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On climate, Canada is a rogue state

November 29, 2011

3-minute read

On Sunday, CTV leaked Canada's intentions to pull out of the Kyoto treaty process on climate change. What is significant about Kyoto is that it is a legally binding international treaty, and one that puts the onus of emission reductions on the countries that have done the most to cause the problem (and who have most benefitted in their industrialization through the use of fossil fuels). That said, a lot of environmentalists greeted the news of Canada's impending treatus interruptus with a yawn: it is not news that Canada has long been in violation of Kyoto. At last count (2009) Canada's greenhouse gas emissions were 17% higher that 1990 levels, while the Kyoto target called for Canada to be 6% under by 2012 (the impact of the recession is notable, as in 2008 Canada's emissions were 24% higher).

Canada is not even close to meeting its shiny new target, set two years ago in Copenhagen, of a 17% reduction by 2020 relative to 2005 levels. In spite of dramatically lowering the bar, a report from Environment Canada earlier this year found that existing measures would only get us one-quarter of the way to that target. So what's a major polluter to do when confronted with the challenge of meeting an international commitment but tempted by the lure of fat profits in the oil patch? Go to Durban, try to derail other countries from reaching a new agreement, pull out of Kyoto, and press for pipelines in any direction to get tar sands oil out of the ground and into the atmosphere. If Canada's overt policy objective was to emit as much carbon as possible, it is hard to imagine the feds doing more to make that happen.

While Canada is one of the worst offenders when it comes to GHG emissions per person, the picture is actually much worse when we consider exports. The UN accounting framework for GHG emissions attributes to a country only those emissions from within its borders. So for the coal or oil and gas industries, only the emissions from domestic combustion plus those associated with getting carbon out of the ground and to market are captured. The embodied carbon content of the fuels themselves, if burned in the US, China or anywhere else outside Canada, is counted in the inventories of those combusting countries.

In our new Climate Justice report, Amanda Card and I put some numbers to the emissions in Canada's fossil fuel exports, and find that they are 15% larger than than the emissions from burning fossil fuels in Canada. That is, Canada's carbon footprint is more than double when we count exports. About half of the export-related emissions are from the Alberta tar sands, but we also have to count coal, natural gas and other petroleum products. Canada is not just an addict to fossil fuels; we are also a major dealer. Fossil fuel exports accounted for one-fifth of Canada's export profile in 2009, about $80 billion.

We also make some estimates of the GHG potential of all of Canada's vast fossil fuel reserves. There are different ways of accounting for reserves, but by the narrowest measure of confirmed reserves that are definitely slated for harvest, we have about three years worth of global CO2 emissions still below ground. Expanding this to "probable" extraction, this swells to six times annual global emissions. And if count it all, and assume innovative technologies and favourable economic conditions, the total possible reserves for Canada are about 40 years worth of annual global emissions – much higher than estimates of the total available "carbon budget" that we have left globally before we run into catastrophic and irreversible climate change.

In other words, Canada has within its grasp the power to completely wipe out human civilization as we know it. When it comes to carbon, we've got the bomb!

In the report, we also consider the prospects for carbon capture and storage as a solution, and find it to be an expensive one with many risks and one that cannot capture all of our emissions anyway. Instead, we need to make major investments in renewable energy, more efficient buildings and transportation, all of which would create way more jobs per million dollars of investment than fossil fuels. The good news it that while profits are huge in the oil patch, the total number of jobs is under 1% of total Canadian employment. A program of "just transition" would be needed for those workers, for sure, but it is not like we are talking a major chunk of the labour force. Ultimately, Canada needs a new industrial strategy that makes us a global leader on climate, and not a rogue state.

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