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Canada’s Evolving Climate Action Plan – Is It Now Good Enough?


An announcement on 11 December, a flurry of media responses, and Canada has the long-awaited, next iteration of a plan to combat climate change.  Most attention has been directed to the increases planned in the cost of carbon emissions – currently rising $10 per year until 2022 when it will be $50 per tonne carbon emitted.  Beginning in 2022, the cost of carbon pollution is now set to rise $15 per year, reaching $170 per tonne in 2030.  However, the announcement included several additional parts though few details: home energy retrofits, community and municipal building retrofits, long-term planning towards a zero-emissions built infrastructure for Canada, rebates for purchasers of low and zero emission vehicles, other incentives for low emissions public transport, and heavy-duty road and rail transport, and continuing greening of the Canadian power grid.  The plan appears to continue the policy of keeping the carbon tax revenue neutral by rebates to individual households.

En route to making the announcement, Justin Trudeau with Catherine McKenna, Steven Guilbeault, and Jonathan Wilkinson.  Photo © Justin Tang / Canadian Press.

The media response was mostly positive, and there were predictable cries from the right that the plan would cripple the economy and from the left that it did not go far enough.  The Liberals always like to nestle down in the mushy middle and seem to have succeeded in doing so this time.

Most economists see a carbon tax as a market-friendly, efficient way of encouraging changes in behavior to reduce carbon emissions.  Not an economist, I have no idea if Canada’s plan, with the tax reaching $170 per tonne in 2030, is sufficient to bring about the extent of change in behavior that is necessary to lower Canada’s emissions by the amount committed to in Paris.  It is less than the $210 recommended as necessary by the Ecofiscal Commission in a 2019 look at alternative policies for Canada.  The Ecofiscal Commission considered a carbon tax the best approach – effective and efficient – for Canada to take, and it’s clear the Liberals are in agreement.  I hope the tax will prove big enough. 

On the other hand, the long delay between last October’s election and this announcement, coupled with the limited progress made during the first term of the Liberal government, makes it very clear that Trudeau and his team are content to slow-walk their climate change action.  They roll out just enough to keep the left-of-centre climate activists mollified for a while, then they go on with business as usual.  Yes, I know they have been dealing with a pandemic, but that could have been a golden opportunity to introduce some of the needed changes in the ways we live our lives – active transport, infrastructure to support electric vehicles, diversion of cars from downtown centers.  What better time to turn a bunch of downtown streets into pedestrian malls than when the retail sector is locked down and traffic is minimal?  Yes, I know, the closing of downtown streets is not a Federal responsibility, but federal politicians can make noises that encourage such things or provide funds to encourage such things… it should have happened.

More important, however, the focus of discussion of this plan has been on whether it will allow Canada to achieve its 2030 Paris target (the Liberals claim it will slightly exceed that goal), and on what this means for Alberta and the fossil fuel industry more generally.  What is missing is discussion of how this plan fares relative to where Canada needs to be if we are to contribute our fair share to battling climate change on this planet.

True, it will be wonderful to see Canada actually meet one of its climate goals.  This plan is seen by most commentators to have a good chance of having us meet our 2030 target for emissions reduction, and if that does occur this government deserves some credit.  And yet, we have failed dismally with every goal we set since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, including the latest 2020 goal set at Paris, so I’m not holding my breath. 

Regardless of whether the plan is rigorous enough for meeting our 2030 target, it is important also to remember that none of our targets have risen to the level required if we are serious about reining in climate change.  Instead of congratulating Justin Trudeau on creating a plan that meets our goal, I want to chastise him for not upping the goal in the first place.  It was set by that notable climate action pioneer, Stephen Harper!  It has been roundly condemned as inadequate.  Yet after five years and a couple of months in power, Trudeau seems quite satisfied to continue to plan to meet this inadequate target.  It’s sort of like building a bridge across a river knowing that the plans you’ve inherited from your predecessor include spans that are insufficient to reach right across.  Brag about having put processes in place to ensure the bridge is built on time without worrying that it will ultimately prove insufficient for its intended purpose transporting traffic.  That the predecessor, Stephen, had been building backwards, getting further from the river every day, with no hope of ever spanning that river is not really relevant now.

[If that metaphor lost you, think back to those days during the Harper government when Peter Kent, Canada’s Minister of Environment, announced to the press on 8 August 2012 that “Canada is half-way towards meeting its 2020 greenhouse gas emission target”.  In fact, emissions were growing year by year, moving us away from the 607 metric tonnes CO2 target as he spoke, but at a rate that in 2020 would put us halfway between that target and 850 metric tonnes, where we would have been if no government actions whatever had been taken since 2005.]

