For the sake of our children, the global carbon budget is the most important one to balance

As a parent of young children, Brett Dolter finds himself looking at the world with a new perspective.

We must stop stealing from the future, at our kids' expense

Children hold placards during a climate change rally
We must act now to slow climate change and ensure the Earth is habitable for future generations, Brett Dolter says. (Yiannis Kourtoglou/Reuters)

This Opinion piece is by Brett Dolter, an assistant professor in the department of economics at the University of Regina.

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As a parent of young children, I find myself looking at the world with a new perspective. So it was when I read two reports last week.

First, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Sixth Assessment Synthesis report on March 20. I read it with a sense of déjà vu. The IPCC has been issuing warnings continuously since its First Assessment Report in 1990. This means we've known about the problem since I was 10 years old and failed to act for 33 years.

But this time was different. It was the first time I read one of these reports as a father. I was forced to confront what climate inaction will mean for my children and those who come after them.

Then, on March 22, the Saskatchewan government released the 2023-24 budget. There is a real disconnect between the budget and what the IPCC report tells us.

The IPCC's report summarizes the state of climate change science and the efforts to contain the climate crisis. It is sobering.

The IPCC reaffirmed that humanity is "unequivocally" driving global temperature increase by continuing to burn coal, natural gas, gasoline and diesel. We are also failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to meet commitments made in the Paris Agreement in 2015.

To have a 50 per cent chance of staying within 1.5°C, we can emit another 380 Gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2). The Global Carbon Project estimates that we released 37.5 Gt of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2022. At this rate we will exceed our remaining carbon budget for meeting the 1.5°C target in 10 years.

I was struck by one image in particular in the IPCC report. It shows the different temperature futures we could be heading toward, depending on the choices we make now. It also shows how old someone born in 2020 will be as temperatures increase.

A graph shows five scenarios for how the climate could change in the future.
This graph, presented as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's recent Sixth Assessment Synthesis report, shows how the climate is expected to change depending on how humanity changes its behaviour in the near future, and illustrates how those changes will play out across the lives of people born at different times. (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)

I have two kids, one born in 2018 and another born in 2022. It felt like a knife in my heart to see their lives span this period of uncertainty and risk. Any parent or grandparent will tell you the health and well-being of their kids and grandkids is their number one priority. Now, more than ever, what we do in this decade will determine the dangers and hardships our children face.

If we move quickly to stop burning coal, natural gas, gasoline and diesel, we protect our kids and their kids from the worst impacts of climate change.

If we act now, we protect our kids from more of the dangerous hot days that killed hundreds of people in Canada during the 2021 heat wave.

If we clean up our electricity supplies, we protect our kids from fires that could threaten their homes, and smoky days that threaten their health. 

If we electrify everything possible, we protect our kids from food shortages and the higher grocery bills that will come when higher temperatures shrivel up our agricultural output. 

If we unite in a global effort to reduce emissions, we protect our kids from wars over scarce resources, like water.

Imagine a budget based on deficits that get bigger and bigger over time, resulting in a massive debt that we hand down to our children. This is the state of our global carbon budget. 

The 2023-24 Saskatchewan budget had one mention of climate change, and it was referring to federal climate change policy as a threat to our province's economy. 

Yet in reading the budget, it is clear that Saskatchewan people expect the government to take care of our kids. We expect investment in schools, so our kids have the best education possible. We expect investment in health care, which includes funding for the children's hospital in Saskatchewan. Why is it that we haven't recognized that climate change puts a costly burden on our kids?

Acting on climate change is good parenting.- Brett Dolter

As an economist I know budgets involve trade-offs. Should we spend more on health care or education? More on roads or fibre-optic cables?

Meeting our climate obligations involves trade-offs between the present and the future. When we take action now, it saves our kids tenfold in the future.

We might think that budgets should focus only on "pocketbook" issues, but climate change is a pocketbook issue. And we are picking our children's pockets by dragging our feet and letting the problem get worse. 

But new government spending isn't what is going to drive down pollution. It is going to be the actions of many, driven by good climate policy.

Coal-fired power regulations mean that Canada will no longer burn coal for electricity by 2030. Carbon pricing is making investments in green technologies profitable and driving further innovation. Methane regulations have driven down emissions in the oil and gas sector. The Canadian government is now developing clean electricity regulation to drive electricity emissions to net-zero, and a zero emissions vehicle mandate to ensure car companies offer more electric vehicle options.

I'd like to see our provincial government support these efforts to protect our kids' futures. Instead — from the court case fighting the carbon price, to the Sask First Act trying to dodge any further federal climate policy — our provincial government is actively working against good climate policy.

A climate-sincere budget would have acknowledged the threat climate change poses to our economy and our kids' future. It would include the Ministry of Finance creating a Saskatchewan-made carbon price and deciding how to use the revenues. It would have offered some thoughts on how we move from earning $1 billion a year on oil and gas royalties to a clean economy that is less reliant on this revenue source.

Some will say it's too difficult for us to act on climate in this province. I hear excuses like "Saskatchewan is too cold," or "we live too far apart," or "we're only a small portion of global emissions." As a parent I recognize these excuses. These are the same kinds of arguments I hear when I ask my four-year-old to clean up his toys.

We are a rich province in a rich country. We have the third highest incomes in Canada. Our median incomes are nearly 14 times higher than family incomes in a developing country like India. It's time we act like adults and do the things that are necessary to meet the climate crisis.

We can show our kids what responsibility looks like by working to use energy wisely, clean up electricity, electrify as much as possible — including vehicles, heat and industry — and use technologies like carbon capture and storage where we can't yet use clean energy.

When we show leadership on reducing pollution, we chart a path for other countries to follow.

In the process we'll see some opportunities for our province. The Saskatchewan budget recognizes that moving to clean energy will require much more critical minerals like lithium, copper, zinc and rare earth elements like neodymium. An expanding mining industry will offer our kids good careers to support their families.

But there will be little opportunity if we don't act decisively on climate in this decade. Climate change takes away the life prospects of our children and grandchildren and all generations that follow. Acting on climate change is good parenting.

Our kids are too young to vote, so they don't get a say in who our political leaders are, or whether those leaders take climate change seriously. It's up to us to ensure our kids have the same freedoms and opportunities that our parents and grandparents gave us.

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Brett Dolter

Freelance contributor

Brett Dolter is an assistant professor in the department of economics at the University of Regina, where he teaches climate change policy, microeconomics, cost-benefit analysis and ecological economics.