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We Could Have Done Much Better: Canada’s sorry record on managing CO2 emissions.


Earlier this month in Schloss Emlau, high in the Bavarian Alps, Canada’s Stephen Harper and the other G7 leaders, agreed to the establishment of a zero-carbon economy by 2100. It could have been a stronger agreement, with a target date of 2050, but Canada and Japan fought successfully to weaken it by 50 years. It’s a largely aspirational commitment; none of these leaders, even Mr. Harper, is so egotistical as to believe that he/she will still be in power at the end of the century. I’m not even sure it is useful, even as an aspiration, but we will come to that later. For now, I thought it would be appropriate to trace Canada’s record on GHG emissions until now. Warning: it’s not a pretty record, nothing to be proud of, but perhaps we can learn from it.

Unhappy? Bored? Recently chastised by another leader? Stephen Harper at the June G7 meeting in Germany. Photo © Bundesregierung/Denzel

That we Canadians are about to enter a Federal election also makes it timely to think about this record. Perhaps one or more of our political leaders will be willing to talk about how he or she might strive to improve our performance, and restore our international reputation over the next few years.

It all started in Rio

Many people look fondly back on Rio de Janeiro’s Earth Summit, held June 3-14, 1992, as the last truly successful global summit on environment. It was the first mega summit. Some 120 Heads of State and a total of 172 countries participated. It included the NGO community and civil society (over 2000 official non-governmental delegates plus 17000 NGO representatives participating in a parallel set of meetings), and while there was some skepticism at the time, it produced several important agreements. Most important are Agenda 21 and the subsequent Millenium Development Goals, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the UN Convention on Biodiversity, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Few subsequent large UN conferences can claim as much success.

Time Rio cover 1992 1101920601_400
Time saw the Rio Earth Summit as very newsworthy. Image © Time Magazine

The UNFCCC came into existence in Rio, signed by 154 countries including Canada. It was more a statement of agreed principles than a blueprint, but it affirmed that the science of climate change was compelling, that there was a need to stabilize global GHG emissions in order to stabilize climate, and that developed countries would have to lead in emissions reductions, both because they had been responsible for the major amount of past emissions and because developing countries would be very hard-pressed to reduce emissions while struggling to raise living standards. The details of how the world would reduce GHG emissions were left to a series of COPs, or conferences of the parties, to be held in future years.

Twenty-three years later, and we are counting down to COP-21 to be held in Paris in from 30th November to 11th December. There have also been numerous smaller meetings between COPs, and the IPCC has developed its own meeting schedule to review and develop the needed science.

If I was a cynic, I’d wonder about the amount of CO2 emitted, and the dollars expended, to cover all the travel, and the time spent in all these meetings. Instead, I’ll just observe that progress would have been a heck of a lot more rapid if countries had negotiated in good faith, seeking to remedy a shared problem, instead of as too many of them have, looking always for their own self-interest, seeking to water down, delay, or in other ways defang any proposals being put on the table. And no, it is not just Canada that has behaved poorly. The USA, Australia, China, Japan, India and many more have at one or other time proved far more interested in their own short-term economic benefits than in solving the climate problem.

And then came Kyoto

In 1995, at COP-1, countries agreed that developed countries should undertake to reduce their emissions first. The following year, at COP-2, they agreed that the science was sufficiently compelling that a formal treaty with mandatory targets for reducing GHG emissions was warranted. In Kyoto in 1997 at COP-3, countries signed on to the Kyoto Protocol. The Protocol document was a comprehensive agreement that included precise GHG emission targets for each member country, the general framework of a GHG emissions-trading program, and a commitment to hold future COPs to work out important details of the new regime (such as establishing the penalties for failure to meet targets and the rules of the new emissions-trading program). In order for the Kyoto Protocol to come into full effect, at least 55 developed countries, that together were responsible for at least 55% of GHG emissions in the base year of 1990, would have to formally ratify it.

Paul Martin kyoto(history),ratification
Canadian Finance Minister, Paul Martin, speaking in support of the Kyoto Protocol at COP-3, held in Kyoto, 1-10 December, 1997.

Working out the details of Kyoto required four more COPs, the last one (COP-7) in Marakesh in 2001. Ratifications commenced, but took some time, because to ratify, each nation had to formally introduce and pass supporting legislation in its own legislature. Countries were slow to ratify; if Kyoto came into effect, they would be legally obligated by treaty to reduce emissions by a specified amount.

