essential to recognize the shared responsibility every jurisdiction has in reducing emissions.

That shared responsibility calls for a collaborative effort to reduce global emissions and transition to cleaner energy sources in a sustainable and just manner. It calls for partnerships, not finger-pointing at energy producers or producing countries. It calls for international co-operation and trade, not climate protectionism in isolation from global realities.

Josiah Haynes is Resource Works’ director of content. Find him on LinkedIn and Twitter. 

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