Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Policy — Is there one?

Posted by on September 10, 2012

As a coral reef ecologist interested in the global environmental crisis because of its impacts on my favorite ecosystem, should I be devoting so many entries on this blog to Canada’s policy on greenhouse gases?  I think I should.  As a Canadian, I want my country to show its progressive side and become a leader among nations in the fight to move us off our addiction to fossil fuels.  While Canada is a small nation of just over 34 million people, we have the third highest per capita rate of GHG emissions, chiefly because of our resource-intensive economy, and especially because of the growing importance of tar sands mining in that mix.  We are also one of the world’s wealthy countries, and should be able to afford the cost of transition away from fossil fuels.  Indeed, we are transitioning, but very slowly, and the pace is not being forced by our federal government.  If anything, the Harper government is doing all it can to slow down the transition, all while making inaccurate claims concerning our progress.

I wrote recently about Environment Minister Peter Kent’s inaccurate claim that Canada was “halfway towards” reaching our commitment under Copenhagen to reduce GHG emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.  His math was fascinating; his claim was an immense distortion of the truth, and any progress that has been made has been achieved by actions of industry or Provincial governments rather than by any actions taken by the Harper government.  I’m happy to see my reporting vindicated by a recent science-based global evaluation, the Climate Action Tracker.  This is a joint project by three Europe-based science NGOs, Climate Analytics, Ecofys and the Pik Potsdam Institute.  (The Pik Potsdam Institute, based in Germany, is a 20 year old science and policy research institute focused on global change and sustainable development.  Climate Analytics, a smaller, younger think tank focuses on helping the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in negotiating a strong international climate regime under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.  Twenty-five year old Ecofys is a leading consultancy in renewable energy, carbon efficiency, energy systems and markets, and climate policy which operates globally with offices on three continents.)

Climate Action Tracker, released at a climate meeting in Bangkok on 4th September, evaluates the performance of governments with respect to their various pledges to reduce greenhouse gases to meet their individual targets for 2020 set at Copenhagen.  It reports that while governments are taking action to implement their reduction proposals, many are set to fail in reaching those proposals.  The problem, according to this report, is not the dearth of proposals already announced, but the timidity of goals set, and the limited progress towards meeting even these modest goals.  At present, governments are still set to send global temperatures above 3°C by 2100, even though their agreed warming limit of 2°C, set in Copenhagen, is still technically possible.  The evidence shows that this is a problem of political will rather than of technical feasibility – countries are not trying hard enough to change.

The report evaluates the performance of a number of countries, and is particularly critical of Canada.  In its opening paragraphs it states,” a new report by Canada’s government uses uncommon methods of comparing and projecting emissions, while its 2020 reduction target is unchanged and still estimated as “inadequate” by a wide margin. Time is running out for Canada and the majority of other governments to adopt policies that significantly change greenhouse gas emission in 2020.”  An article in The Guardian summarized things nicely — its headline read, “Canada ‘playing with numbers’ on carbon target claims”.  I agree, and I regret that once more my country is being singled out for its poor performance on an environmental issue.

Meanwhile back in Ottawa, or more correctly in Saskatoon on September 5th, Peter Kent announced the final regulations for coal-fired power plants in Canada.  A year ago, the plan called for new power plants to emit no more than 375 tonnes of greenhouse gases per gigawatt-hour of electricity generated.  But on September 5th, Kent revealed the final number would be 420 tonnes per gigawatt-hour.  Oh, he talked about the long and difficult negotiations with industry and with Provincial governments, but the result looks like the government laid down and allowed industry to walk all over it.

The 420 tonne number is not the only backsliding on evidence.  A 45 year time within which to bring existing power plants into compliance has been lengthened to 50 years, and there is a 10 year time frame that a new plant can be out of compliance if carbon capture and sequestration technology is being used to bring it into compliance.  What does this amount to – a free pass to industry to keep on doing what it is doing.  Canada has been moving progressively away from coal for years.  Provinces such as Ontario have policies in place to replace all coal-fired generation by other fuels.  We are not building lots of new coal-fired plants.  But now we know.  Industry need do nothing about the existing plants for 50 years – by which time even the Harper government will be long gone.

Canada has an emissions problem.  We have the third highest per capita rate of emissions in the world.  Our plans to ramp up production of tar sands oil will grow those emissions further.  Our 2020 target looks like it is out of reach.  Any 2050 target is hopelessly out of reach.  And there seems no will in Ottawa to do anything except pretend, to go along with the winking and nodding that suggests to the naïve that we are actually trying to make changes.  We need to rethink the Canadian economy to turn it into one with good jobs for an educated workforce.  We need a serious discussion on why we need to dig up Alberta and sell it to China, with nearly all of the profit in that transaction leaving Canada.  We need to bring our emissions down to regain our international reputation as a country that is environmentally responsible.  And we need to recognize that climate change is real, that eventually there will be serious movement towards averting the worst of it, and that there are real, economic opportunities in being at the front of that parade, instead of where we are – trailing along behind like a stray dog.

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