Although Bill Clinton had signed Kyoto in 1997, newly-elected George W Bush announced in 2001 that the USA would not be ratifying because it would no longer support the decision made back in 1995 that developing countries, including China, would not have reductions required in the first Kyoto period (to 2012). Bush also raised questions about the science, and expressed concerns for impacts on the US economy. In 2002, Australia, another developed country that had participated until then, had a change of heart and Liberal (= right of center) PM John Howard announced that they would not ratify for many of the same reasons. Canada did ratify Kyoto in 2002 when a bill was passed through the House of Commons and the Senate, but prospects for the Protocol coming into effect looked dim. Without the USA, it was going to be difficult to obtain signatories responsible together for 55% of emissions.

By early 2004, most European countries, Canada, Japan and New Zealand had ratified, but they accounted together for just 44% of emissions. Vladimir Putin, then President of Russia, rode up on his white horse with Russia’s 17% of emissions in hand, extracted a promise from European countries to back Russia’s request to join the World Trade Organization, ratified Kyoto, and brought it into effect. Thus are important environmental treaties put together; just like making sausages.

Canada’s Kyoto obligation

Kyoto required each developed country signatory to reduce GHG emissions by a specified amount, close to 5%, compared to that country’s emissions in 1990. For Canada, the required reduction was 6% from the 1990 base rate of emissions for all GHGs combined, not including any benefits from sequestration due to land use and forestry. This was to be achieved over the 2008-2012 period. Kyoto documents refer to an initial assigned amount, the total of GHG emissions (measured as CO2 equivalents) permitted during that five year period. For Canada, that amount was 2,792 MtCO2 eq (millions of tonnes of CO2 equivalents). Countries were free to decide the best way to make the emissions adjustments including by increasing energy efficiency, by increasing carbon sequestration by forests or other land, and even by paying for emissions reductions in developing countries.

So how did Canada do? Well, to begin with, it’s quite difficult to find out! Given that, as a signatory to UNFCCC, Canada is required to report details of GHG emissions each year, one might expect the emissions tables to be neatly summarized on a government website. I’ve searched high and low. I found an Environment Canada website titled National Greenhouse Gas Emissions. That sounded promising; it provided one graph, the simple data table behind that graph, and a link to the National Inventory Report 1990-2013.

GreenhouseGasEmissions_Canada from Env Can 2015
Canada’s total GHG emissions (not including LULUCF) as displayed on Environment Canada website, based on data reported to UNFCCC in 2015.

But the National Inventory Report page provided only the Executive Summary and a dead link to the full report, and the problem was that the numbers on the graph did not conform to numbers I had in Environment Canada publications such as the 2012 and 2013 editions of Canada’s Emission Trends. Nor did they agree with numbers on a helpful timeline on the CBC website. Fact is that calculating GHG emissions is a complex process, and there have been revisions to the numbers over the years as methods have improved. Plus there is the issue of LULUCF – land use, land use changes and forestry for the uninitiated. Sometimes total emissions are quoted excluding the sequestration or emissions from lands and forests, and sometimes these are included. I’ve struggled with this problem of getting the correct numbers in the past; this time I decided to see if the UN had made the annual reports available. Lo and behold! I found the relevant site quickly and downloaded a zipped folder containing Canada’s latest National Inventory Report (and the numbers for total GHG emissions not including effects of LULUCF proved to be the same as shown on the Environment Canada site I first visited). So what follows uses the numbers that Canada reported to the UNFCCC in 2015 and posted on an Environment Canada site. These are the most up-to-date numbers available, including data for every year since 1990 as subsequently adjusted. (One minor consequence is that posts on this blog in 2012 and 2013, dealing with Canada’s peculiar way of measuring progress in emissions reduction, and based on Environment Canada data in those years, include numbers that are now viewed as incorrect – although the general story remains correct.)

Back in 1997 when Canada signed Kyoto, the accepted value for its total GHG emissions in 1990 was 590 MtCO2 eq (590.908 to be precise), and its ‘initial assigned amount’ of emissions for 2008 to 2012 was accordingly 2,791 MtCO2 eq (5 years at 94% of base amount). The revised 1990 value reported in 2015 is 613 MtCO2 eq, and it seems fair to look at trends using these most recent figures. So, from 1990 to the time of Kyoto (1997), emissions had increased 88 million tonnes to 701 MtCO2 eq. They were up 37 million more by the time of ratification (2002), and a further 20 million to 758 MtCO2 eq by the time the agreement came into effect in 2004. Clearly, Canada’s then Liberal (= left of center) government was not trying very hard to contain emissions during those years when the Kyoto Protocol was not yet a legal treaty! Still, over the next two years there was an encouraging downward trend, to 740 MtCO2 eq in 2006.

Cretien cartoon re Kyoto sep802
Truth is that the Liberals did not make a great effort to comply with the Kyoto Protocol.
Cartoon © Tim Dolighan

The change of government to the Conservatives and Stephen Harper does not seem to have made much difference in Canada’s performance, but the trend did reverse and emissions were 761 MtCO2 eq in 2007. The downward trend resumed, driven at least partly by the slowdown in the economy, but also by a slow improvement in energy intensity of the Canadian economy and the various, mostly provincial, moves to reduce emissions. They reached 699 MtCO2 eq in 2009. Since then they have increased every year.

