Dr. Mark Jacquard from Simon Fraser University’s School of Resource and Environmental Management has underscored the urgent need for adaptation to the impacts of climate change. In his op-ed published in the Ottawa Citizen December 23, Dr. Jacquard addresses the events at the recent talks in Copenhagen, and comments on difficulties agreeing on emissions-reductions targets between industrialized and developing countries.

Read Dr. Jacquard’s Op-ed below:

The Copenhagen climate summit had great entertainment value and Canada received an impressive share of the limelight. Our government was the focus of various activist antics (fossil awards, fake press releases), and our politicians provided a global audience with a small sampling of our inter-regional and federal-provincial squabbling. But, aside from international fun at Canada’s expense, was anything else accomplished at Copenhagen?

In terms of the international community, the outcome was predictable. In fact, it has been predictable since the Kyoto climate agreement of 1997. Specifically, Copenhagen demonstrated yet again the impossibility of addressing the global risk of climate change with a consensus-based, voluntary process that involves all countries in collective negotiation of a global emissions limit and allocating it among themselves in a mutually agreed manner. This is impossible because national interests and perspectives are just too divergent for people to voluntarily agree on what each should do.

Just one of the many divergences is between industrialized and developing countries. The latter argue that elevated and rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are primarily the fault of fossil fuel combustion in industrialized countries over the last two centuries. Thus, the developing countries claim that their emissions should be allowed to grow substantially and that any reductions in their emissions should be paid for by industrialized countries. This is tantamount to asking industrialized countries to pay for a substantial share of the future energy systems of the entire developing world. They are and will remain unwilling to pay this enormous cost, although they will recognize the need to make a contribution that will eventually be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

If there ever is to be an international agreement, it is likely to result from hardball negotiations between a small group of countries who between them represent most emissions on the planet and most of the political power. This includes the U.S., China, India, Russia, Japan, Brazil, some European countries (or a single European representative) and a few others.

The outcome of these negotiations will reflect the relative strength of each side. Industrialized countries will threaten China and India with import tariffs on goods produced in countries with lax emission standards. But to reach an agreement, the industrialized countries will also need to provide some level of financial and technical support to help developing countries with the technological transition.

Eventually, the rest of the world will be brought onside. While a Copenhagen-style, UN-sponsored conference might eventually provide the stage for such an agreement, the real negotiations will have occurred elsewhere. Such negotiations are likely to start in earnest once the U.S. has passed its own legislation to price emissions sometime in 2010. An example of future negotiations occurred at the last minute at Copenhagen, but without producing anything of substance, when the U.S. pulled aside China and a few other countries to produce an imaginary deal in order to save face for the politicians.

Each country agreed to set its own emission targets while also agreeing that global temperature increases above 2 C should be prevented. But anyone working in this field knows that the targets each country is proposing for itself will cumulatively far exceed the levels that scientists say are implied by the two-degree limit. For example, China had set its target just prior to Copenhagen, a target that could lead to a doubling of its emissions by 2020 if its economy grows at historical rates.

What does Copenhagen mean for Canada? Not much.

Environmentalists keep arguing the Harper government should adopt a much more aggressive target than its current commitment to reduce Canadian emissions to 20 per cent below their 2006 levels by 2020. The more aggressive target would basically have us cut our emissions in half from where they otherwise would have reached by 2020. This target is virtually impossible to achieve, although we could look like we had achieved it by sending money to other countries for imaginary emissions reductions instead of doing it ourselves, which is also what environmentalists are suggesting.

If Harper agreed to the environmentalists’ target, as Jean Chrétien did at Kyoto, this might boost his popularity just enough to win a majority government. But he would not be able to achieve the target. So, again, just as with Kyoto, an aggressive target would be self-defeating. Why implement the painful policies that are necessary to reduce emissions if you will still miss your target? You might as well do nothing instead, following the politically successful Chrétien strategy … with environmentalists applauding all the way.

What is really needed in Canada is for environmentalists, government and industry to recognize we need to price emissions immediately (via cap and trade or carbon tax), and combine this with regulations on new vehicles, buildings and a few elusive emissions sources like pipeline leaks, landfills and animal wastes, in order to start the gradual process of shifting our economy onto a trajectory that reduces emissions in line with what other leading countries are doing. These policies should be set to ensure realization of the Harper government’s emissions target for 2020. Implementing such policies — as British Columbia has already done — would be a great advance for the long struggle to address the climate change risk.

As this policy effort teaches us more about the true costs of emissions abatement we will be in a much better position to respond to new policy initiatives in other countries and to adjust our goals and policies to new information from the scientific community. At the same time, we will be motivating innovative thinking and investment in our own economy about how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at minimal cost.

Mark Jaccard, a professor at Simon Fraser University, is lead author for sustainable energy policy with the Global Energy Assessment and a guest blogger with zerocarboncanada.ca.