What’s the Plan? For Canada’s climate change policy, it’s a leap either way you look

“Forget about what you are escaping from,” the illusionist Harry Houdini used to say. “Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to.” When it comes to Canada’s climate change policy, that’s wise counsel. Because whether you look to the left or to the right, it’s a leap either way.

Let’s start with the left, the already infamous Leap Manifesto.

Seldom has a four-page document loosely stringing together a series of disparate ideas—none original or genuinely controversial—generated so much handwringing.

What do the Leapers want? They call for Canada to generate 100% of its energy from renewable resources within 20 years, which is scientifically feasible; an end to fossil fuels subsidies, new oil pipelines, and other fossilized infrastructure investments; no more trade deals that compromise our ability to protect the environment; a universal guaranteed minimum income; recognition and enforcement of existing treaties with Indigenous peoples; and an expansion of low-carbon sectors of the economy, including caregiving, teaching, the arts, and public-interest media.

Above all, the Leapers demand the transition to a low-carbon future begin now.

Although nearly 40,000 Canadians have signed the Leap Manifesto, it has not been embraced. The document has been described as “naïve,” “divisive,” and a “prescription for economic ruin.” It is, said one pundit, “more dream than reality.”


But if leaping into the care and succor of the Earth and our fellow Canadians isn’t the plan, then what is the plan?

So far, the federal government refuses to say, other than to tell us that progress will be slow. Greenhouse gas emissions won’t go down overnight, we’re repeatedly scolded, as if we’re so many impatient children asking our parents are we there yet. But while the federal government continues planning to plan, it’s not terribly difficult to see that what they have in mind is a leap of their own.

A leap, in fact, that makes the Leap Manifesto look more like a limp, a shuffle at most.

The Paris climate change agreement recently signed by Canada, argues the editorial board of the world’s leading science journal, Nature, represents “a bet on technological innovation and human ingenuity.”

The federal government’s refrain that we must get our resources to market in a sustainable manner makes this techno-utopian leap of faith as plain as the accumulating evidence that the planet is by the month getting hotter than ever before.

So, how do you get Alberta’s oil sands (Canada’s fast growing source of GHG emissions) to market in a “sustainable manner”?

Enter the dream of the negative emissions barrel of oil.

The U.S. special envoy for climate change Jonathan Pershing says there’s some interesting research that suggests you can have a negative barrel of oil in terms of GHG emissions if you collect more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than is emitted by that barrel.

So even with Alberta’s oil sands, Dr. Pershing was pressed, there’s a way to meet our climate goals?

“There could be,” Dr. Pershing qualified, “if we take it on.”

What Dr. Pershing means is if we figure out how to operationalize one or more “negative emissions technologies,” or NETs.

Which is precisely what the federal government must be banking on, given its unmistakable signals that it will eventually approve new oil pipelines.

But that’s no less a leap, no less a dream, than anything in the left’s Leap Manifesto.

Potential NETs include carbon capture and sequestration (CCS, which the UK recently defunded, calling it “too expensive”), direct air capture of carbon, mineral weathering, afforestation and reforestation, fixing atmospheric carbon in biomass and soils, biologically and/or chemically altering the ocean, and storing carbon in soils.

A recent peer-reviewed assessment of NETs warned, however, that “there is no NET (or combination of NETs) currently available that could be implemented to meet the <2 °C target without significant impact on either land, energy, water, nutrient, albedo or cost, and so ‘plan A’ must be to immediately and aggressively reduce GHG emissions.” The assessment’s conclusion is sobering: “a failure of NETs to deliver expected mitigation in the future, due to any combination of biophysical and economic limits examined here, leaves us with no ‘plan B.” Which leaves us to worry, along with Houdini, about what we’re escaping to. Suddenly the Leap Manifesto looks a lot less naïve. But a practical document – a roadmap, a blueprint – it’s not. Perhaps the best part of the manifesto, however, is its link to a far more useful document: “Acting on Climate Change: Solutions from Canadian Scholars” by Sustainable Canada Dialogues. This document sets out 10 practical priorities and imagines how we can meet them. Read it, and get involved. Jason MacLean teaches environmental law at Lakehead University and writes here monthly. Follow him on Twitter: @jmacleanesq