The original target, specified under Kyoto, should have got Canada’s total GHG emissions down to an average of about 558 MtCO2 eq per year during 2008 to 2012. Actual emissions over those five years total 3,571 MtCO2 eq, 780 million tonnes, or an average of 156 MtCO2 eq per year higher than the target. That is a 28% overshoot of the target. True, Canada withdrew from Kyoto in December 2011, but there is scant evidence in the figures that Canada was attempting to meet the target it had formally agreed to when it ratified Kyoto back in 2002. PM Harper’s long promised emissions regulations for the tar sands industry were still not in place (nor are they yet), and growth in that industry had resulted in a 79% increase in emissions between 2005 and 2012, accounting for 9% of total Canadian emissions. That industry has been projected to continue its rapid expansion into the future, becoming an every larger part of the emissions problem.

No fear, onward to Copenhagen

In early December, 2009, as final preparations were under way for the Copenhagen climate conference, COP-15, there were hopes for a formal commitment to a 1.5oC maximum rise in global temperature, and some binding agreements on GHG reductions. That is not how things turned out. With some 115 world leaders present, the acrimonious debates stretched into the night. In the end all references to 1.5oC were stripped out and replaced by 2oC, and individual countries made voluntary, unenforceable commitments re GHG emissions in 2020.

Canada, initially talking about a 20% reduction from 2006 emissions levels, quickly changed that to 17% below 2005 levels, ostensibly to mirror the US pledge. (Smart move, given that as can be seen in the figure above, 17% below 749 MtCO2 eq is a larger permitted rate of emissions than 20% below 740 MtCO2 eq – Canada’s delegates were looking out for Canada!)

Mostly people were polite about this cleverness, and also by the fact that ‘17% below 2005 levels‘ was an easing of the target initially made under Kyoto. While Kyoto obligated Canada to reach 558 MtCO2 eq by 2012, the non-binding pledge made at Copenhagen was to reach 607 MtCO2 eq of emissions, or 9% more, by 2020. (Astute readers may have noticed that reducing 2005’s 749 MtCO2 eq by 17% results in an allowed 2020 amount of 622 MtCO2 eq, not 607. The 607 MtCO2 eq target derives from the fact that the 2005 emissions had initially been estimated at 731 MtCO2 eq.)
bella_center_activists1 COP15 Copenhagen

There was plenty of frustration at COP-15 in Copenhagen, and Canada was recognized as a major impediment to progress. Canada came home with Fossil of the Year, and several Fossil of the Day awards, its first of many. This has been the one way in which Canada stands out as a winner at the climate conferences. Photo © A. Libisch/TerraViva

Of course, the results since 2009 show that, despite this astute deal, Canada continued to show no evidence that it was moving towards the target. Emissions have increased, almost linearly, since that year. A strengthening economy until recently, and a failure at the federal level to institute any substantive curbs on emissions, have resulted in Canada moving backwards, while the Harper government continued until 2014 with its vapid declarations that Canada was “half-way towards meeting its Copenhagen commitment”. Tell the same lie over and over, sometimes it starts to stick. However this one was so blatantly ridiculous the government finally ceased, and now Environment Minister, Leona Aglukkaq, busies herself with the claim that “Canada is working hard on climate change”.

Believe it or not, things could have been worse

Without in any way exonerating the Harper government for their appalling record on GHG emissions, it’s important to remember that things could have been worse. Over the years, a number of moves at the Provincial level have served to reduce GHG emissions in Canada. Most notable are the introduction of carbon pricing mechanisms in Quebec, British Columbia, and most recently Ontario, and the aggressive courting by Ontario of renewable sources of electricity along with its phase out of coal powered generation capacity. Ontario ceased all coal-fired generation early in 2014, and its FIT and micro-Fit feed-in tariff programs obligate the power grid to accept power from small solar, wind, and water-power sources at guaranteed prices. Together, these actions are bringing about a significant diversification in power generation and a reduction in GHG emissions in that largest Canadian province.

At the federal level, there has been funding to assist in the development in Saskatchewan of a prototype, industrial scale coal-fired power generation plant using CCS (carbon capture and storage), and a program to phase out use of incandescent lightbulbs. Wow! There has also been some funding in the EcoEnergy program to assist Canadians in improving the energy efficiency in their homes; this program replaced an earlier (better) one which Harper cancelled on taking office. The new program ran from 2007 to 2010, was renewed in 2011 and abruptly cancelled in 2012 – it seemed to be too popular. And, of course, the Harper government eventually announced new fuel efficiency regulations for automobiles, to great fanfare, despite the fact that earlier US action guaranteed the changes were going to happen anyway.

