Fiddling with the meaning of words: Peter Kent’s announcement on progress towards meeting Canada’s GHG emissions target.

Posted by on August 10, 2012

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.

14 Responses to Fiddling with the meaning of words: Peter Kent’s announcement on progress towards meeting Canada’s GHG emissions target.

  1. David Wilson


    I spent a few minutes putting some thoughts together on this for you, and ka-bam! one missed keystroke and it disappeared! vanished!

    but it may be useful to you so I will try again (this time with Notepad):

    when I went to architecture school (Carleton in the late 70’s) we used to have what they called ‘crits’ – everyone would gather round a project and talk about it, it used to drive me mad because only a few ever said anything that they really felt or thought and were generally mocked for it if they did, very ‘Ottawa’, and yet that seems to me to be the only basis for any criticism that can be of any use


    1. you do not mention this Clement guy by name, why is that?
    2. the flyer you got is the ‘kicker’ but readers have to take your word for what is in it, not that your word is not good but, how long would it take to scan and post it?
    3. in the first installment you post some images, but at a scale that makes them impossible to read, it is kind of you to post a link to the BP report which is the source, but going there and finding the specific chart you have clipped is a distraction (and not very likely is it?), there are more direct means, and as long as you post a link to the source there are no real copyright issues
    4. take a look at how James Hansen does it in that video ( ), his props are carefully made to be as legible as they need to be to make sense even in a 480×360 YouTube video!
    5. the second installment is much better, putting the main point “any normal person” in bold is very effective, and the chart is (barely) legible – but look at this phrase:
    6. “Canada was at 740 Mt in 2005” – I know exactly what you mean, but … wouldn’t ’emitted’ be better than ‘was at’? just a question
    7. I am one of the slow ones who has only recently realized that Mt emitted is the main number (I was always focussing on 350ppm, thanks again Bill) – but putting yourself in the shoes of a Toronto policeman (f’rinstance) making 100+ grand a year with his or her high-school leaving or college certificate is instructive eh? how to communicate? somehow you have to anticipate what Officer Bubbles would want to ask, and answer
    8. a point that Peter Peter Pumkin Eater and his sleveen cohorts try to make repeatedly is that Tar Sands emissions represent a tiny fraction of global emissions – it seems to me that the only way around this is to somehow make it into a rule-of-thumb, common sense, and the only way to do that is by constant repetition – with context! – and I think the 1,000 Gt budget is a good model for this
    9. there is more to be said here, 740 Mt is less than one Gt – is that right? – and we have 250Gt or so in the budget, so it is easy to take the Alfred E Newman route and just say ‘What? Me Worry?’

    these comments are ONLY made to be useful, if they are not, please ignore them

    be well, David.

    • webadmin

      What can I say, David? I am new to this and I am learning. I’ve just copied your 10 points to a file and will try to apply them in future.

      I wrote that post in a hurry and was pretty steamed at the time. Was sure I had named Tony Clement. Maybe I just figured that with “twitterer in chief” everyone would know who I meant.

      • David Wilson

        steamed is good 🙂

        I could plot your posts on a time/heat curve and … definitely see a slope I thinks – don’t mistake me, they are not ‘points’ they are questions

        here, check this out:

        a kind of ‘Inconvenient Truth’ reprise … the point for me is the enthusiasm with which his quite dark (darker than you and I by far) bottom line has been received – sold out! dig it man! SOLD OUT! unfortunately it looks like it will be some time before we are able to actually see it, or even read the text, but here, try this on: put 45 minutes or an hour together and see if it can be done at the Royal Alex? find some collaborators?

        crazy I know but time is short

        • webadmin

          The article in the Guardian/Observer is interesting. I’d not heard about it. Seems like at least some of us scientists are learning how to communicated effectively.

          A stage show! That is novel indeed, makes me think back to what I said following seeing Warhorse last winter

  2. David Wilson

    I followed up on Stephen Emmott a bit – turns out he can have a conversation in which a planetary population of 22 billion gets bandied about, nonsense of course

  3. David Wilson

    wowzers! began to have second thoughts on my humanity before I managed to get through your captcha

    • webadmin

      Sorry, but I got tired of all the spam. You are probably human enough!