U.S. Announces Ambitious Carbon Cutting Plan While Canada Confirms It Will Do Nothing
As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it would seek to reduce carbon pollution from power plants—a move that would put the U.S. on a trajectory to meeting its international climate obligations—Canada continued to move in the opposite direction.
Canada has now confirmed it will no longer take action to limit carbon pollution from its tar sands sector until the U.S. takes simultaneous action on its oil and gas sector. Previously, Canada has indicated it would act unilaterally to ratchet down on soaring greenhouse gas emissions from its tar sands sector which pose the greatest barrier to the country meeting its international climate commitments. But any hope that the Obama Administration’s announcement this week might instill simultaneous leadership for action from the current Conservative government evaporated.
Basically the Canadian position sets up a false equivalence as a way to justify doing nothing. The real issue is whether a country is acting to reduce its carbon pollution. The main way the U.S. can do that is to limit pollution from power plants—the single largest U.S. source, and that’s just what the U.S. announced it was doing. The main way for Canada to cut carbon pollution is to reduce the burgeoning emissions from its tar sands development, and Canada just announced that it isn’t doing that. So the contrast is clear: meaningful action vs. significant foot-dragging. Anything else is a distraction. In a historic announcement, the Obama Administration unveiled plans to cut U.S. carbon pollution emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, leading to climate and health benefits worth as much as $93 billion while avoiding up to 6,600 premature deaths and up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children. And the plan, if strengthened, could create more than 274,000 new jobs related to energy efficiency and renewable energy triggered by the standards.
Within a few hours of the U.S. announcement, the Canadian government said it was ready to work with the U.S. on rules for the continent’s oil and gas sector. Canada’s Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq stated the Harper government “would like to work in concert with the United States on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector. The integration of our economies suggest our countries should be taking action together, not alone.” This was echoed by Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Gary Doer who took to the airwaves with a similar message.
But this reaction from the Canadian government (something they had already signaled in late 2013) is, in fact, a policy shift away from a promise it had made to the Canadian public that it would regulate this sector. Why is it so important for Canada to take action? Surging emissions from the tar sands industry are responsible for a quarter of national emissions, according to the Pembina Institute. Because of this, Canada is expected to miss its international 2020 climate target by a wide margin—more than the current emissions of Canada’s entire electricity sector, according to the Pembina Institute.
The federal Canadian government clearly hopes that its call for harmonized federal regulations becomes a convenient distraction away from any attention to the fact that it has still not regulated its massive oil and gas industry. Let’s keep in mind that work on these Canadian regulations started back in 2008. But now, almost eight years later, the long-promised regulations on its tar sands sector are merely a pipedream. Now, they are indicating they won’t act unless the U.S. regulates carbon from its oil sector. There are good reasons why Canada should move ahead to regulate its tar sands sector (a sector which does not exist in the U.S.) given its significant contribution to Canada’s climate pollution problem. In short, the two countries have very different emissions profiles.
According to Canada’s Pembina Institute, “The best way Ottawa could respond to today’s announcement by the EPA would be to make an equally serious commitment to hit Canada’s 2020 climate target, and produce the rules required to cut emissions from the oil and gas sector. The government’s ongoing delay in releasing those rules is indefensible.”
The Canadian government largely defends its failed climate record by pointing to its recently adopted regulations on coal-fired electricity. Canada has made good progress on its coal industry (largely due to leadership from its provinces like Ontario) but its federal regulations are weak and do not apply to existing units (built before July 2015) until they have reached the end of their economic life. What does this mean? This mean a coal plant can run for a full half century without federal GHG limits. For one unit in Alberta which started operations in 2011, this means continued operation without carbon pollution limits until 2061. Altogether, the coal regulations will reduce Canada’s total emission by less than one percent.
In the end, the U.S. administration is working hard to demonstration international climate leadership to both meet its climate obligations and to help spur other countries to do the same. The question is whether Canada will look to this development as an opportunity to make serious progress on its climate commitments or whether it will be business as usual.
Canada’s position on climate ought to be part of the overall calculus for the Obama Administration and Secretary Kerry’s State Department, which is evaluating the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. International climate leadership should be something they look for as part of the national interest determination. So far, Canada hasn’t measured up.
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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