Almost as soon as I posted my previous blog entry, Peter Kent, Canada’s Minister of Environment, announced to the press on 8th August 2012 that “Canada is half-way towards meeting its 2020 greenhouse gas emission target”. This is the most recent statement on this subject by a senior member of Canada’s federal government, and like many that have gone before it paints a picture in which white becomes black and vice versa. It does this primarily by use of a peculiar meaning for the phrase “half-way towards”. I’ll explain what I mean by that, but first, what is the target Canada is supposed to reach?
At the December 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, Canada formally announced it would set a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions target for 2020 of 17% below its rate of emissions in 2005. That announcement conveniently avoided pointing out that 17% below 2005 was a higher rate of emissions than Canada had agreed to in earlier multinational meetings – it was part of the back-pedaling that has been going on ever since Canada signed Kyoto. (Canada’s Kyoto commitment was to be 6% below 1990 levels in the period 2008 to 2012.)
Environment Canada computes, and publishes data on Canada’s GHG emissions. Its 2012 report states that total emissions of GHG (measured as megatons CO2 equivalent, Mt) were 589 Mt in 1990. Total emissions in 2005 were 740 Mt (adjusted upwards from an earlier estimate of 731 Mt), and total emissions in 2010 were 692 Mt. Thus the Kyoto target (never really attempted) was about 553 Mt, and the Copenhagen target is 607 Mt (17% of the earlier 2005 estimate of 731 Mt).
So, Canada was at 740 Mt in 2005, and its target for 2020 is 607 Mt. Would not any normal person interpret “half-way towards” as meaning Canada’s current emission rate is about 674 Mt? That’s half way between 740 and 607. Unfortunately not!
What Peter Kent means when he says ‘half-way towards” is that when Environment Canada extrapolates the effects of decisions made to date, plus reasonable assumptions about level of GDP, and mix of fuels in use, its estimated rate of emissions in 2020 now stands at 720 Mt, and 720 Mt is half way between the 607 Mt target and 850 Mt which is where Environment Canada estimates Canada would have been in 2020 if government had taken no action since 2005. The following figure illustrates the government’s peculiar way of measuring progress.
Figure from Canada’s Emission Trends 2012, published by Environment Canada, August 2012
Progress made to date has been due largely to decisions by average Canadians, decisions by Provincial governments acting independently, a bonus provided by new IPCC accounting rules (they permit including anticipated benefits due to modified agricultural and forestry practices that could increase CO2 sequestration rates in our forests and croplands), the ‘benefits’ of a faltering economy, and hardly at all by anything the Canadian federal government has done. Indeed, the plans in place to triple output from the Alberta tar sands make the projections shown in this figure quite unrealistic, and make any hope this government has of reaching the Copenhagen target impossible.
Putting things another way, the 720 Mt emissions rate in 2010 is an improvement of 20 Mt over the 2005 rate. This is actually less than the accounting adjustment for sequestration by forests and croplands. Canada’s federal government has done nothing. So the next time you hear a Canadian politician say Canada is half-way towards some goal, just remember what those word mean in Ottawa-speak. Not very much at all. The tragedy is that words spoken by government ministers tend to get believed, and Canada’s government is not the only one playing games instead of actually trying to reduce GHG emissions.