So what is wrong with Canada’s climate policy?  The Climate Action Tracker, in its review of Canada done last September, classifies Canada’s NDC (our nationally determined commitment to the Paris agreement) as “Insufficient” – an effort to reduce emissions which, if all countries performed equivalently, would leave the world with an average warming by 2100 of a bit under 3oC above preindustrial.  That’s about three times the warming we’ve experienced already, and we all know how great the recent changes in rate and magnitude of storms, floods, droughts, and fires have been.  Do we really want to see a world three times more cooked?

Furthermore, that’s our NDC that is insufficient.  We have had policies that go nowhere near fulfilling our NDC until this latest announcement.  In other words, our performance, as opposed to our promises, has been far less than insufficient.  While it seems to have improved, our performance to date should have been an embarrassment to all Canadians.  The question at present is, are we going to continue this pathetic pretense of a commitment or are we going to finally stand up and do what is appropriate for Canada to do – Trudeau speaks as if we will stand up, but we don’t have solid evidence yet that that is happening.  Indeed, Climate Action Tracker states with respect to Canada, “The Canadian government is at a crossroads: it could either continue with the slow implementation of an inadequate climate plan, or adopt a recovery package that accelerates the transition to a zero emissions future.”  I don’t like that – a slow implementation of an inadequate plan, sort of a lackadaisical effort to build a bridge using plans we know will fail to reach across the river.  Not quite the picture of Canada that a red-blooded Canadian might wish for!

Canada’s oil problem

Canada suffers from having too much, energetically-costly-to-extract, fossil fuel reserves, and from having them localized mostly within one Province.  In 2015, in a paper in Nature, Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins examined the global and regional availability of oil, gas, and coal, making the point that the world already had reserves three times larger than could be permitted to be recovered and burned by 2050 if warming by 2100 was to be constrained to 2oC or less.  Total resources were substantially higher than the amounts classified as reserves (meaning resources recoverable under present economic and technological conditions). 

Chart showing the emissions residing in untapped reserves of each fossil fuel, compared to the emissions permissible to 2050 for a 2oC warming.  Global reserves vastly exceed the permissible use.  Part of Fig. 1 in McGlade and Ekin, Nature, 2015.

They pointed out that reserves vary significantly in the ease and cost of extraction, and that even some resources not yet classified as reserves would likely become easier to harvest than some current reserves.  Canada is in a particularly difficult spot relative to other producer nations – most of its fossil fuel reserves are in the form of bitumen, economically and environmentally costly to recover.  Assuming a cost-efficient strategy in the global market for recovering fossil fuel, and limiting the amount to that compatible with no more than 2oC of warming, most of Canada’s reserves will remain in the ground.  McGlade and Ekins estimate Canada would be forced to leave about 75% of oil reserves, 24% of gas reserves and 75 to 80% of coal reserves in the ground.  Their average rates across the globe are 33-35% of oil, about 50% of gas, and 82-88% of coal reserves not recovered.  (Imprecision in some of these percentages partly reflects the fact that CCS (carbon capture and storage) technology may or may not become widely used.)  The short message for Canada: while a third of known oil reserves globally are going to have to remain underground, that third includes more than three quarters of Canada’s reserves.  And those reserves are located within Alberta.

It’s not Ottawa picking on Alberta, it’s the global oil market, and the reality that the world cannot afford to burn all the reserves that are available.  Since 2015, there has been a steady erosion in the value of fossil fuel producers, such that Exxon is no longer even within, let alone leading, the top 10 corporations on the planet in terms of market value, and the list of major investors withdrawing from Canada’s tar sands grows year by year.  This is a market reality, whether Alberta politicians want to believe it or not.

The facts concerning ‘allowable’ use of remaining fossil fuels should make decisions regarding pipelines easier for Canadians.  The rapid buildup of production from the tar sands, dreamed of at the start of this century is not going to happen.  And, therefore, the claim that a lack of pipelines is somehow stifling the industry is no longer true, whether or not it was true back in the days of heated rhetoric over the Northern Gateway route (remember that one).  The killing of Keystone XL is not a problem for the Canadian oil industry; nor does it really matter if the Trans Mountain pipeline ever gets twinned.  The reason for the current depressed state of the tar sands, and the Alberta economy, has everything to do with the cost of oil (too low for developing new capacity in the tar sands to be economically viable), and the depressed demand (due to the abundance of other, less expensive, oil on the world market).  Nothing to do with a shortage of pipeline capacity.

It also follows that putting a tax on carbon emissions will not materially alter the future for Alberta’s oil industry.  That industry has passed its best-before date already, and Ottawa doesn’t really have to worry too much about the growth in production Albertan politicians talk about.  Which raises the question – what should we do about the Trans-Mountain Pipeline which Justin Trudeau bought for us?