And so to the future

Canada’s poor performance on climate has been well recognized over the years by a string of Fossil awards at climate conferences. At COP-14, held in Warsaw in 2013, Canada was awarded a Lifetime Unachievement Fossil Award on the last day of the conference. It’s the only way Canada can be said to lead at the COP events, and a sad commentary on our performance internationally. One senses that if the Federal government has a heart, its heart certainly is not in addressing GHG emissions in meaningful ways. And yet, Canada has now submitted its draft commitment for the Paris COP meeting in December of this year. Late on Friday May 15th, 2015, in Winnipeg, Leona Aglukkaq announced that Canada will reduce its GHG emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. She rambled on about the commitment being “fair and ambitious, an ambitious commitment based on our national circumstances, which includes a growing population, a diversified growing economy and Canada’s position as a world leader in clean-electricity generation” and “Canada’s ambitious new target and planned regulatory actions underscore our continued commitment to cut emissions at home and work with our international partners to establish an international agreement in Paris that includes meaningful and transparent commitments from all major emitters. We will work cooperatively with the provinces and territories on these goals while respecting their jurisdiction.
Aglukkaq question period counting on fingers commons-20140331

Leona Aglukkaq, Canada’s Environment Minister. So authoritative, so little information. Does PM Harper’s attitude to environment get revealed in his choice of Ministers?
Photo © Huffington Post

Somehow I am not convinced, and neither are lots of folks around the world. Canada’s long list of failed GHG promises makes her hollow words sound even more empty. Reducing GHG emissions is not part of the Harper program, no matter what his ministers say, far away from Ottawa, late on a Friday afternoon. Her announcement, and the minimal follow-up, provide no indication that any regulations will be imposed on the tar sands (although the 30% plan does depend upon continuing weak economic growth and a less than originally hoped for rate of growth in that industry). Nor is there much evidence of any other programs that will be needed, beyond some attention to methane releases in fracking operations. Given the lack of progress since 2002, why should anyone believe Canada this time around.

Even if Canada’s word is taken at face value, the commitment is the weakest among G7 countries, committing Canada to a later, and slower rate of reduction in emissions than any other developed country. But of course, there is no need to worry, because Harper has now committed Canada to foregoing use of fossil fuels entirely by 2100. Out of the mouths of politicians….

And this leads me back, briefly, to that G7 pledge to eliminate all fossil fuels by 2100. It was a pledge coupled with a commitment to keep the global temperature increase to no more than 2oC. And there were no details on how all this was to be done! If one wants to be really negative about that G7 pledge, it is only necessary to note that if countries really wish to keep the global temperature increase to 2oC (an increase which is on the edge of being dangerous), the global economy has to decarbonize at over 6.2% per year, every year from now to 2100. That is more than five times faster than what is happening now. Bold aspirational promises for a distant time are not worth the breath used to utter them without some evidence of sleeves being rolled up, and tough new decisions being made that will rachet back GHG emissions today and tomorrow. The G7 pledge is a sham, and Canada’s Stephen Harper, as one of the least enthusiastic about it (he helped weaken it by 50 years, remember), is simply shameless.

Why does this all matter?

The Harper government has been quick to point out that Canada is a large country with a widely scattered population, that it has a resource extraction-based export economy, that it has a cold climate with concomitant high costs for building and road maintenance. All are legitimate arguments to cut the country some slack when looking at its efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. But Canada is also a wealthy country, with an educated workforce able to tackle demanding challenges, and other countries share each of Canada’s impediments.

The Harper government likes to focus on Canada’s contribution to total global GHG emissions. It’s tiny. Less than 2% of the total. Definitely not important. But, Canada ranks 11th out of 186 countries, ranks 5th among developed countries, and ranks 3rd among developed countries in rate of emissions per capita, using 15.6 tonnes CO2eq per person in 2012 just behind USA’s 16.3 and Australia’s 17.2. If Canada does not have a substantial responsibility to reduce its GHG emissions, who does? The chronic Federal failure over the past 20, and especially over the 13 years since we signed on to Kyoto should be an embarrassment to every Canadian. We have an election coming soon. My concern is that we may get through that exercise, with the same, or a replacement crew in power, and still continue the poor performance into the future. This pattern of behavior just doesn’t seem very Canadian. And it certainly does not help solve our climate problem.

Is just one of these leaders willing to really lead on climate, willing to take the kind of action Canada should take, action that goes beyond the minimum required, setting a standard that other countries could follow, restoring Canada’s international reputation, and helping to build a better world? We only need one.

1 thought on “We Could Have Done Much Better: Canada’s sorry record on managing CO2 emissions.”

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