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Canada is still a rogue state on climate change

December 11, 2017

6-minute read

It has now been two years since world leaders created the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. At those meetings, the Canadian delegation joined a broad coalition aiming to keep “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels” (Article 2).

At the time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau proclaimed that “Canada is back” when it comes to global leadership on climate action. His proclamation assumes, however, that Canada was ever really there. While our nation prides itself on international cooperation and leadership, our real track record is one of making grand promises, and then failing to live up to them.

Promises, promises

This pattern goes back to the Mulroney government, which promised to reduce emissions by 20% below 1988 levels by 2000. It was continued by the Chretien government, which helped negotiate the last major global agreement on climate change, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and promised to reduce Canada’s emissions by 6% below 1990 levels by 2012.

But the federal government never really tried to live up to its commitment to reduce emissions. Its great achievement was an information campaign—a series of TV commercials featuring Rick Mercer, called the “One Tonne Challenge”—which encouraged everyday Canadians to voluntarily reduce their own emissions.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper then proceeded to use this lack of action to chastise previous Liberal governments for their climate failures. The Harper government tabled a Turning the Corner climate plan in 2007 while still in a minority Parliament, and promised sector-by-sector regulations. Once in a comfortable majority, however, Harper gave up the pretence of caring about climate change.

Flash forward to the Paris Agreement, which was signed in December 2015 and officially came into effect in November 2016. Its ambition is significant—a victory for diplomacy in the face of an existential threat.

But even as the ink was drying on the Agreement, it was widely noted that the voluntary “pledges” to reduce emissions made by signatory countries are insufficient relative to the agreement’s stated ambition of staying below 2°C of global warming. According to the UN Environment Program, even if all of these Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are fulfilled, they will get us only one-third of the necessary carbon reductions in 2030 to be on track for staying below 2°C (see figure below).

Global greenhouse gas emissions under different scenarios and the emissions gap in 2030 (median estimate and 10th to 90th percentile range). Figure © UN Environment Program.

The Pan-Canadian Framework

After the Paris Agreement, federal and provincial/territorial governments sparred over climate policy. A series of working groups developed recommendations for action, although many good ideas were left off the table when the November 2016 Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change (PCF) was announced.

Canada’s commitment under the Paris Agreement is for a 30% reduction of GHG emissions by 2030, relative to 2005 levels. This target was originally submitted by former PM Harper and was maintained by PM Trudeau. But just as the sum of national commitments to the Paris Agreement is insufficient relative to the Paris Agreement’s targets, actions in the PCF do not go far enough to meet our own (already inadequate) target.

A national carbon pricing floor is a major pillar of the framework, but it won’t do much heavy lifting. It will add just over two cents per litre to the price of gasoline in 2018 for provinces that do not already have some form of carbon pricing, and about 11 cents per litre in 2022 when fully phased in. We are seeing some minor rebellions from the provinces on this front, with Saskatchewan and Manitoba not signing onto the framework.

The most significant policy in the framework is the phase-out of coal-fired electricity by 2030. If all of this power was replaced by renewables, it would represent a major leap towards the target. But much of the shift will be to natural gas, which will have a much more modest impact on emissions than shifting directly to renewable energy sources.

The government is planning future actions to reduce emissions from buildings and transportation after 2030, but there is little policy to point to in the short term.

Industry, the largest source of emissions in Canada, largely gets a pass on direct regulations to reduce emissions. Special treatment for fossil fuels, chemical production and other carbon-intensive sectors is wrapped in vague calls for innovation and technology, which basically amount to wishful thinking.

The feds have played up a planned 40–45% reduction in methane emissions by 2025, an outcome of an energy cooperation deal that PM Trudeau made with the Obama administration in March 2016. The plan includes some requirements to prevent leaks in oil and gas facilities and equipment.

The proposed new regulations rely on industry to measure and monitor emissions. Recent studies in BC and Alberta have found significant under-reporting by industry of methane emissions from fracking operations. At the end of the day, there are no teeth in the regulation—no one gets even a slap on the wrist should they fail to comply and someone notices.

Finally, the Pan-Canadian Framework counts planned purchases of carbon offsets by Ontario and Quebec from California as emission reductions. Notwithstanding the dubious credibility of offsets, this assumes that California will have excess credits to sell. It is also an implicit admission that Ontario and Quebec are not willing to do the hard work of reducing actual emissions within their own borders.

Growing fossil fuel production and exports

While the federal actions to reduce emissions are inadequate, even worse has been the federal decision to double down on fossil fuel production. More than one quarter of Canada’s GHG emissions come from the oil and gas sector, but plans continue unabated for a major expansion of the sector.

Baseline emissions from the oil and gas sector are anticipated to grow from 192 million tonnes of CO2 in 2014 to 233 Mt in 2030—a whopping increase of 21% when the country has pledged to substantially reduce overall emissions. This oil and gas sector increase would counter most of the benefit from phasing out coal-fired electricity. And yet the Pan-Canadian Framework does not put reductions in production on the table.

Moreover, there is a loophole in the Paris Agreement, which perfectly fits Canada: countries have committed to reducing emissions within their borders, but not the carbon that is extracted and burned elsewhere. Paris poses no limits or sanctions on the supply of fossil fuels being brought to market by producing countries.

For exporters like Canada, this means only half of the carbon we take out of the ground is counted in the stats above. Plans to further grow Canada's exports of fossil fuels are thus contradictory to the spirit and intentions of the Paris Agreement. Approval of bitumen pipelines and LNG export terminals is part of this madness that, if successful, will lock in emissions from fossil fuel infrastructure for many decades into the future.

In the Harper years Canada was clearly a rogue state on climate—pulling out of Kyoto and foot-dragging internationally, while championing fossil fuel industries and attacking environmental groups at home. The Trudeau government’s shift in tone on climate is welcome, but it is ultimately still seeking substantial growth for the same fossil fuel industries.

Action is not impossible

It’s tempting to think that all countries are laggards like Canada, but this is not the case. The United Kingdom has reduced its emissions by 42% since 1990. Even under the Conservative government of Teresa May, the UK has tabled a new detailed climate plan that puts Canada’s to shame.

The UK climate framework includes a series of five-year carbon budgets, all aimed at a legislated goal of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050. The UK’s fifth carbon budget, for example, covers the years 2028 to 2032, and was set in July 2016.

These carbon budgets give the country some flexibility with regards to emissions that may fluctuate due to the business cycle, and some transferability of gains in early years to future carbon budgets. An independent statutory body, the Committee on Climate Change, reports on progress and gives advice to the government.

Emissions in the European Union are down 23% below 1990 levels as of 2016, proving that it is not impossible for governments to take meaningful action. Perhaps because Canadians mostly peer south across the border, it’s easy for us to be complacent.

There is still time for Canada to live up to our Paris Agreement commitments. Canada’s exports of fossil fuels do not need to drop to zero immediately, but it does not make sense to pursue policies that further ramp up fossil fuel extraction. The good news is that there are lots of ideas for getting serious about climate change and that can also create new jobs and a strong and sustainable economy.

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