Is Canada Making Sufficient Effort on Emissions?

Let’s assume that the Trudeau government is now on track to achieve its 2030 emissions target, and the more recent commitment to reach zero net emissions by 2050.  Will that be seen by the world as a sufficient achievement by Canada.  Unfortunately, not. 

In its 2019 report, Global Warming of 1.5oC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, shows, first, that there was a substantial difference in outcomes for people and for the planet between a warming by 2100 of 2.0oC and 1.5oC.  That half a degree in average warming across the globe makes a surprisingly large difference in consequences.  Like all IPCC reports, this one is dense and difficult to read, but it is well worth revisiting.  In it, IPCC provides strong evidence that failing to keep warming to 1.5oC and letting warming be 2.0oC, has major consequences for the environment, for the global economy, and for the quality of human life.  In particular, the difference between total warming of 1.5oC and 2.0oC has substantial impacts on the likelihood of achieving each of the UN’s other 16 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) That half a degree makes a big difference.  The 2019 report emphasises issues of equity, noting that climate change impacts vary regionally, and have their greatest effects on the poor and marginalized.  These impacts on people are partly the consequence of, and in addition to, impacts on the environment – changing climate, more severe storms, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, loss of fresh water stored as ice, and so on, all of which have substantial impacts on ecosystem function and biodiversity.

The report examines pathways to emissions reduction that are compatible with reaching, or only slightly exceeding a warming of 1.5oC.  These all require about a 45% reduction from 2010 rates of emission by 2030 and essentially net zero emissions by 2050.  Most also require significant efforts to remove CO2 already in the atmosphere.  Canada’s 2030 target, contained in its official NDC, is only a 30% reduction from 2005 levels.  Further, as the image below shows, limiting warming to 1.5oC requires that emissions are reduced rapidly, beginning immediately, on the way to that 45% reduction in 2030.  It is fundamentally not sufficient to commit to the 45% target and then do little before 2029.  Canada has a history, so far, of setting targets and then doing very little to achieve them.  The setting of targets does nothing to reduce warming; only the actual reduction of emissions does that!

The large graph on the left shows global emissions of CO2 each year from 2010 under various pathways towards net zero.  The blue-green lines and shading represent pathways which avoid any overshoot of 1.5oC.  These all show pronounced reductions beginning around 2015-2020.  Gray line and cloud are pathways with overshoot.  Not shown are pathways in which high levels of emissions continue into the mid-2020s or longer, with warming greater than 2.0oC or higher.  The three smaller graphs show concomitant reductions in other greenhouse gases that must also occur.  Image from IPCC Report, Warming of 1.5oC.

The reason why it is important that emission reduction begins immediately is explained by recognizing that the world is dealing with a finite budget of CO2 that can be emitted without warming the planet too much.  If the world continues to emit at current rates well out towards 2030, we will discover that we have emitted far too much CO2 to keep warming to 1.5oC, even if we manage to bring emissions down to 45% below 2005 levels by 2030.  Nothing in the recent announcements out of Ottawa gives me much confidence that we are committed to the kind of immediate and sustained reductions that are needed if Canada is to be seen to be doing its share.

So, is Canada now acting appropriately?  Well, no, we are not.  We have an announced target of 30% below our 2010 level of emissions and no specific commitments to reach any intermediate level at specific dates over the next decade.  History suggests we will muddle on, reducing emissions modestly, and then in 2030, make further promises for further commitments to reach later goals.  We have an announced, but not formalized goal, of net zero by 2050.  Will we wait until 2045 to figure out how to get there?

Let’s End on a Positive Note

As I was drafting this post, further details on climate policy were announced in Ottawa.  That is, if you consider funding to help cities develop public transit as climate mitigation.  On February 10th Justin Trudeau announced a total of $14 billion over 12 years, including a permanent $3 billion per year, to support municipalities develop transit.  Trudeau said, “These investments will support major public transit projects like subway extensions, and help electrify fleets with zero-emission vehicles. They will also be used to meet the growing demand for walkways and paths for cycling, and help rural and remote communities deliver projects to meet their mobility challenges.”  So, the plans the Liberals have been hatching are starting to be revealed.  Now I want to see announcements that recognize just how far behind the eight ball we will remain if we do not enhance our climate targets.

While Brian Gable has his mind on covid-19, this image does remind that leading a country can be difficult.  But politicians opt to lead, fight elections to lead, so they have to put up with the carping from the back seat.  When their actions are less impressive than their words, as is the case in Canada on climate, that backseat grumbling can become destructive.  I hope Justin Trudeau is listening.  Cartoon © Brian Gable / Globe & Mail.